Tell a theater audience they’ll be expected to portray housecats, and certain activities leap to mind: purring, stretching, prowling on all fours. Maybe disdainfully stalking away from a half-eaten dinner.
But “The Stray” really isn’t about that sort of thing, says Ayne Terceira. Or not much, anyway.
Terceira is the creative force behind Uncumber Theatrics, which is indeed staging this interactive, largely improvised show in which audience members – whose number is limited to seven or so per performance – take the role of cats in the home of a reclusive woman (who’s portrayed by an actor, as are two other characters).
But ticket-buyers can embody cats any way they want: sitting quietly, moving bipedally, and even speaking, if they like. That’s partly because no matter what they do, the “nice lady” will treat them as if they actually were cats, incapable of speech. And it’s mostly because this isn’t a show about felines per se, but about such deeply human issues as memory, identity and isolation.
Its first production was 2013’s “Her Things,” which was staged as an estate sale: Audiences took the role of bidders who interacted with both a dead woman’s 200 objects and a handful of actors, all to explore the mystery of the departed’s life. In “Serpentine” (2016), ticketholders played sleuth in a cold case, first briefly snooping through a private detective’s office and then being turned loose into the outside world for a series of improvised encounters and hidden clues throughout the city – a process that could continue for weeks, if desired.
“The Stray” was inspired by Terceira’s experience with her mother’s dementia.
“I started thinking about memory and who we are when we lose memory, who we are when we repress certain memories. And what that says about our identity. And also those influences that make us want to close in, to recede from society,” she says.
The show plays with the trope of the “cat lady,” a figure who seems able to relate only to her pets (who might be unmanageably numerous). Audience members can drop to their hands and knees if they wish, but because the Nice Lady won’t understand them when they talk, the real goal is getting people to explore nonverbal communication. “The Stray” continues Terceira’s longer-term project to stage shows that each removes one conventional form of interaction. Uncumber’s “Mass,” for instance, allowed audiences to communicate with its protagonist only by walkie-talkie, never face-to-face.
“I am really testing out a concept,” she says. “Can we have a theater production in which the audience members are cast in a role that is not human? That’s going out on a limb, and I’m excited to see what fruits it might bear.”
"The Stray" is staged in a row house in Upper Lawrenceville. (Terceira says it is near Butler Street, but she is revealing the exact address only to ticket-buyers.) It’s a “free-exploration show,” meaning audiences can roam room on any of three floors on their own, follow whatever characters they choose, and pursue whatever relationships they wish, with either the actors or the other participants.
Terceira says that while the show's concept is hers, the three actors – Bevin Baker, Tamara Siegert, and Vanessa St. Clair – all devised their own character’ backstories. Each performance will be different depending on where the audience takes it. Yet “The Stray,” which runs about 100 minutes, does have scripted emotional beats, she says, and some degree of consistency from night to night.
“Uncumber Theatrics tells stories of not just unusual characters, but of those people who reside on the fringes of society,” she says. “And while there is comedy in the idea of a cat lady, there is also deep pathos in an idea of a cat lady. And I think this piece nicely balances the two.”
At press time, some performances of “The Stray” were sold out, but Terceira said that if there is demand, she will add performances, or slightly expand the number of tickets available for each showing.