Coming Up: Longest running play in history (Shear Madness) goes on tour

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The longest running comedy in American theater history is about to go on the road. Longest running? Yup! Bruce Jordan, the co-creator of Shear Madness, the hit murder-mystery-improv-mashup, relates, “We found a 250-seat theater in Boston that was perfect for the show in 1980 and it’s been running eight performances a week ever since!”

It’s in its 33rd year! It’s also the second longest running play in history, still running at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. (the Theater Lab, a 400-seat theater), since 1987. And it’s even the third longest running play in history after its 1984-2003 run at the Mayfair Theatre in Chicago!

What’s more amazing is that you might not even have heard of it. And that problem will get remedied, since Shear Madness starts what could be a long-running tour around the country at The Moore Theatre in Seattle on Thursday, May 31st. It stays in Seattle until Sunday, June 24, 2012.

The Shear Madness hairstyling salon is scandalized by the murder of the upstairs neighbor, and the denizens of the shop try to solve the murder before someone else is killed. But they’re not the only ones trying to solve the murder. Each night, the audience spots the clues, helps question the suspects, and gets in on the action.

Part of the enjoyment and what makes this show unique is that it changes and evolves based on audience interaction and reaction. It’s also a very site-specific show, and one of the major challenges of a touring show is that it must reflect local jokes and locations. It must never feel like a tour.

Bruce says, about the first stop in Seattle, “The hair salon is on the corner of Pine and Bellevue, and the characters all come from the area, and it takes place today, so we incorporate current events and there’s a lot of improv involved and that’s what keeps it fresh for the audience and the actors as well.”

He adds, “You can see it again six months from now and it’s changed. It’s very much a word of mouth show and people tell their friends about it. It’s just fun. It’s totally nonpretentious. You can take your bowling club to it or a theater friend and they’ll all enjoy it.”

Bruce wanted to come to Seattle with the show years ago, but, “We couldn’t get a theater. Either the spaces weren’t right, or they were booked. So it’s kind of a dream to come to Seattle at all.”

The first challenge has been to build a movable set, which they are trying out in Seattle, to bring on tour. “It has running water and drainage and electrical appliances and it takes a long time to rehearse,” Bruce describes. “It’s not the kind of show that most companies can afford to do. In a tour, the expenses are amortized over years and everyone who wants it gets to have it in their theater if they want it.”

The next challenge was to cast the show with actors who not only have to learn lines, they have to learn new locations and new jokes every place they go. “In casting the show, you have to get people who look forward to this,” Bruce says. “This show frightens some actors to death, and these actors thrive on it and these are the ones that wanted to do this tour. You have to create the script each place you go.”

Fortunately, all the cast members on tour are veterans of Shear Madness in various locations. Bruce says he’s picked the best of the best. “I hand-picked the six actors I thought would be the most fun on the tour and the most experienced. I’ve worked with Mary Ann Conk (who portrays the hairstylist) since the late ‘80s. She’s done the show in Boston, St. Louis, Chicago, Philadelphia, so many times. She does other things but always comes back and does Shear Madness.

“The guy who plays the head cop, Patrick Noonan, I first cast about twelve years ago in Perfect Wedding that I was directing and he’s a wonderful talent. You see him on tv commercials sometimes. He originated Almost Mame Off-Broadway. He’s done Shear Madness in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco.”

The rest of the cast includes Michael Baldwin as the eccentric salon owner, Timothy Goodwin stars as the cop’s sidekick, Lisa McMillan and Joe Ditmyer as customers.  Bruce describes how they develop the local information. “We send a questionnaire (to the next city) that would help us create some local jokes and in rehearsal we’ll have a map to know where we’re located and where the characters live. That is a big job when you’re doing a whole bunch of cities in one year. The cast has to be very adept at changing lines and locations and local references.”

Due to scheduling complications, after the Seattle run, the tour will pick back up toward the end of October, going to places including Mesa, Arizona, Tampa Bay and Broward Center (Ft. Lauderdale), Florida.

The flagship Boston company has given birth to 42 productions in the US and Shear Madness has been translated into 10 foreign languages, playing worldwide in a host of cities including Barcelona, Buenos Aires, Madrid, Paris, Rejkavik, Rome, Tel Aviv, Melbourne, Johannesburg and Seoul.

Bruce says, “The show opened in Paris last June and is still running. It opened last month in Croatia and it’s been playing in Spain forever. We have to watch over (all the productions) and I train all of the people who direct the companies; they come to the United States and learn how to play the game.”

For more information on this long-running hit, go to www.shearmadness.com.

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