Playwright, actor from Presque Isle helps raise $17,000 to benefit Wintergreen
PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — A benefit show in New York CIty hosted by Presque Isle native and playwright John Cariani on Monday, Oct. 1, brought in a total of $17,000, all of which will benefit Wintergreen Arts Center’s recently launched fundraising campaign.
Cast members from the recent Broadway hit “The Band Visits” presented an evening of scenes from Cariani’s plays “Almost, Maine,” “Last Gas,” “cul-de-sac” and “LOVE/SICK” during a performance dubbed “The Band Visits John Cariani” at the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center.
Cariani has been performing in the Tony Award-winning musical “The Band Visits” during its run on Broadway since 2017 and said that the idea for the benefit show originated with a discussion between him and his fellow cast members.
“We were all hanging out in Tony Shalhoub’s dressing room and some of the younger actors mentioned how they had performed in ‘Almost, Maine’ when they were in college,” Cariani said. “So we talked about the idea of doing a benefit show and at first thought that we would raise money for a program that promotes peace in the Middle East.”
“The Band Visits” follows an Egyptian police band, led by Shalhoub, who are sent to a remote village in the middle of the Israeli desert. After finding out that there are no hotels in sight and no bus available until morning, the band members are taken in by various locals, one of whom is Cariani’s character, Itzik.
As the cast members discussed their idea more, Cariani realized that although there are numerous organizations that are working to promote peace in the Middle East not as much attention is focused on helping folks in rural areas, a type of setting and circumstance that both his plays and “The Band Visits” have in common.
“I love how ‘Almost, Maine’ is about love, loss and connections made in a fictional, rural town in Maine and ‘The Band Visits’ is about love, loss and connections made in a fictional, rural Israeli town,” Cariani said. “There doesn’t seem to be as much help going toward people in rural areas, so when I heard about Wintergreen’s financial troubles, I thought it would be great if people were able to donate to this cause.”
In August, Wintergreen Executive Director Dottie Hutchins announced that she would postpone her previously announced retirement in part to focus on helping the center raise enough funds to pay off the remaining half of a $50,000 loan from 2009 and start paying $1,500 monthly rent in November. Wintergreen had been receiving free rent and utilities from the State Street building’s former owners. Hutchins noted that Wintergreen’s long-term goal is to find a larger space to expand its creative preschool and other children’s and adult programs.
Cariani’s benefit show brought in a total of $17,000 for the center, with $11,000 coming from ticket sales, $5,500 from donations made to a Go Fund Me page attached to the event, and $625 from donations made by attendees of the performance. Wintergreen also has received $29,775 through local donations and $5,000 grants each from the Margaret E. Burnham Charitable Foundation and the Libra Foundation, both based in Maine.
All donations bring the center’s fundraising total as of Wednesday to $46,775. Hutchins said that donations are still coming in through the Go Fund Me page.
“It has been nothing short of amazing to see what John’s efforts have created and how many people both locally and outside of Aroostook County came together to support Wintergreen,” Hutchins said. “Through his benefit show, he provided a way for people from all over the world to learn about the Wintergreen Arts Center and what the arts mean to northern Maine.”
The fundraising campaign began when Rod McCrum, former CEO and president of Pineland Farms and grandfather of a Wintergreen student, approached Hutchins about the possibility of raising the $50,000 through local business donations. Although she is currently keeping in touch with Wintergreen staff and volunteers remotely while travelling, Hutchins has remained active in ensuring that the center reaches its goal.
In the past, Cariani has talked via Skype with Wintergreen’s youth acting class and visited the center with friend and Wintergreen volunteer Gretchen Violette, who purchased front seat tickets for and attended Monday’s benefit show in New York City with her daughter, Zoey Violette, and mother-in-law, Margaret Violette. Cariani said that while growing up in Presque Isle, he had ample opportunities to participate in activities such as arts and crafts and theater, and he wants the next generation of children in northern Maine to have similar experiences through Wintergreen.
“I think it’s great to have an independent arts center outside of the local schools that can foster a different level of creativity among students,” Cariani said.
Starting Oct. 7, Cariani’s character in “The Band’s Visit” will be played by another actor, as he leaves the musical to pursue another venture: turning “Almost, Maine” into a novel. He said that the results of the benefit show far exceeded his expectations and that he has enjoyed being able to contribute to the future of Wintergreen.
“I’ve always said that ‘Almost, Maine’ is a love letter to northern Maine and that the people I grew up around like my teachers, my parents’ friends and my family are the ones who made me who I am today,” Cariani said. “This show has felt like my way of paying it forward to the people behind Wintergreen.”