When I first joined the theatre faculty at Lee University I chose John Cariani’s (now very popular) Almost, Maine as the first play I would direct.
It’s an alternately sweet, sad, and funny play about love. About finding it, losing it, being surprised by it, and realizing when it’s passed you by. The play is made up of several stand-alone vignettes featuring the various residents of a rural stretch of Maine. Exactly the kind of play an audience of Lee Theatre production would enjoy. Oh, and also there is a scene in the play where the people who find love both happen to be men.
Lee is a Christian liberal arts university in a very conservative region. So, I knew that we could only produce the play if we omitted that particular scene. It’s sweet and, compared to virtually any other television or film depiction of gay relationships, it is very innocuous. Still, doing the scene would be so controversial that the rest of the play would be overshadowed. That’s a waste of a lot of time and energy on our part, if the audience doesn’t even notice the other 90% of the play.
However, we knew it would be both immoral and illegal to cut the scene without the playwright’s permission. Unfortunately, I was running out of time, if I didn't get permission pretty quickly it would be back to the drawing board in finding an appropriate play for my first production at Lee. I got lucky and found the email address of the playwright, Mr. John Cariani.
I largely expected a “no”. In fact, I probably would’ve said no had the tables been turned. But instead, we received the following very gracious reply.
I want you to know how much I appreciated your e-mail. "They Fell" has been cut from the play so many times--and I have learned about the cut after the fact. So uncool. But your wonderful e-mail--made me feel so...respected! It meant so much. I appreciate your kind words about ALMOST, MAINE. And I really do feel for you and Catherine and Christine. I am so sorry you have to deal with stuff like this. It's so lousy.
So...my initial reaction to your request was NO WAY! But--when I thought about the lousy position you're in...well, I decided that saying NO WAY is just mean. Fighting hate with hate, kind of. And that's not cool. So I say--go for it. I don't want to be a hater. I think omitting "They Fell" makes ALMOST, MAINE a lamer play. But--I understand your position, and feel like the rest of the play should be heard! So...here's me granting you permission to do the play without "They Fell." With one caveat. I would like there to a note in the program from me. It's below.
October 2, 2010
Greensboro, North Carolina
Dear Audience Members,
Lee University's production of ALMOST, MAINE is not being performed in its entirety. One scene, called "They Fell," has been omitted. When I was initially approached about allowing ALMOST, MAINE to be performed without this scene, my response was, "Absolutely not." "They Fell" is a story of two people who literally fall in love. I think it is an interesting examination of love, of being true to your heart, and to yourself. To me, redacting the scene lessens the impact of ALMOST, MAINE as a whole.
Initially, I was very angry that anyone would even consider cutting the scene. However, good decisions are never made in the heat of the moment. As I thought about the request, I realized that perhaps I was being intolerant, imposing my values on others. I was also making my decision from a place of anger and that's just no good. I'm a Christian, so I asked myself: WWJD? He'd probably allow the production so that at least part of the message of the play would be imparted. So, that's what I decided to do. "They Fell" was never written to inflame or offend, it was simply to tell a story--a love story-- and I don't think that is wrong. I hope that after you see this production of ALMOST, MAINE, you will seek out a copy of the full script and read "They Fell."
I hope you enjoy the show.
"But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be like your Father in heaven, since he causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous."--Matthew 5:44-45
If you think any of this is a bad idea, please let me know.
Thanks for your kind words and for doing what you do. Boy--theatre seems so important at places like Lee. Fight the fight!
With great respect,
[Joyful music] We were of course stunned. We couldn’t believe his response. When we went to our university’s administrators with his reply, they were thrilled! They told us to go ahead and do the play and publish the playwright’s note in the program, but... to cut the Bible verse. [Record scratch] They believed it was combative, and to be honest, I could see their point. This was going to be difficult. Now I had to write back to this man who has done a very selfless thing by considering our audience above his own written work, and ask if I could cut the BIBLE verse, of all things, from his letter.
Most of my letter was very positive. I thanked him for his permission and wrote about how excited I was about the instructive possibilities of this situation for our students and audiences. And then I included this:
You asked me if I thought any of it was a bad idea. And as you can tell from my gushing thus far, I think it's a very GOOD idea. There's one thing I would like to mention. You quote a Bible verse at the end of your program note. And while I understand its appropriateness to the situation, I am concerned that some reading it might interpret words like "persecutors" and "unrighteous" as combative in this context. I think anything that smacks of an "us" vs. "them" sentiment undoes all the good that can happen here. I would recommend keeping the letter exactly like it is and either removing the verse or choosing another one. I don't think you meant to say that Lee audiences are "the enemy", clearly you're talking about prejudice and hate. But I wouldn't want anyone to think you're applying those labels onto the very people reading the note.
It was several days before I heard anything in response. I thought we had lost him. We’d asked too much. I was reading other plays in case I had to do a last minute switch. But finally, he replied with this:
Well... I think this is all extraordinary. Can we talk? Call me: [his cell phone number omitted]. I am a little busy with my new play and can't properly respond to this in an e-mail--just don't have the time--because I have a deadline! But--let's cut the Bible verse. That was a barb on my part. No need for it. Or any verse. I don't want to demonize--and that's what I was doing. No good. Good catch. So--the letter--without the verse. Perfect.
This dialogue is so great. Because it's a DIALOGUE! I bet you guys get screamed at all the time for asking to modify plays...and you're all Christians who believe in the power of theatre! And...I wish more playwrights would just revolt from within. Disguise their points a little more. And...I wish more theatre people in NYC believed in the power of God! And I'm not real "Goddy."
A few days later, I did call him and we had a great chat. He told me how hard it was for him as a New York City playwright to deal seriously with faith in his plays. He wasn’t trying to write plays about Jesus, but he felt like no one would take any character seriously if he/she was a person of faith. And as I shared some of the struggles we had at Lee, we realized we had inverse versions of the same problem. I often struggled to serve art well in a world filled with religious people, and he often struggled to serve religion well in a world of artistic people.
At the end of the conversation, I felt truly blest. In this dialogue, I encountered God. I was blessed by the experience. In this unexpected, respectful connection, I told Mr. Cariani that I sensed God's presence and he voiced a similar notion. I told him that I believe God exists and manifests himself most clearly in the spaces between people. And to put it simply, in our connection, God showed up.
I am in the connection business. In my art, in my teaching, I strive to help people connect people. Audiences to performers, students to playwrights, designers to directors, etc. As I go forward I will strive to remember the humility of my friend, Mr. Cariani when I want to make those connections God-filled ones.
Ultimately, the play was produced and was a big crowd pleaser. Best of all, our audiences, our cast and crew, and the director learned a lesson in grace from a playwright who thinks he's not real "Goddy".
|Cast of Almost, Maine at Lee University - 2010|
Let us love one another, for anyone that loves is borne of God and knows God. (no one asked me to cut this verse)
**Please note: Anyone reading this article should not assume that Mr. Cariani would grant this permission to any such request. I would not be willing to speak on his behalf regarding any special requests regarding his work. And you should contact the playwright or his agent.