“I’ll never forget my first words in the theatre. Peanuts. Popcorn.”
What happens when 2 actors from upstate New York decide to pursue their dreams, buy the rights to a murder-mystery written in German, by Swiss playwright Paul Portner for $50,000, turn it into a comedy, and spend another $60,000 to stage the play in Boston … well, actually, 35 years of creativity, delighting audiences, highs, lows, learning, a lot of hard work and money in the bank.
The Boulevardiers were on a trip to the Galapagos Islands, and out for a day trip of snorkeling and reveling in the surrounding beauty. With one Boulevardier in the water, and one on deck, a chance meeting with a brand new, petite, funny, successful, artistic Boulevardier has resulted in a fabulous new friendship, and the telling of the following tale.
Marilyn Abrams, “Greenie”, and Bruce Jordan are the sole partners in the creative giant that has become the longest running play in the U.S., Shear Madness. Marilyn (MA): “I decided I was going to be an actress when I saw Ethel Merman in Annie Get Your Gun…shooting out light bulbs while spinning around on a roulette wheel. Never got to do that.”
The comedy opens in the hair salon, with the owner, Tony giving a haircut to Mike, an undercover police officer. The rest of the cast is introduced in witty one-liners. Each member of the cast complains about the mean-spirited second-floor tenant, an old concert pianist. The first act closes with her murder. This is where things get unusually interesting; the audience becomes the audience and actors in the play by asking questions of the four suspects. The cast keeps the dialogue ever-lively with wit creatively colored by humor of the day which is rewritten every day before the performance and specific to the city or country where the performance is happening.
Shear Madness breaks down the traditional “fourth wall” in theater. The “fourth wall” is a theatre term referring to the imaginary line, or wall, between the actors on the stage, and the audience.
Why is Shear Madness different?
MA: “Shear Madness was literally, the first time that the fourth wall ever came down. What happened when we were in the play, at that point in the second act was the house lights went on, the audience became unexpected actors, and there was an audible gasp from everyone.”
“It isn’t the same now, people are so much more used to being a part of the show. I never say audience participation because if I read that I would never buy a ticket!”
“You enter the Shear Madness salon, but you enter it today. It takes place in whatever city you see it in, local humor, national humor. The structure of the play unfolds as the daily activities in the salon, then the murder is committed, and BANGO, in come the cops. The audience then needs to reconstruct the crime. And that‘s where all the laughs come in. You see how eyewitness perceptions are so wrong…how people are right and wrong in how they perceive the crime.”
“During intermission, the audience can ask questions of the detective. The interesting thing about the end is that it gets fairly dramatic. There was a theatrical producer who desperately wanted the show, she said, ‘the ending of it is like the coda to a musical piece because it becomes so different at the end.’ “
“Every night we change the clues, people come back to see Shear Madness many times, all the time. Whatever is current that day in that location is going to be in the play that night. It makes the show ever-green, Shear Madness is never going to become a has-been, it is of the minute. When the actors come in every night they say, ‘what happened today, where can we put this, how can we make this happen?’ “Shear Madness has a beginning, a middle and an end and each changes every day…that in itself makes it very unusual.”
“Being our own bosses has made us able to do so many things, so many firsts. Bruce and I are the creators and the investors; we didn’t have to consult with anybody along the way. When we opened in Boston we had a handful of people in the audience, and we were in the play. We knew they were loving it. We said, we gotta spread the word of mouth! Having the luxury of losing all the money we were losing, we took everything in hand, followed nothing standard, we just did what we thought was common sense.”
What was your most unanswerable question?
MA: “OMG, what if nobody in the audience asks a question…the answer is that never happens.”
“Barcelona came to us. That was our first international production of Shear Madness, Bruce & I went to Barcelona, they came to Chicago to train with us. They said, ‘this will never work in Spain, these people are used to the Franco regime, they’re never going to question the police.’ “Well, the Spanish audience leapt out of their seats, yelling, screaming, and having fun!”
“We’ve had very good runs in Spain despite Franco.”
“Our Paris production just won the Moliere Award, the equivalent to an American Tony Award. I think in Europe it’s even more popular now than in the US. They’ve never seen audience involvement, whereas in the US that’s a little more common.”
