Acting Up with the Kids by Travis Baker

I’ve been very lucky as a father to enjoy a wide range of activities with my two lads, Zane (14) and Augi (10).  Along with their mom, Holly (age withheld because no one believes she’s 48), we’ve gone camping, skiing, hiking, mountain bike riding, swimming, skating, sledding, zip-lining, fishing, boating, and a whole range of other activities. We’ve been to Hawaii, Texas, Washington, Washington DC, Georgia, Virginia, Florida and even Canada. We’ve visited museums, national parks, memorials and lots, and lots, of hockey rinks. We’ve seen the Bruins play at TD Garden, the Lion King on Broadway and Yo Yo Ma at the Rio Grande. Tonight, however, the boys and I get to share something very special, opening night!

There’s nothing like an opening night, when months and months and sometimes years of preparation, practice and rehearsal is unleashed upon an audience. As a playwright, it’s up there with Christmas morning and birthday dinner. As an actor, well, it’s been quite a long time since the last opening night because it’s been quite a long time since I’ve acted. My last trek across the boards, as the Sherriff in the Penobscot Theatre Company’s production of August: Osage County, I missed opening night because I fell through a hole in the floor, broke four ribs and punctured a lung. Made it back the second week though! Luckily, there’s no holes in the ground at Indian Point State Park in Brewer where the Ten Bucks Theatre Co. will present Shakespeare’s Richard III this weekend and I’ll get to take a curtain call standing beside Zane and Augi and Joe (no relation but a fine fellow indeed – I kill him in Act I) soaking up an actor’s reward for the hours and hours of toil – applause!

The applause has been hard earned and come at some cost. Augi and I blame Zane for the beautiful summer days spent inside the rehearsal room, for the water park not visited and the summer hockey game not played because we had tech that night.

Zane, a freshman at John Bapst HS this fall, was the one who told us he was going to audition for the show way back in March. I went along and auditioned also because, well, I was going to end up being there a lot anyway so I might as well do something. (Watching your kid play sports is one thing, there’s always the action and unpredictability of the game to keep you entertained, watching your kid do the same scene over and over and over again takes a serious toll and I tip my cap to all the theatre parents out there who support their kids by doing so.) Really, Augi, soon to be a 5th grader at Asa Adams Elementary in Orono, should blame his dad because his dad was the one who mentioned to the director that if they needed a younger brother to the Prince, Zane happened to have one. Sorry kid!

It makes perfect sense that the boys would be drawn to the stage. My introduction to the theatre came when my sister was cast as Gretel in The Sound of Music. I wasn’t in that show but I made darn sure I was in the next one. The people who would become Zane and Augi’s parents both moved to New York in 1994 to pursue their dreams and met six years later doing a show for Three Legged Dog. Mom played a dominatrix and dad was a drug-dealer. They got to talking on an elevator ride up to rehearsal. It was supposed to be a two-week fling. 18 years later and they live in Maine, mom’s using a paddle to explore the river across the street and dad’s re-doing the artwork for a children’s book while the boys are making costumes out of stuff they found in the basement for a You Tube video. Times do change.

Young Warriors

I shouldn’t say the experience has been as tough as I might be alluding to. They got to hang out at the Bangor Mall a lot, got to know the people at Game Stop and Olympia Sports real well and earned extra popsicles and pretzels for their effort. The Director, Daniel Hanchrow, an experienced leader of young actors, has been great with the lads and the cast has been supportive, understanding, encouraging and, when necessary, served out a few stern reminders to put knives and brothers down and keep quiet backstage. For their part, both boys have shown both talent and professional attitudes towards finding their characters and delivering their stories to an audience. They learned their lines, made their entrances, asked appropriate questions, tried new directions, did the warm-up exercise and fight-calls, took their notes, pushed their voices to the back of the hill and, aside from the bugs, hardly complained about late-nights or missed afternoons with friends at all. They’ve been real pros, I must say, and I’d be happy to work with them again. But who knows if that will ever happen?

Zane is closer to driving age than being the kid who ran across the beach with his hands clawed out like a T-rex, chasing seagulls and roaring loud! Augi’s almost as tall as his mom these days and will have a schedule packed with choir, band, hockey and trips to the flea-market when school starts up. I’ll be writing and painting and subbing and Holly will be off to Iceland or Costa Rica or Cuba or someplace. Moments together are rarer and rarer it seems and should be treasured even more for being so dear.

