Arts Desk

Does Shear Madness Really Hook People on Live Theater?

For last week's issue of Washington City Paper, I reported an oral history of the Kennedy Center's long-running production of Shear Madness. One of the topics that emerged in several interviews I conducted was the play's suggested ability to create new theatergoers from its attendees, many of whom, as students on school field trips, are seeing a professional theater production for the first time in their lives. It's a line spouted more by the play's actors and directors, but even a dissenter like WCP critic Bob Mondello is open to the possibility that even as a piece of lowbrow fare, Shear Madness can encourage a first-time theatergoer to become a lifelong patron.

Marilyn Abrams, producer and cowriter: We’ve had an incredible amount of young people come to the show and an incredible number of first-time theatergoers. So you have to think they’re going to say, "I went to the Kennedy Center."

Arch Campbell, reviewed Shear Madness for WRC-TV: It’s sort of a cross between a cabaret or a small nightclub and a real comedy like Noises Off. I think it’s great for the Kennedy Center. I think it helped open up the Kennedy Center, and who knows? Maybe it hooks people for real theater.

Kim Peter Kovac, built the Shear Madness set: I haven’t done the survey—If they come to Shear do they come to something else?—but they come here.

Robert Warren, associate producer from 2000 to 2009: It’s an introduction to the theater. Pieces that are an introduction to theater from family nights to productions are school-appropriate. It’s tough to find those things.

Peter Marks, Washington Post theater critic: I don’t know if it’s a portal into the theater experience. I taught a class at George Washington University about the Washington theater scene. I had a student whose entire theater experience had been Shear Madness. He imagined all theater was like that.

Bob Mondello, Washington City Paper theater critic: Low-rent theater is something I have trouble being terribly upset about. It was my way in to the theater—I went to musicals long before I went to Shakespeare.

Warren: I saw it twice at the Kennedy Center before I started working there. My boys were eight and 11 at the time and we laughed and laughed and laughed. Some of thing things the younger kids get is the physical humor and the innuendo goes right over their head and when you’re an adult you get that stuff.

Campbell: Tickets are expensive. I thought it was a good move for them to open up the Kennedy Center. They have the Millenium Stage. They have free concerts every night. They’ve had a wider variety of stuff at the conert hall. And I think that Shear Madness opened that up. I think it helped loosen them up a little bit.

Mondello: My theory about this is that if you go to Cats and you have a wonderful time and years and years later you see Cat on a Hot Tin Roof expecting the same experience and you think it’s OK, then Cats did its work.

Mondellore-reviewing Shear Madness in last week's issue: The perceived problem has always been its status as an open-ended engagement at the grand marble shoebox on the Potomac River that is our national temple of the arts. Still, audiences have been embracing froth for centuries, and chasing Philistines from temples is thankless work. ... it may be best to regard Shear Madness as the theatrical equivalent of an entry-level drug, and hope the adolescent who screeched at intermission that this was the “best play I’ve ever seen!” will graduate someday to the comparative sophistication of The Fantasticks.

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