Shear Madness breaks out at Persephone
Audience participation, improvisation add unique twists to popular whodunit
It’s no mystery why Shear Madness has been running long enough to make it into the Guinness Book of World Records, says its director.
“It’s a comedy murder mystery. So you have the murder mystery part which gets everybody engaged,” says Bob Lohrmann. “And then you have the comedy and that makes everybody laugh. And then you have the direct involvement of the audience — or as we like to call them, the witnesses — to help solve the crime.”
Shear Madness is the longestrunning non-musical in American theatre history. It opened in Boston in 1980 and is still in production. The Kennedy Centre version has been running since 1987.
Lohrmann, who is based in Washington D.C., has played every male role in the play and now directs, which has unique rewards.
“Creating it from the beginning,” he says. “And bringing a group of people, actors who are somewhat skeptical because they are afraid that the show won’t work, and slowly bringing them to believe in the viability of the show and that it will work and that they will have fun and that’s really what I enjoy doing the most.”
The premise is disarmingly simple. There’s a murder above a hair salon. The six characters, all suspects, interact with the audience
in their quest for clues. In fact, the audience decides whodunit. It’s said to be a different play every night.
“We have a basic outline of the script and the actors learn that. When we ask the witnesses to get involved there is a great deal of opportunity for improvisation depending upon what things the audience notices, what questions they might have, what evidence may come out on any given night, what the suspects might or might not do on any given night. So really there’s this element of a risky improv with the basic foundation of a play,” says Lohrmann.
Each production is set in the city where it’s based, so there will be local references and news items worked into every performance. It seems to be a flawless blueprint.
“I can go anywhere in the world where it has played — I saw the Paris production not too long ago, I saw the production in Zagreb, Croatia not long ago — and all the characters are recognizable. But every place you go, including Saskatoon, the actors bring something of their own take on the characters, and that’s fun to see, too,” says Lohrmann.