I went to a reading of a new play by Travis Baker the other day. Travis is a local playwright and English teacher at UMaine - moved here from New York City about 6 years ago. I've never done this before - attended a reading of a new play, still in a draft form of sorts. It was performed beautifully by actors reading their parts in folding chairs at the front of the theater. The author sat in the audience with everyone else and took part in a discussion afterwards.
The play is called "Under One Blue Tarp." It was hilariously funny and reached me on several levels. First of all - J and I have had this old broken John Deere lawn tractor under a fraying blue tarp in our yard for going on 2 years now.
The conflict in the play was between an old time Mainer, defending his right to keep all of his old junk under a blue tarp in his own yard, and a newcomer "from away," who has garnered power in the town government and helped pass a new ordinance disallowing tarped junk piles in yards.
Characters, timing, one-liners, sideline story developments -- all so skillfully done. With my praise and congratulations, however, I also told the play's author after the reading that I was disappointed in his ending. His quick and humble response was, "I'll work on that," but it was not my intention to suggest he change it. Part of the power of the play is that it introduces a very real and all too common controversy in small towns in Maine (and in other states as well, for that matter).
I couldn't stop thinking about it - sure sign of a great piece of writing. So I had to write down some thoughts.
Transplants from out of state are often charmed by the quaint, simplified lifestyle, the beautiful scenery, the old time neighborly pace of life in Maine. So they leave their bustling eastern corridor lives behind and move northeast. Then begins the knocking of heads: Newcomers gently but insistently push the locals in their new home towns to change things just a little bit, and maybe a little bit more, in order to make their new surroundings more comfortable, more aesthetically pleasing, more progressive, more wealthy, or more attractive to even more newcomers.
Some dyed-in-the-wool locals are open to the idea of change, others are not. Who says that everyone wants growth and homogeneity and focus on the superficial appearance of things and elevated property values? In town after town all over Maine, especially in the tourist-centered coastal towns, that kind of change has priced old timers right out of town – out of the homes that have been in their families for generations. Transplants “from away” move in and create a whole new kind of community.
To those who value independence over superficial appearance, “more fitting to a common standard of aesthetic taste” is not a worthy goal – even if it improves the economy, even if it attracts more tourism, or perhaps especially if it attracts more tourism. A lot of Mainers just want to be left alone to carry on in the simplicity that has been Maine’s humble calling for generations.
I recently wrote an article about a man who built a crazy house of colors in Corinth, Maine. He is the quintessential Mainer – loves to do things for himself and to be left alone. He worries about building codes and enforced standards that officially disallow creativity and individualism. The whole point of life’s endeavors is to determine your own sense of place and style and identity.
One of the things we loved about moving here was the fact that our realtor told us: “no one will care what kind of car you drive or if your lawn is perfectly mowed or your house has fresh paint.” That’s part of the beauty of Maine, and what attracts people here.
Too many people want to come and remanufacture what the Maine culture should be, according to their own vision. Yes, they may provide many improvements. But improvements often come with strings attached. It's not always worth the strings.
As it stands now, Travis Baker’s play comes out too heavily in favor of the newcomers (in my opinion). Personally, I was disappointed, but by no means does that mean it should be re-written. Opening controversy, provoking thought and discussion is one sure sign of the highest quality literature.
I would love to have an audience filled with Mainers of all kinds see the show, then open the discussion and let the sparks fly.