ORONO, Maine — Travis Baker, an Orono-based artist and playwright, has been named a quarterfinalist for the 2019 ScreenCraft Stage Play competition.
Baker’s play, “The Dogs Pond,” was one of dozens of plays selected from nearly 700 entries in the competition to win $1,000 and a chance to meet with the organization’s network of producers, theater companies and managers.
Judging the plays are three Pulitzer prize-winning playwrights: Nilo Cruz, who won the award in 2003 for his play, “Anna in the Tropics”; Donald Marguelies, who wrote “Dinner with Friends”; and Stephen Adly Guirgis, author of “Between Riverside and Crazy,” which won a Pulitzer in 2015.
Arya Zanganeh, a talent agent at Creative Arts Agency, and Chloe Hung, who writes for the famed director Ava DuVernay’s television series, Queen Sugar, will also help judge the finalists.
While Baker’s plays have earned him much praise over the years from local and national competitions, he doesn’t feel like he’s hit his big break yet. In 2013, his play “One Blue Tarp” was named the Best in Maine by the Clauder New England Playwright Competition.
“The Dogs Pond” focuses on the story of six men, most of whom are war veterans, who get together for a weekend at camp.
The play took four years to complete, Baker said, because of the complexities of each character. Baker wanted the characters to represent real struggles that veterans experience upon returning from war.
He soon realized that without spending time with veterans, it would be difficult to accurately portray their real-life experiences. So as part of his research, Baker began collecting stories from veterans through a rehabilitation group.
He met people through Project Healing Waters, a fly-fishing group that helps to physically and emotionally rehabilitate disabled veterans. Many gave him gripping and raw accounts of the things they experienced in war and what it felt like to come home and try to live a normal life again.
“This is much deeper and in a way, more powerful than I thought,” he said, recounting some of the stories veterans shared with him.
Some of these stories later developed into characters for the play, too, Baker said. One woman he met said that she didn’t speak for years after she returned home because of the trauma she endured.
She was the inspiration behind the character Owen, whose speechlessness after coming home from the Iraq war prompted his brother Carter to plan a weekend at camp with some of his service buddies to try and bring him back.
Carter’s naivete about the atrocities of war and its lasting effect on veterans leads him to try all kinds of ill-conceived ideas, such as setting off fireworks to try to shock his brother back to life, Baker said.
Baker also found inspiration for the play through poetry — specifically about war. Wilfred Owen, a poet and soldier in World War I, became an important figure for Baker in writing “The Dogs Pond,” so much so that he slipped in some of Owen’s poetry in character dialogues.
“The Dogs Pond” has had five stage readings — in Bangor; Portland; Los Angeles; Long Beach, California; and New York — and will be read next in Boston, Baker said.
The Screencraft competition is expected to make a final decision by March, and for now, Baker is staying busy. A part-time substitute teacher at Orono High School and full-time hockey parent, he has his hands full.
Amid chaotic hockey schedules, teaching and taking commissions for paintings, Baker looks for inspiration in familiar places. His recent plays have centered around Maine places, such as “The Store,” a short comedy about “pumpkin chocolate chip cookies and artificial intelligence,” as Baker described on his blog, set in Orono’s The Store Ampersand on Mill Street.
Last year, “The Store” premiered at the Maine Playwrights Festival and will show at the Belfast Maskers as part of the One Act Play series during the first two weeks in May this year. “One Blue Tarp” will be at the Freeport Community Players April 10-15 and at the Levi Stewart Community Theater in Corinna April 17-25.