An Oral History of Shear Madness Everyone loves to mock the Kennedy Center's longest-running play. But for 24 years, this lowbrow tourist fare has helped generations of D.C. actors make ends meet. The show's story, as told by those who made it happen.

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Warren: They promote it as being a perfect script. It may just be that one, lucky phenomenon. It’s not Shakespeare. The big advantage for it surviving at the Kennedy Center is these groups, schools and tour companies booking it a year out. I got there right before Sept. 11. We lost a ton of groups; they just weren’t allowed to travel. We did five performances a week for six weeks; by January we were back to a normal schedule. Those things that could kill a Broadway show that week-to-week make their nut.

Lohrmann: You rely on what you’ve done before but you have to play what’s right in front of you. That’s the big challenge of Shear Madness, and we’re in uncharted territory here. What other show has run this long?

Part of Shear Madness’ shtick is that it takes place the day of the performance, in the theater’s city. Casts are required to be well-versed in local affairs. But at the Kennedy Center, it’s different.

Jordan: At the Kennedy Center we don’t use as many local jokes because D.C. jokes tend to be national. But when you play the Capital [Repertory Theatre] in Albany [N.Y.], everyone is from Albany. I think the laughs are much greater.

Abrams: The local flavor in Washington is national. “I live out in the country in Hyattsville” (a line spoken by one of the characters)—that’s funny. Visitors to D.C. wouldn’t get that, but Mrs. Schubert lives in the very best section of town. The shop is in Georgetown. The local humor works in the smallest cities. I grew up in New York but I never went to the top of the Empire State Building.


Lohrmann: The things we have to refer to are things that anybody would know, from the senior citizen group from Kansas to the freshman class from George Washington University.

Gillian Shelly, has played Barbara DeMarco since 2007: Who’s on the radio? Who’s on TMZ? It’s an active thing. We’re always looking through the paper and the magazines. What’s relevant? What senator was arrested?

Cleary: There are people whom the whole world loves, and Steve Irwin was one of them. When the cop asked Tony how he would have killed Isabel, he said “take her swimming with Steve Irwin.” People gasped. Comedy is hard.

Tonya Beckman Ross, played Barbara from 2005 to 2006: In the beginning Barbara is painting her nails and I decided to huff it, but that got cut right away. We had an audience full of kids and they knew exactly what was going on.

Lohrmann: When I go into a city to direct it brand-new, I ask that the local producers provide me with a dry erase board and I ask the actors, “You know the city. I don’t. I want you all to bring in 10 things you think are particular to Pittsburgh or wherever.”

Abrams: You always have political jokes in D.C.

Jordan: We hope to God that Marion Barry comes back.

Lohrmann: I was doing the show playing Tony, and in the intermission we stay on stage and in character. I was going around doing my business and I noticed there was a table of older folks sitting over stage right and I struck up a conversation with them. They had European accents, and I asked them if they were from upstate New York, and they said no. They said Poland. I said, “Oh, Poland. That’s interesting. When did you come to the United States?” And they said, “Just after the war.” Then the woman looked at me and said, “We’re survivors.” Her husband said, “Have you seen the movie?” and I said “What movie?” He said, “The Schindler’s movie.” I said yes. He asked me what I thought of it. I said it was very moving. He said, “We were on Mr. Schindler’s list. Mr. Schindler saved our lives. If it was not for Mr. Schindler we would be dead.” That’s an exact quote because these words were burned into my head. And I didn’t really know—staying in character, I was getting a little nonplussed about this conversation—so I moved away and a few minutes later the older lady called me over and she said, “I want to tell you something. You’re doing a wonderful thing here.” And I said something like “Thank you. Don’t you think I did Mikey’s hair very nicely?” She said, “No. I’m serious. Laughter kept us alive. If we could tell a joke or make each other laugh, we believed we could live for another hour.” I was almost in tears, and had to stay in character the entire time.

Sills: This show is uniquely American. I’m Canadian.

Our Readers Say

Thanks City Paper for such a delightful article. Although I usually go to the Kennedy Centre for drama, ballet, and concerts, I've enjoyed Shear Madness several times. It's great to have silly laughs sometimes, and Shear Madness delivers on that count.
I enjoyed being with Barbara at your delightful, memorable wedding. Jean

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