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Scenes From a Marriage?

Facts Feed Into Fictions in New Theater Company's Debut Production

Temple Crocker (left) and Ben King face off.

By John Barry | Posted 2/25/2009

There Have Been Other Men in My Wife's Bed

Opens Feb. 26 at the Theatre Project and runs through March 7

Slowly but surely, edgy young theater troupes with weird names are coming to Baltimore. In 2004, Run of the Mill came to prove that it was "anything but." In 2007, Single Carrot Theatre moved to town. Now, with its debut production, There Have Been Other Men in My Wife's Bed, opening at the Theatre Project, the Nine Imaginary Cows Theater Collective joins that growing crowd.

Director Tom Shade, 42, isn't ready to explain how that name came about. "It comes up in the play," he says. And two of the actors from the three-person ensemble, Temple Crocker and Ben King, also present at the interview, aren't ready to spill the beans either. That appears to be the defining rule for Nine Imaginary Cows, with its emphasis on new forms of play writing: If you want to understand what's going on, you have to show up.

As a playwright, director, father of two, and a drama professor at Towson University, Shade is a determined multi-tasker. His Lauraville home is papered over with his children's artwork. His two-year-old son is taking his daily afternoon nap. His wife of nine years, Stephanie Santer--also an actress in the production--is busy at her day job. And now, five years after moving to Towson for its MFA theater program, Shade is ready to make the plunge into Baltimore's theater world with a play about trust. It's about his marriage, to be precise, but not necessarily in the way you'd expect.

Despite the suggestive title, theatergoers shouldn't come expecting a confessional or a comic rant. Shade is trying to get at something a little more fleeting, but much more real: the issue of trust in a relationship. As a playwright and director, he's interested in stripping plays down to what is "bracingly real." By focusing on marriage, and its own illusions, he found that there were a number of similarities between a crumbling marriage and a crumbling play.

"So many of these trust issues stem from how people find ways to communicate with one another," he says. "I realized that by dealing with marriage, a lot of conversations involve people talking about the same thing, but missing one another completely."

Shade began writing the play with voices instead of characters. Gradually, as the collective read through them, the play and characters took shape. And eventually, the form fit the function. By writing a play about marriage, with his wife as a principle actor, he found himself in a new relationship with his writing.

"Creating a play about marriage is itself an issue of trust," he says. He and his wife "were very cautious. We sat down and had numerous conversations about it. She's got sections in it that are very difficult."

Rather than leave the awkward ones out, though, Other Men deals directly with that often awkward conflict. As a playwright, Shade prefers to use the stage to get as close to the actual issues of staging a play as possible. "Anything you're honest about helps," he says. "Art is an ability to step back and look at something in a fresh way. In terms of subject matter, it lets you step back and look at yourself from a fresh perspective. It's part of the experience."

If there's a plot, he says, it's located firmly in the present. "The storyline, I guess, is the question: are we going to get through this play again?" he says. In the debut performances of the play, which was initially performed two years ago at Towson University as part of Shade's master's degree, he was surprised at how much emotional resonance that question had. "It proved to be far more accessible than we thought it might be," he says.

Shade includes Richard Foreman, Gertrude Stein, and monologist Spalding Gray as some of his primary influences. A link with Foreman's Ontological-Hysteric Theater is made a little closer by Temple Crocker, 38, whose career in modern theater and performance art includes a stint in New York in Foreman's ZOMBOID. Married to Ric Royer, she also has ties to Baltimore's experimental performance community.

Despite his interest in fresh perspectives, Shade says that "new" isn't an end in itself, nor does it imply that there's an artistic manifesto. He defines the collective as a support system, "a community of sensibilities," where people inspire one another. "I don't think that people get very far with the idea of 'Let's make something that's different--it'll be weird,'" he says. "I don't think that's where new ideas come from. They come from people examining their lives. This play and a number of new works are just trying to get at a sense of what it's like to get through the day."

Other Men, Shade says, is about how people think. It captures thought patterns in a world where people actually switch identities and dimensions. And while Shade doesn't have a panacea for theater's declining attendance rates among the younger generation, he thinks that for today's audiences, traditional dramatic narrative lacks the vital connection that people have come to expect. "I've always felt that when kids are asked to go to traditional theater, for 'culture,' that it feels like theater under glass for them," he says. "There's a play going up there and we sit back here and we're going to watch it, and it could be going on just as well even if we weren't sitting here. I don't think that's necessarily what theater practitioners do, but I think young audiences feel that way. It feels very separate from them."

For Nine Imaginary Cows, closing the distance means recognizing it: both in a marriage and between audience and actors. On all levels, the increasingly fine lines between honesty and fabrications have turned into a drama of their own. In a play that Crocker describes as "performance intensive," the voices and characters press against those limits and explore them. Expect songs, poetry, humor, and layers of manic consciousness, all inspired by a marriage that is slowly disintegrating. And then expect to wonder if this is really what you were expecting.

"Sure, they're going to wonder, 'Is this really their marriage?,'" Shade says. "The most interesting thing about this play is that people ask, 'Is this really happening? Is this supposed to be happening?' I think any audience needs to be kept off balance--instead of sitting back and saying, 'Alright, I'm ready for the ride. Take me through it.'"

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