We are not the only family that will appear on-stage together tonight. There are spouses, sisters, and  Lisnets: Ron, Julie and Natalie. Of course, as many a theatre geek will tell you, over the course of a show a cast becomes a family. It’s been a wonderful experience joining this one.

 And so, I do ask that you forgive me if, tonight, when the Lord Cardinal escorts Prince Edward on stage to meet up with his Uncle Gloucester, then gets himself gone with all due haste to bring the Young Duke of York to meet his brother and then stands apart as the princes speak their parts, you will forgive me, I beg you, if a smile creeps across my face, quite out of character, for I am so very proud of these guys, the adventure they’ve embraced and the work we’ve done together.

Richard III opens tonight at Indian Point State Park in Brewer. 6 pm. Tickets are $10 and available at the park or online:  https://richardiii.brownpapertickets.com/

Bring a camp chair and some bug spray!

Show continues through Sunday. The following weekend we’ll be at the Orono Public Library and finish the run at Fort Knox. More info at: http://www.tenbuckstheatre.org/current_production/

 

 

The Young Princes

The Healing Power of the Hockey Handshake by Travis Baker

The Hockey Handshake – Respect and Healing

 

Later tonight, somewhere around 10:30 EST, either the Boston Bruins or the St. Louis Blues will toss their gloves in the air, mob their goalie and rejoice in being the champions of the NHL. But before the captain hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup, both teams will meet at, or near, center ice to shake hands.

The Hockey Handshake Line is often cited as one of the great traditions in all of sport. It occurs most publicly at the conclusion of a National Hockey League playoff series after a fortnight of bashing, beating, and even biting each other. The players extend bruised hands and the occasional pat to the mid-section. But this ritual is not unique to the NHL. It happens at every level, at every rink, and, at the youth level, after every game. It is more than tradition to the sport, it is part of its very nature and fabric.

Handshakes happen in other pro-sports but they are often sprawling, haphazard affairs. Football teams have to fight through a mad press of media while basketball players mingle with fans and rap stars (or both) and soccer players writhe on the pitch in a seething cauldron of emotional distress. They might get up, eventually, with the help of a trainer, and exchange a jersey.  And baseball players only shake hands with each other like a pack of businessmen that just concluded a successful motivational luncheon as the other team slinks down the tunnel to play some more Fortnite. It’s different in hockey.

Hockey players make a line. A captain or the goalie is usually first, the coaches are last. They shake hands and go their separate ways. The ritual is respected by media, fans, family and supporting personnel. When the ritual is ignored or infringed upon or dishonored consequences are swift and unified.

Hockey is a hard game. It’s hard to skate. It’s hard to score. It’s hard to win. Hockey hurts. Whether checking is allowed or not, collisions happen and pucks take crazy bounces. Tempers flare. Every inch is fought for, and every slight is acknowledged with snarls, barks, face-palms and, sometimes, fists. The handshake is an act of respect, yes, but it’s more than that. It is the first step in a healing process for both victors and vanquished.

Last spring, my younger son and his 10U Maine Jr. Black Bear teammates played an end-of-the-season tourney in Rockland. They ended up winning the whole thing 4-3 in double-OT against a game squad from Hanover, NH. Imagine being a 9 or 10 year old kid, a goalie, having been beaten on that last shot? But remember, that kid is a hockey player, not just a kid playing hockey, but a hockey player. That kid stood first in line and held out his hand. Every player, every coach, every parent on our team and theirs understood how well the kid played, how many chances he denied, how worthy of respect he was. Making yourself available to receive that respect, to know whether it was by one goal or twelve that everyone out there is proud of you for lacing up the skates and doing your best, that’s how healing starts. It was one shot, on one kid, in a small town in Maine and, anyway, lacrosse season starts next week.

Equally important, however, is the healing necessary for the victorious. Hockey is not war but, many vets speak of survivor’s guilt, not only for their countrymen but those they fought. We may thump our chests, yell at our heroes to step on the necks of their opponents, take no prisoners, win or die trying but the definition of humanity is our sympathy and care for those in pain. We see the devastation in an opponent’s red-rimmed eye and we want to offer some level of comfort. A handshake helps. It tells the winner that the other player is going to be okay. There will be ice-cream on the way home. There will be sunshine. It’s okay. Go get your trophy. We’ll win one next time. Or not. Where’s the snack packs?

I want the Bruins to win tonight because hockey is my favorite sport and the Bruins are my favorite team. We’ll watch the game together; my boys, Holly, the dog, the cats and I, with some Black Bear Brewery beer and Pat’s Pizza strewn about. We’ll stay up very late if we have to and even if it’s 4-3 in double OT, Bruins or Blues, we’ll stay for the handshake line. That’s hockey.