How did you get audiences into an unscripted play with no stars?
MA: “Our 35th anniversary is January 29, 2015, in Boston, our original intention was to stay open for 8 weeks. My indentured servitude! We’d make $100 per week, lose $200 a week, we never opened on a shoestring. We have always had first class actors, a beautiful set, the best publicist, and the best advertising agency. When we use our trained actors, we liked to use the experienced head cop and the flamboyant hairdresser.”
“Our advertising agency in Boston said after we had run for a few months, ‘you guys have given this your all, but we think you should call it quits. Summer’s coming and all of the Boston theaters shut down.’ ” Bruce and I simultaneously said,”great we’ll stay open and be the only show in town. That turned the corner for us.”
“We realized that we needed the groups to buy tickets. We hired an outside group sales agency. Annie was playing at that time and all the calls were for Annie. We had mixed reviews but no acting star. We realized early on that we had to take groups in house, that was a huge, huge thing to do. But first we had to find the groups. Then we made the decision that we were never going to try to sell them. We begged and borrowed to get the group leaders in, and then would follow up, and say, how’d you like it. Every single one loved it and they all booked & booked & booked. That was the modus operandi we’ve used in every one of our group sales locations.”
“Now everybody has this. It was revolutionary back then. We had so many things happen because we did everything ourselves. I would poll them next morning from my office/bedroom, ‘well I know you were at the show last night how’d you like it.”
“I have a fond memory of a group leader from the GenRad company who I called the morning after . He loved Shear Madness and said he would like 200 tickets. I almost fainted but regaining my aplomb I told him I would check our availability. Availability? We had nothing BUT tickets!”
“We called Harvard Business School, and asked them if they would like to do a study on targeted advertising. The Professor brought his graduate class to the play, he said, ‘we can’t figure it out because everybody loves it.’ Every concierge in every hotel was in our network and sent us tons of business. We would ride our bikes around Boston to deliver the flyers. The concierges all knew us. We never waited for the phone to ring, we followed up. No play owners ever belonged to a convention bureau, we did. Eventually we didn’t have to sell Shear Madness, we just had to get the people there.”
Do you ever call what you have accomplished “redefining” what a play is?
MA: “Redefining is an interesting word. This summer I was speaking to a young fellow in his 20’s. He said, ‘I love Shear Madness and want to bring all of my company to see it, we are a tech company, we are disruptors, you’re a disruptor too.’ “ “How do you like that? What is it, a disruptor? It’s a brand new word, somebody who takes an existing business and goes about it in a different way. I realize that’s what Bruce & I have done, we had no previous knowledge of what to do, we just did what made sense to us. It was our money and we were committed to making it a success! We did so many new things, it was like opening a store, every time we opened a new Shear Madness we considered it opening a new company store.”
“We had computers very early on, we never used ticket agencies. Our own systems told us who bought tickets, how many, what class of tickets, that was another first. Everybody else used ticket agencies. A few places we can’t do this, like Kennedy Center. We were our own entrepreneurs. We had this wonderful freedom to try these things. Someone said, ‘you have to get all the hairdressers in.’ We did get all the hairdressers in. We thought it was a great idea. It never sold a ticket. We didn’t even get a free haircut. Not everything thing we did was pure genius.”
Did you ever see yourself taking as the one to take on the business side of Shear Madness? Did you ever get jealous because Bruce was doing the creative part?
MA: “Never, Bruce is a fabulous director, I was never a director. We’ve had a fantastic relationship because we both picked up what had to be done. I didn’t know I was going to do this money in the bank side of the business. I was the one who talked to the customers. I loved it because I absolutely LOVE the customers. When Bruce and I did all these other jobs we still played eight shows a week for years and years and years. Bruce & I always jointly handled the PR.”
“When we saw the airlines were doing advance sales, we thought, we can do this! If it works for the airlines maybe it will work for us. It’s a lot of fun thinking about the things you can possibly do. When we learned more, we realized we couldn’t rely on local groups, we had to branch out to national and then international tour & travel operators. This is a big part of our business. You just kind of fall into these things somehow.”
When did Cranberry Productions come about? MA: “When we opened Boston.”
