In Friday’s 7 section I talk to Janine Christl, director of Fresno City College’s new production of “Almost, Maine,” about the play, which opens tonight. Here’s the extended version of the interview.
Question: What is the show about?
“Almost, Maine” is a mythical town in northern Maine where the Northern Lights will be at their peak. On this particular Friday night, the town’s residents are falling in and out of love all at the same time! Nine stories emerge as the sky lights up and we learn a little about the complications and beauty of loving in many ways.
Talk a little about the play’s performance history.
“Almost, Maine” was originally developed at the Cape Cod Theatre Project in 2002 and later by the Portland Stage Company where it received its world premiere in 2004. The run was sold out, making Almost, Maine the most successful play in the company’s 32 year history. In the winter of 2005, it opened off-broadway to critical acclaim. The Wall Street Journal named Almost, Maine as one of the best theatrical productions of the 2004-2005 season.
The original New York production used four actors playing multiple roles. Did you consider using such a small cast, or did you always know you’d be expanding the number of performers? What are the advantages and disadvantages of using a larger cast?
Being in the college arena, one of my major considerations in show selection is what we can offer our current student body. Because of that, I went in with the intention of casting all the roles separately to give as many students a chance to get on stage as possible. I also like the feeling this creates for the audience as it truly becomes nine separate tales of love in a small town at one moment in time. We have less attention on the actor’s transition into another role, and more time to focus on the story the playwright offers. We also had some fun in rehearsals with “town meetings” and assigned outings( in character).
The disadvantage with working with a large cast really comes down to managing 20 changing schedules and getting a large cast together and on the same page. I think we have accomplished that at this point, but at times we felt like we were in production to do nine shows!
What drew you to this play?
I had my first exposure to “Almost, Maine” through the American College Theatre Festival we regularly attend. It was and continues to be a big success at the festival because of the artistry of story telling that employs a lot of symbolic metaphor and the fact that we can all appreciate the complexities of love. I found the stories to be moving and compelling and I thought that both the college audience and the community would really enjoy the show.
As a director, what is the biggest challenge of a show that consists of a series of vignettes?
I think that really depends on the play. Most vignette shows are designed to build, one on top of another, to create a feeling of resolve. “Almost, Maine” is designed differently. Because we are instructed by the play that all of these stories unfold at the same moment, it is as if we are peering in all our neighbors windows one night to see a “slice of life”. There is a flow to the piece, and a story that provides a rap up, but I really worked each scene as it’s own capsulized moment in time.
Tell us about your concept for the show in terms of design.
Well, at our first design meeting I talked to Chris Boltz about a dream I had about the show. In my dream, there was one farmhouse that was center stage and the walls of the farmhouse pulled apart to become the fragmented representations of the other scenes. Those settings include a bar, a basement laundry room, an interior living room and so on. So, it was kind of a Lego design in my minds eye. Chris took my ideas and made a design with that inspiration that would still be movable on our stage. It’s funny–my dream ideas are often not entirely practical!! But, we started with that and worked towards a representational set that creates intimate space on the mainstage and is still able to open up to the big sky we need for this show.
What are some of the major themes you hope audiences connect with in this show?
All nine stories in the play are about love. However, these stories aren’t your typical “love stories”. I would say the common theme is about the shift of energy involved in all types of love when change is in store. When we fall in or out of love there is a fundamental shift that feels like the sky parting and revealing a new direction. In each story something happens that changes everything.
“Almost, Maine” also uses surrealism ( a theatrical form of metaphors) to translate themes into reality. One example is one female character with a broken heart actually carries the pieces of her heart with her in a bag. In another scene, the love that has been given in the relationship is represented with large “bags of love” brought on stage. These physical representations become a powerful and poetic underpinning in the play, and they force us to realize the significance of the presence or disappearance of love.
Do you have any personal connection with Maine or that region of the country? How did you get a feel for the geography of this play?
My fiance in from a small town in Maine so I have been there before. I wasn’t there during the winter, so I have to substitute stories of traveling in Russia to tap into the feeling of cold weather! The cast also depended heavily on YouTube videos posted by Northern Mainers to see the small towns and get a feel for the people.
As a director, you’re known for your intensive work with voice and text. What kinds of techniques did you use with your actors to prepare for this play?
“Almost, Maine” is written in a very casual, conversational way and the playwright requests that dialect work is only heightened for the “OR” sounds. That makes “sorry” sound more like “sorrey” but doesn’t do much more. Often people associate Maine with a down eastern sound but that is not this play’s location. As far as warm ups go, I have two proactive students (Esau Mora and Kai DiMino) who have studied with me for a year and a half now and enjoy leading the cast in voice and movement preparations. During tech I left the mainstage for a moment to find Esau leading a yoga session with cast members in the studio. I love to see that!
Anything else you’d like to say?
“Almost, Maine” is a Central Valley premiere that offers something for everyone. I look forward to sharing this very popular show with the valley and hope to see big crowds in the next week! The cast and crew totals over forty students working to bring “Almost, Maine” to life, and they are all excited to share this beautiful story with our community.