 

 



handshake.jpg

The story of The Dogs Pond: Part 1 by Travis Baker

The Story of The Dogs Pond – and Wilfred Owen

The play, and the story of the play starts with Wilfred Owen. 

I think I first read his poem, “Anthem for A Doomed Youth”, while at NYU and it struck me with its honest brutal reality.  I read up on Owen and learned he had been a rather bad poet for much of his youth, trying to follow in the pastoral footsteps of Wordsworth and Longfellow, traipsing about fields and glens, admiring the birds and wind and longing for love.  Then he went to war in France, served on the front lines and came home with shell shock. It was during his stay at a sanatorium he began to write the poetry he would, very quickly, become famous for. 

Europe was losing a generation of young men and the world would be forever changed by the engines and gas and bombs of destruction. Owen was one of the first to move away from the trumpets and sound bites, to strip away the glorification of gore and bring his readers down into the muck and mud and piss of it all. After publication, he began to associate with a very colorful crowd of artistic elite, to drink and dance and love (he was gay, by the way). But then, for reasons I’m not clear on, Captain, Wilfred Owen, went back to the front. He was killed leading his men across a bridge one week after the armistice had been signed.  News traveled slow in those days.

Rereading Owen as I began to develop the play, I noticed a lack of condemnation on his part for the forces that sent him (and the millions of others) into the trenches.  He doesn’t preach peace, he simply brings to the reader the cost of war. This is the central aim of The Dogs Pond.  I want to convey the personal cost of trauma, the toll it takes on family and neighbors without getting mired in the politics.  I want to show the characters as I met them, as people, as men sitting around a camp fire not as symbols.

I met some of these men during my times as an adjunct instructor at our various local colleges and universities. They were in my Comp classes or Creative Writing or Intro to Literature courses. Their stories would come out bit by bit, sometimes in little asides and sometimes in lengthy prose. One student wrote a story about a checkpoint in Iraq. He was on duty with his fellow soldiers when a car came racing towards them. They fired warning shots and yelled over the loudspeaker for the driver to halt. He didn’t and they opened fire. Soon they would discover that the driver was trying to get his wife to the base hospital as she was in the process of giving birth. There were other stories, funny ones and every day ones.  But it wasn’t just the vets that informed this play. I read a lot of stories and had a lot of conversations in those years. About abusive fathers, suicides, rapes and tragedies. But also walks in the woods, fun times up ta camp, sunsets and cranberry islands. It’s all part of the mosaic and I’m trying to put it all in the play.

Playwrighting - A Process by Travis Baker

Blog –

A Play in Progress

From time to time people ask me if I have a new play or book in the works.  The simple answer, to both, is yes.  Currently working on a play, The Dogs Pond.  Been working on it, at least the idea of it, for about three years now.  Off n on.  From time to time.  Occasional furious engagement mixed with general subconscious contemplation.  First complete draft was typed up about a year ago.  Rewriting ever since.  Books? A few ideas in the formative stages.  50 pages of a YA title, The Sieve, I’ve gotten some feedback from Mrs. White’s 5th grade class which has been great.  So that’s where we’re at.  However…

The much more complicated task is trying to explain just where in the process those works are.  Why rewrite?  Why does it take three-four-five years to get a play up and running?  How come I’m not pounding out 10-20 pages a day like Stephen King?  What am I really doing in my head while ed teching at the middle school?  This blog series will attempt to follow the process of writing, developing and putting up my play, The Dogs Pond, (Why is there no apostrophe in the title?) for whomever might be interested.  I’ll start by explaining where it is now and later go over what it took to get to this point and, as events unfold, where we go from here.

First – the play.  I’ll use the two line slug a recent submission asked for.

In The Dogs Pond, six men gather in the woods of Maine to howl at the moon.  They drink, fish, fight, tell stories around the campfire and confront the ghosts that have followed four of them home from war.

That’s actually a revised slug.  Should have used it.  Still needs work.  John Guare once said to me in passing, “You never finish rewriting.  They just tell you it’s opening night.”

