Comedy is serious business.
And for a little production tucked away in the Kennedy Center for the last 25 years, the serious business of making people laugh has been instrumental to the success of Shear Madness.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the Washington, D.C. incarnation of the madcap comedy whodunit. Originally scheduled for a 12-week run in August, 1987, the Kennedy Center’s Shear Madness boasts some unique statistics: Number of performances: more than 11,089. Number of attendees: 3.1 million, in Washington, D.C., with 10.2 million worldwide.
The second longest running play production in American theatre history, Shear Madness at the Kennedy Center is from quite a family. The Boston production, which opened in 1980, is the longest running play in America. The Charles Playhouse has been the Boston home for the play since the first performance 32 years ago. Along with Boston and Washington, D.C., there have been more than 88 productions across the U.S. and the world, and it has been translated into 17 languages.
What sort of show could have such a long and successful life? There are no revolving barricades, falling chandeliers, or flying witches. It does not depend on celebrity casting and it is not based on a film. Shear Madness displays stagecraft wizardry such as blow dryers, shaving cream, a barber’s chair, and judicious amounts of stage blood. There is one setting and the cast is simple: six actors playing the employees and customers of a unisex hair salon.
From Obscurity to Success
Shear Madness started life as a little known play by Paul Portner entitled Scherenschnitt (In German, that’s literally “Scissor Cuts.”) The play examined the psychology of an audience and their perceptions of reality. The play languished and stayed under the radar.
Around 1976, Bruce Jordan, a former high school teacher was directing a summer stock production of I Do, I Do in upstate New York. The musical featured another former teacher, Marilyn Abrams, as one of the performers. Jordan and Abrams became close friends.
According to Shear Madness lore, Jordan discovered the script of Scherenschnitt while working at another theatre. He thought it had potential and showed it to Abrams. They re-fashioned the more serious play into a comic-mystery with audience participation and plenty of room for improvisation. In 1978, it premiered at the Lake George Dinner Theatre. Shear Madness was born.
Jordan and Abrams realized the interaction between the audience and the actors was a crowd-pleaser. The duo formed Cranberry Productions and promptly bought all the rights to the play. As they perfected the balance of the script and audience participation, they planned for a short run in Boston. That was in 1980; thirty-two years later, Shear Madness is a Guinness World Record title holder for the longest running play.
Success in Boston bred other productions and seven years after the Boston opening, it was scheduled for another short run, this time in the Theater Lab at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Funny how those short runs don’t want to end. During the twenty-five years in Washington, the show has gone through roughly 125 hair dryers, 891 cans of hairspray, 149 bottles of stage blood and a whopping 11,574 cans of shaving cream to entertain visitors from all over the world.
Tailored for each city in which it is produced, Washington’s Shear Madness takes place in a Georgetown hair salon. The time period shifts to reflect the current year, and with it references to what is in the news and what is dominating pop culture at that time.
The Winning Formula
Constantly updating the script is all part of the longevity of the play, according to Bob Lohrmann. If anyone would know what works with Shear Madness, he would. Over the years, he has played all the male roles and is the associate artistic director.
Lohrmann has been associated with Shear Madness since 1983, when he was hired as an actor and trained in Boston for the Philadelphia production. He did the show for a couple of years and then moved on to other employment.
Shaving cream brought him back.
“During the show, we used cans of shaving cream, but there was always some left,” he said. “I started collecting them and taking them home to use. There were hundreds of cans in my basement and I’d just go down there whenever I ran low.”
Several years later, Lohrmann made a phone call to Bruce Jordan. “I called Bruce and told him I had a serious problem.” On the other end of the line, Jordan got quiet, anticipating the important news. “I told Bruce I had to come back to the show. I was out of shaving cream.”
Luckily for Lohrmann, there was an opening in the Kennedy Center production. He went into it for about nine months and then left the show. When he returned again, the producers asked him to stay on and become the associate artistic director. He has been with Shear Madness ever since.
Lohrmann keeps a close eye on the Kennedy Center production, casts the actors, and has traveled to a dozen cities to open new productions. He works with the performers to maintain the integrity constantly. “It is easy with such a long running show for it to get stale or complacent,” he said. “Every week, I go in and tweak. A lot goes into continually making the show fresh. We’re updating jokes and references all the time.”
How It Works
The actors bring in ideas from the news, commercials, politics – any possible source for topical references. They are careful to avoid leaning too much on “inside the Beltway references,” he said. “The show has to be funny to people from Illinois, or Montana, or Canada.”
And what plays in Washington may not be funny in Pittsburgh or Peoria. When Shear Madness opens in a new city, the script is tailored to that city. “I ask the actors to bring in ten or more jokes they think might work for that city,” said Lohrmann. They try out the jokes to get them just right. “When audiences come to see it, they feel like it’s their show.”
