Travis Baker may be from away, but he has made diligent efforts to understand the essence of his new home state. In his award-winning play “One Blue Tarp,” which has its world premiere at Penobscot Theatre this week, he seeks to represent an authentic Maine: its people, culture and conflicts. I expect people will find that he succeeded, and he did so by listening. Taking up ice hockey might have helped, too.
Travis grew up in Texas. He didn’t play ice hockey, but he did see a lot of independence and state pride, qualities that he found familiar later on in Maine. (He also learned how to cook a mean pot of chili that wins him regular honors at the Orono chili cook-off competition.) Travis caught the theater bug as a boy, when he poked around backstage, while his sister played Gretel in “The Sound of Music.” The tunnels, the catwalks and the man with the huge sheet of metal who made thunder all left an indelible impression. He was hooked.
Travis dabbled in every possible type of stage-related work, from acting to set crew to sandwich delivery, but he found his greatest strength in playwriting. He landed a spot in Edward Albee’s (yes, Pulitzer and Tony award winning Albee) exclusive playwriting class at the University of Houston, which helped open doors later in New York City. He listened and learned in the world he refers to as “way the hell off Broadway,” seeing both rejection and success.
The harrowing New York City theater scene got old after a decade. In 2004, Travis and his irrepressible wife, Holly, moved to Maine, where Travis enrolled in University of Maine’s master’s program in English and began to teach. They now have two young sons, ages 8 and 5. When Travis talks about his boys, there is a rise in his voice and a brightening in his face.
His adulation was particularly evident when he gave me a tour of their painted and crayoned creations that paper the walls of Travis and Holly’s wonderfully art-drenched home.
“They do incredible stuff. They push me to be creative,” he said.
One of his most successful creations of late is “One Blue Tarp,” which Travis started working on four years ago. The biggest challenge, he said, was writing a play about Maine as a nonnative Mainer. So he made a study of it, and once again, his hard work paid off.
“I had to do a lot of listening,” he said.
Not only did he listen to actors, directors and people’s responses to early public readings of the play, he also listened to his students at UMaine, old men he met on the rocky coast and transplants “from away.” One 10-year-old boy told him he should have a kid in the show, so he put one in. When his sons started playing ice hockey, Travis said, “I was jealous, so I joined a men’s team.” The locker room patter amongst his hockey buddies, many of them local Mainers, has been another source of Travis’s listening and learning.
“A bunch of them are coming to the show,” he told me, “so I hope they’re okay with it or I may end up slammed against the boards.”
“One Blue Tarp” won the best play in Maine award for 2013 in the Clauder New England Playwright Competition, so I think Travis is safe from his teammates. Last year he heard one of his sons tell a friend, “My dad wrote the best play in Maine.” The friend was skeptical, but Travis was pleased to be able to say, at least for one year, that it was true.
Now the show is about to open, and Travis has one more job of listening ahead of him. This job promises to be the most rewarding.
There is this magic moment in theater, Travis said, that he has only experienced as a playwright. He loves to stand at the back of the theater, feeling the energy between the audience and the stage. Certainly there is a thrill in hearing bursts of laughter, tears and the sweet sound of applause, but none of these are his favorite. The greatest magic is in those moments of silence that fill the theater during a play, when the audience is so lost in the experience that they are absolutely still. Nothing is more wonderful than listening to that silence.
Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback at email@example.com.