Why is it called Cranberry Production? MA: “What else do you put on a turkey?”
MA: “Another non-standard thing we did was that, we never had a general manager. We still do that out of our home base in Albany, NY, and all the accounting we do ourselves. It’s a lot to learn. We have a foreign language agent for international productions.”
What keeps you and Bruce creatively in control?
MA: “We insist that every adapter & director come to train in Boston or Washington, DC with Bruce & his assistant director. Also all licensed companies in the U.S. do this too. In the US & Canada, we also send our own directors. It’s very hard to keep Shear Madness artistically the way we want it.”
“Many years ago Mike Nichols & Buck Henry came to see the play, I had dinner with them, poor Bruce had to act in the second show. They loved it. Mike said, ‘pick up that little theatre and take it all over the country, the biggest challenge you will have is how it how to keep it artistically the way you want it.’ We learned early on that artistically you have to keep control.”
How do feel when you sit in the theatre and watch Shear Madness today?
MA: “Well I love it, if it’s something I’ve never heard. Bruce & I don’t understand the foreign language but we always know how it’s going because we know where the laughs should go.”
“We’ve had terrific actors over the years who have invented many things. The challenge to Bruce is how to recreate the things that happen in the world that are so great for Shear Madness.”
“Sometimes the audience comes up with things that are really funny, and we think how do we put this in? That’s why we like to use our trained actors, particularly the head cop Nick, he knows how get the audience involved and try to recreate the things that happened before that are so funny.”
“Sometimes I feel great and sometimes I say OMG does this show need work!”
Is there anything you would want to say to Boulevardiers everywhere? How do you inspire artists in an age where it is so hard to be an artist?
MA: “It’s hard to answer because everybody is different. If you want to do it and you love doing it and it’s something that you have a passion for and you’re always thinking about it, then do it. Particularly for actors I understand how incredibly difficult it is. There are so many more actors than jobs. It’s an unanswerable question really. Everybody has to find an answer for themselves. My husband and I have 4 kids and not one a serial killer. They’ve taken pride in the fact that their mother is an actress and not home a lot. Artistic ventures are not steady incomes. Ask yourself, how happy are you doing what you are doing? I have a very supportive husband. He always encouraged me.”
What keeps you interested in the 21st century?
MA: “I’m interested in your online artistic presence, The Boulevardiers. That’s a whole new world that we are becoming more acquainted with. People are turning more & more online. I see how differently the actors are prepared in such a new way, everybody comes in with instant videos, and what they need to sell themselves.”
What you have done embraces every day. The business of what you do is very strong. You & Bruce have been able to combine the extemporaneousness of art with a business model that you invested in built & enjoy. What do you say to young Boulevardiers?
MA: “You can’t let fear overtake you. I remember when Bruce & I first saw our theatre at the Kennedy Center, and we said this 300 seat black box would be perfect. It took us about a year to get Kennedy Center to come see Shear Madness and then say ‘Go.’ They said go and we panicked, how can we do this, it’s such a big place, we don’t know how it going to work. Buyer’s remorse. I was driving to NY, and I stopped at a payphone, I told Bruce we ain’t gonna sit on the porch of an old folks someday home wondering what we would have done if we went to the Kennedy Center.”
“I have a very rare partner, when we rarely disagree we say, how important is that to you? Be brave, and do it! The only things I’m sorry about are the acting opportunities I did not accept, those are the things I didn’t go for.”
You’re still laughing, smiling, and so humble. I guess that’s part of the joy of your success. You have a very true appreciation of what makes you & Bruce different, what you didn’t think you were going to do. It has been a labor of love, of bravery, common sense and reading the tea leaves. When you had the big gulp moments, you said we’ll make it work. You’ve controlled your beginnings & endings; you knew how to undo something that wasn’t to your standards. Is this how you see yourselves?
MA: “The decisions…that’s the big thing. Sometimes were not all that smart. We always get down to the basic things, we say, ok if you had nothing else to consider, if it had nothing to do with money, what do you really want…and you take it from there, scale it back, and sometimes it works! It’s pretty simplistic.”
“Who doesn’t love a happy ending? Isn’t it great to be an artistic inspiration rather than a disruptor?”