Audience is UNKNOWN VARIABLE in Shear Madness

All they wanted was a play that had a role for each of them. The play they created has been running for more than 40 years. It’s probably being staged even as you read these words. It’s an interactive-whodunit-murder mystery-comedy that was first produced before anyone used the word “interactive” to describe a theatrical experience.

“I look back every now and then and think, ’So much of this is luck,’” said Bruce Jordan, half of the twosome who created Shear Madness. “But the only thing we were smart enough to do was seize on the luck and fly with it.” Jordan will direct this Straz-produced, audience-participation mystery when it’s presented in the Jaeb Theater Feb. 15–April 8.

Sometimes you can make your own luck. In January 1980, Bruce and Madness partner Marilyn Abrams opened the play in Boston, where it was beginning to gain some traction. Summer was coming, though, and Boston theaters shut down for the season.

“When we heard this, without drawing a breath, Marilyn and I looked at each other and said, ‘Great, we’ll stay open!’” Jordan said. “We stayed open the summer of 1980, and by August it was a hit.”

Shear Madness creators Bruce Jordan and Marilyn Abrams as Tony and Barbara in an early production of Shear Madness.

Productions opened in other U.S. cities such as Chicago and Washington, D.C. , and enjoyed successful, extended runs. Then it branched out even further, opening in cities across Asia, Europe and South America.

“It’s in its 13th year in Paris and Seoul,” Jordan said. “It’s opening in Switzerland this year. By the end of the year there will be five productions in China.”

The source material of Shear Madness is from Germany and it’s not very funny at all.

When Bruce and Marilyn were looking for a play with roles for them, Bruce remembered a production of German playwright Paul Pörtner’s 1963 drama, Scherenschnitt. The dramatic murder mystery incorporated audience members to question suspects and discover the killer’s identity.

Converting this work to a comedy seemed natural. In fact, the dramatic mood of Scherenschnitt could be broken by an audience member’s question.   

The older work, Jordan said, “always got a little comic when the audience got involved, mostly because of their misperceptions. It’s a real lesson on how people perceive the events around crime.”

Jordan and Abrams’ reworked play takes place in a hair salon called Shear Madness. When the shop’s landlady, a world-famous concert pianist who lives upstairs, is killed, the audience gets the opportunity to grill cast members to determine who is the killer. The structure guarantees no two shows are alike, making Shear Madness a natural for repeat viewings.

Abrams (left) and Jordan (right) posing on a Shear Madness set.

One fun feature of Shear Madness is that it is localized for every location it plays and updated daily make sure the refences are timely.

“We make (the play) take place in the city that it’s being performed in,” Jordan said. “We update it too, so it’s taking place in that city THAT day. So, if it’s raining at four o’clock, the cast members will come in with umbrellas and talk about the weather.”

Tampa audiences can expect timely references to and lighthearted, tongue-in-cheek jokes about Tom Brady, Mons Venus, the Lightning, Florida politics and more.

Every presentation of Shear Madness depends on an unknown variable – the audience – to succeed. And believe it or not, they always come through, Jordan said.

“People always say, ‘Well, what if nobody asks a question? What if nobody participates?’ It’s always the opposite,” Jordan said. Does chaos ever ensue? That’s a possibility, Jordan said, “and that’s why you need really strong actors to control the crowd.”

But, Jordan said, “It’s all fun. It’s just people wanting to be heard.”

And heard they will be.

“One time I was playing the show and some nail polish that Marilyn’s character puts on got on my white pants,” Jordan said.

“Of course, it looked like blood, and anything that has any blood on it in the show always gets sent to the lab,” Jordan said. “Somebody discovered this tiny dot of blood on my white pants, and the audience starts chanting, ‘Send them to the lab.’

“I had to play the last 25 minutes of the play in my underwear,” Jordan said.

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