The Character Breakdown:

CHARACTER      BRIEF DESCRIPTION                                         AGE       GENDER

BERGSEY          VET - His left side blown off in Afghanistan.              32           M

STILLS               VET - Recently re-upped.                                            35           M

OWEN               VET- Hasn't spoken since his return                            28           M

CARTER            PORTLAND HIPSTER  (Owen's Brother)                     33           M

UNCLE PETE     SOLITARY VIETNAM VET                                            69           M

GARY ENFIELDPHD in WORMS                                                           58           M

 

So those are the guys.  We’ll get into why they’re all guys, and all straight, white guys at that, at a later date.  The simple version is that most of my ‘up ta camp’ experiences in this state have been with a pack of straight white guys.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that.  It’s the reality of where we live. 

WHERE WE AT - The writing process

                Drafts have been written and rewritten.  Copies have been sent to trusted folks and feedback received. 

                Let us pause here a moment.  Getting someone to read my play and give me feedback on it is both necessary and humbling.  I’m asking for at least three or four hours of a person’s time and more than a bit of effort.  First they have to get a cup of tea going and then find a comfortable sitting position.  Then they have to either call up the play on their computer or settle the 113 pages of paper on their lap, pencil poised to strike.  Then they have to engage in the reading.  I am in debt to my readers more than they can know or I will ever tell them.  They ask questions, correct horrendous spelling (and other) errors and offer pointed advice.  They’re also encouraging, supportive and keep me going during the long dark months of creative winter. 

It took me a long time to learn how to listen to readers, to trust the process and myself.  To know that when they say a section or play needs work, they’re not saying the whole thing sucks or that I suck and should give up this whole crazy theatre thing and just go fold sheets on the night shift at the Motel 6 or that they suck and don’t know a freaking thing about anything.  They’re saying the section needs work. And it does.  So I get back to work and eventually have a reading with some actor type creatures.

About two weeks ago, I had the benefit of a private reading hosted in the same local home that’s hosted early readings of One Blue Tarp and Hair Frenzy.  My kind hosts provided a room, some chairs and a wicked good artichoke dip.  Again, this stage is so important to a play’s development.  Theatre exists in the spaces between people, connecting us through language on invisible but identifiable threads of energy.  I’m lucky and grateful to have a few reliable acting folks help provide that living spark (and they usually get beer and/or donuts out of it.)

Aside from feedback, what I’m looking and listening for in a live reading are lines that don’t sound or feel right, characters that stray off into distant places or simply aren’t present enough in the story or are trying to take over everything.  Sometimes, you can’t see it until you hear it. 

So, changes have been made based on reader feedback, hearing the play and just thinking on it from time to time.  A few of these have been big, a few small.  But, the play’s pretty good.  It made the not-quite-super-short-but-pretty-darn-short list for the O’Neill Playwrights conference and gotten some lovely rejection letters (more on that later).  Why mess with it?  Well, because it’s not opening night.

Here’s an example of a small change made this morning and why-

                The original line read:

STILLS:  Enough of that. Poetry. Tell me something straight. Tell me something about worms. At least they do something good. They make dirt. They catch fish. What do you down there in Guatamala? What’s wrong with Maine worms?

Not a bad line.  Bergsey and Owen have gone off in a canoe after an argument with Stills and Enfield.  We’re transitioning towards an exploration between the way worms inhabit the planet and ourselves.  What needed to go?

STILLS:  Enough of that. Poetry. Tell me something straight. Tell me something about worms. They make dirt. They catch fish. What do you down there in Guatamala? What’s wrong with Maine worms?

I realized that, “At least they do something good.” contradicted much of what Stills had argued for in the previous scene.  Stills is a professional soldier.  He doesn’t view conflict in terms of ‘good’ or ‘evil’ but as a job he is highly skilled at and been highly trained for.  Maybe he possessed some moral imperative when he signed up, maybe he believed in defending freedom and protecting his country but after four tours he’s become something else.  He’s become a person that would not place a moral judgment on either himself, the opposition or worms.  It’s these sort of small changes that currently present themselves.  They begin to stand out almost as if the character took a highlighter too. As I’ve gotten to know the characters better I’ve been able to listen more closely to what they’re saying or should not be saying.

Listening is the most valuable skill in a playwright’s composition.  It’s also the one that’s been the most difficult and time consuming to master.  Listening demands trust and belief.  I had to learn humility while also building confidence.  I had to dedicate myself to the craft because listening leads to change and change takes effort.  I have to get my cup of coffee, fire up the computer, open up the file, find the section and chisel away in the full knowledge that changing one phrase may necessitate a change another phrase and the whole section will probably get rewritten again at a later date.  But that’s the process.  It takes time, it takes patience, and a lot of help.

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Next episode: Submissions, Rejections, and Why the Hell can’t I get an Agent?