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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Sills: With Tony the most important thing is not that he’s gay and not even that he’s campy but that he is completely present, in-the-moment, living every single second to the fullest. Everything is so exciting so much so that he keeps forgetting that he’s actually involved in and being investigated for a murder.

Cleary: People can be overly sensitive to it and I’m not negating it. But maybe it’s my own experience, and maybe it’s because I’ve known a lot of gay actors, but a lot of people play into that stereotype and use it to be playful and flamboyant and clever. It’s something they use to their advantage.

Abrams: Tony Whitcomb is the most loveable character. He’s very funny. Likewise Roger Bart and Gary Beach in The Producers. We may exaggerate things about a certain character, but there’s a certain truth. I always think of Tony when I get my hair cut.

Still, the fact that a single play has occupied a space called a laboratory for nearly a quarter-century is reason for pause. Some question why one show—especially one like Shear Madness—is allowed to reside permanently in a place ostensibly designed for experimentation.

Kovac: [Before Shear Madness] the shows in the Lab were all free. Of course they would sell out, but we would have crews of 35 running a show that lasted four performances. It was not economically viable.


Peter Marks, Washington Post theater critic: There are a ton of companies in Washington that are always trying to grow up and could use the Kennedy Center’s support. Everyone from No Rules to Synetic could use the Lab. It’s called the Theater Lab, for God’s sake.

Kyd: I’d be a fool not to covet that space. But could [Kyd’s troupe] Taffety Punk afford that? No.

Joy Zinoman, founder of the Studio Theatre: To take a piece of real estate and devote it 25 years to a play like that is untenable.

Marks: It is one of the mysteries of the theater. Of all things to be the longest running show. Washington should hang its head in shame. If there’s an audience for it, God love them. It just shouldn’t be at the supposed premiere arts institution in the country. It throws a moribund quality over the theater program.

Zinoman: I can’t understand why the Kennedy Center has kept this guard-all shield around Shear Madness over the years. Whether the audience is full or not, whether the characters are stereotypical or not. Why has it protected it? Surely, the money can’t be that important.

Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center: The show augments what the Kennedy Center can offer. The profits from Shear Madness provide the Kennedy Center with more resources and allows us to offer more adventuresome theater like Norman and DollHouse.

Warren: It’s part of the institution and a moneymaker. It pays some bills. It’s a cash sale. It’s not a donation. People like to see earned income potential. New play readings don’t need to happen at 8 p.m. during prime days.

Kyd: If it’s keeping actors alive, that’s a good thing. That’s the bottom line.

Marks: It’s like if the Louvre had a permanent collection of clowns on velvet. I don’t think there’s another institution of its caliber in the world that does this.

Abrams: Every manager of ours has to keep a book of what we do. It’s called the “hit by a bus book.” To think that it would ever all not be around is not true because we have so many licensees. If [Bruce and I] are hit by a bus, the show will go on.

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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