Those attending the debut of Baltimore's newest theater troupe will find a sign in the lobby reading: "Depending on how things are going, this performance might or might not contain a brief intermission."
Welcome to the weird and wacky world of 9 Imaginary Cows Theater Collective. These four current and former members of the Towson University graduate theater program revel in unpredictability and make an art form of keeping the audience off-balance.
"A couple of years ago, I attended a performance at Arena Stage during which the lead actress developed a nosebleed while on stage," says Tom Shade, a playwright and founding member of the troupe.
"She tried to keep going and deal with her bloody nose at the same time, until the play just came to an utter standstill. She walked off, leaving her co-star onstage, just standing there. It was all unplanned, all real and the experience for those of us in the audience - as it very gradually dawned on us that this was not supposed to be happening - was fascinatingly uncomfortable.
"We want to put our audience in a similar position."
It's hard to talk too much about the plot of the Cows' debut show without ruining the surprises cast members are working hard to spring. Suffice it to say that the show is about four performers struggling to put on a play called There Have Been Other Men in My Wife's Bed, only to find themselves stymied.
The three actors and one musician all play versions of themselves, but not necessarily truthful versions. And, though the play-within-a-play examines Shade's actual marriage to actress Stephanie Santer, it would be a mistake to assume that the marriage on stage is a mirror image of reality.
"My life doesn't feel like a well-constructed narrative, with events taking place in time one after the other in an orderly fashion," Shade says. "It feels like it's all happening at once, and those feelings get lost in a traditional, linear story structure. At some point, every artist has to figure out a way to express in his own language what it means to be living in the world today."
The work also is a way of hiding in plain sight. The actors can risk self-exposure while simultaneously keeping their secrets.
"Tom's thesis is about autobiography in performance," says Stephen Nunns, director of Towson's graduate theater program. "He constantly pushes the line of making the audience wonder what they're really watching.
"For instance, Tom doesn't act in this piece. Ben King plays Tom, but he's not Tom. And, is Stephanie really talking about Tom? Or is she playing a character named Stephanie who's talking about a character named Tom?
"I love the myriad levels that the play puts out there for us," Nunns says.
Unlike traditional graduate theater programs, Towson's program (now in its 15th year) doesn't set out to train students to perform Ibsen or Shakespeare. Instead, the program emphasizes the production of original, cutting-edge work that incorporates such varied disciplines as theater, music, poetry, dance, visual art and, perhaps, on-stage carpentry. Anything goes - as long as it works.
Of the four Cows, only the 42-year-old Shade, who grew up in Frederick, is a native Free Stater. (He later moved north and co-founded the City Theater Company in Wilmington, Del., where he remained as the troupe's co-artistic director for 11 years.)
Santer, 39, is originally from West Virginia but has worked extensively in the greater Philadelphia area as an actor and singer. The 30-year-old King grew up in Texas and studied theater in North Carolina. Temple Crocker, 38, performed professionally across the United States for more than a dozen years, but spent the bulk of her career in San Francisco.
"What you hope," Crocker says, "is that a graduate theater program will have an influence on and enrich the community in which it is based."
Baltimore audiences have a reputation for being conservative, and the question remains as to whether they will support more adventurous plays. The current show, for instance, includes a nude scene and extremely graphic language. (Shade says potential ticket-buyers will be warned that the performance contains adult content.)
Shade thinks the Cows can build a fan base for their work.
"Audiences have evolved in recent years to the point that nonlinear (and even non-narrative) story structures don't faze them at all anymore," Shade says. "What we do isn't nearly as high concept as it might sound."
He likens the unconventional theater pieces that the Cows are interested in staging to the type of music "that is in the iPod of every 25-year-old in America."
Sixty years ago, he says, those same young adults could have slaked their thirst for new forms of expression by standing in line for theater tickets. No longer.
"If we want to get that 25-year-old into a theater any time soon," Shade says, "we have to make sure that something will happen to her when she's there."
The Cows want their patrons so excited and energized that they'll barely notice that the show has sailed right through intermission - if, in fact, it does.
if you go
There Have Been Other Men in My Wife's Bed runs through March 7 at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays; 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10-$20. Call 410-752-8558 or go to theatreproject.org.