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Actor with PI roots hosting benefit show for Wintergreen

PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — The Wintergreen Arts Center could go a long way toward meetings its fundraising goals this fall thanks to an upcoming benefit performance in New York City spearheaded by actor John Cariani.  

“I’m hoping we can come away with $15,000, and there’s a part of me that hopes we can wipe out the entire debt,” said Cariani, who grew up in Presque Isle before going onto a successful acting and playwriting career in New York City.

On Oct. 1, Cariani, Tony Shaloub and other actors from the Broadway hit “The Band’s Visit” will perform “The Band Visits Cariani,” an evening of scenes from Cariani’s plays that will direct proceeds toward the Wintergreen Arts Center. So far, about $10,000 worth of tickets have been sold, Cariani said.

Wintergreen is in the midst of a fundraising campaign to pay off the remaining half of a $50,000 loan from 2009 and to start paying $1,500 in monthly rent in November, following a decade of free rent from local benefactors, according to Executive Director Dottie Hutchins.

New York City-based actor John Cariani, who grew up in Presque Isle, plays a young Israeli father in the Broadway play “The Band’s Visit.” (Courtesy of John Cariani)

“Our long-term goal is a larger space for Wintergreen where we can expand our new creative preschool and continue to grow all of our programming,” Hutchins said.

Cariani said he’s visited Wintergreen with friends he grew up with, including Scott and Gretchen Violette of Presque Isle, and he’s also talked over Skype with the art center’s youth acting class. When he learned of Wintergreen’s financial situation, he said he thought it would be a good candidate for a benefit show that he and other actors with “The Band’s Visit” had been discussing.

“The Band’s Visit” is still running on Broadway and has won 10 Tony awards. A musical adapted from the 2007 Israeli film of the same name, the show revolves around an Egyptian orchestra scheduled to play at the Arab Cultural Center in the city of Petah Tikva near Tel-Aviv, Israel. By mistake they take a bus to the similar-sounding town in Israel’s Negev desert where Cariani’s character Itzik and his wife Dina operate a small cafe, and end up welcoming the band into their lives.

“It’s a story of kindness and people who are from cultures that historically don’t get along. But the people from those cultures actually get along just fine,” Cariani said.

“In ‘The Band’s Visit,’ there’s a lyric in one of the songs where one of the women sings about her town that ‘there’s not a fun, not an art, not a culture.’ Wintergreen is making sure there’s fun, art and culture in rural northern Maine.”

Cariani also is known for his play “Almost, Maine,” a series of short stories about youth, life and love in rural Maine. Last year, “Almost, Maine” was the most performed play in American high schools.

Cariani is acting in “The Band’s Visit” runs until Oct. 7, and then the show will continue performing on Broadway with another actor in his role. He is moving onto another project, turning “Almost, Maine” into a novel.

Cariani said he thinks the play has become popular among high schools due to its universal coming-of-age themes and stories of growing up in small towns.

He’s hoping that his novel and the Wintergreen benefit performance help spread some of the same message in promoting common ground for people of varied backgrounds and cultures.

“All we hear about is the urban-rural divide. We’re all human. I want New Yorkers to think differently about people in rural areas and people in rural areas to think differently about urban dwellers.”

For more on Wintergreen’s fundraiser, visit https://www.gofundme.com/support-wintergreen039s-new-vision.

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