He said sometimes new bits do not work, but there is a rule everyone goes by. “If we put in a new joke, they have to try it at least three times before an audience. Then if it doesn’t work, we will cut it and try something else.”
It all goes back to what’s best for the show and keeping the level of quality high.
“Comedy is a serious business,” said Lohrmann. “Now, believe me this is silly show, but we all take it seriously. There are probably more laughs in this show than any show I have ever seen. At the same time, we have this high stakes murder plot.”
The investigation of the murder is what seems to hook the audience into the Shear Madness experience. The reclusive pianist is murdered with a pair of scissors, and the salon is filled with a bevy of suspects. When the investigators arrive, they turn to the audience to help solve the crime.
“We call the audience witnesses,” explained Lohrmann. They become part of the investigation and basically take over the show. “They put the actors on the spot and demand answers.” The cast has to adapt to whatever comes from that interaction.
Finding the right blend of actors for Shear Madness is part of Lohrmann’s ongoing mission. “I look for actors who can serve the quality of the show. We seek actors who understand that in comedy you look for the one right way to do something that works and then keep it fresh.”
With a 25 year run at the Kennedy Center, Lohrmann estimates that more than 100 actors have appeared in Shear Madness. [Our readers will recognize Brigid Cleary among the current cast.]“It’s probably easier to count the actors in Washington who haven’t been in it,” he said, chuckling. Most of the casting is done locally, he added.
Once actors are in the mix, they can stay as long as they like. The cast changes approximately three times a year, in the spring, summer and fall. In the spring, there are additional actors, since a day cast and night cast perform to keep up with the large number of school groups and tourists who flock to the District.
Actors have also benefited from short runs in Shear Madness. “I’m responsible for a number of actors getting their Equity cards,” Lohrmann said, referring to the union for actors and stage managers. “Sometimes someone will call me up and need a three week run in order to keep up their insurance benefits. If it serves the show, I’m happy to help them.”
The Power of Laughter
John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Directed and designed by Bruce Jordan;
associate artistic director: Bob Lohrmann.
Original set design: Kim Peter Kovac;
costumes and set adapted by Scott L. Hammar;
lighting design: Dan Covey;
sound design: John Vengrouskie.
Tiernan Madorno (Barbara DeMarco), Jarreau Williams (Mikey Thomas), Neil Casey (Tony Whitcomb), Aaron Shields (Eddie Lawrence), Patrick Noonan (Nick O’Brien), Brigid Cleary (Mrs. Shubert), Francie Glick (Understudy).
Approximately 2 hours
Tue.-Fri., 8 pm; Sat., 6 and 9 pm; Sun., 3 and 7 pm.
Kennedy Center box office: 202.467.4600.
Details and tickets
Note: The Theater Lab is undergoing renovations. Shear Madness performs in the Family Theater through Nov 1.
Shear Madness returns the Theater Lab Nov 9, 2012.
Lohrmann has seen the effects of comedy and the serious power of Shear Madness, during one of his stints as an actor. During intermission, he found himself talking to an elderly couple with thick European accents. They were natives of Poland who told him they came to America after the war. They were Holocaust survivors.
“I asked them if they had been to the Holocaust Museum and they said, yes, many times. They asked me if I had seen ‘the movie.’”
The film was Stephen Spielberg’s Academy Award-winning Schindler’s List, which was fairly recent at that time. Lohrmann responded that he had seen it and had found it very moving.
The Polish gentleman looked the actor in the eye and said, “We were on the list, Mr. Schindler’s list. If it weren’t for Mr. Schindler, we would not be here today.”
Lohrmann said he tried to maintain his composure, knowing he had to continue with the play in a few minutes. “The man’s wife said to me, ‘You are doing a wonderful thing here. It was laughter that kept us alive. If someone could make you laugh, we thought we could go on just one more hour.”
Moving moments aside, the actors have to be prepared for any situation during the course of a performance. Lohrmann said the trick is to win the audience over at the top of the show, and then let the formula work its magic.
“Actors can be insecure, especially with how this show works. But no matter where the show plays, the audience gets involved. I always tell the actors that we don’t make the audience get involved, but trust me, it will happen. I defy you not to get involved.”
The ongoing success of Shear Madness, according to Lohrmann, is due in large part to the brilliance of the producers for coming up with the winning format. “The structure is the same, no matter where the show plays. Even in Paris, France. I don’t speak French, but when I saw the show there, I knew what the audience was laughing at.”
“In this show, the level of the script versus the improvised parts shifts every night. The actors have to springboard off the basic script. The audience puts the actors on the spot, and the actors have a chance to defend themselves fervently.”
“And hopefully they get a couple of laughs along the way.”
For Shear Madness, the formula seems work.