Cleary was born in Texas to two Air Force officers and lived in Wyoming and Okinawa before her sister’s need for open-heart surgery brought the family to Washington. She grew up in Camp Springs in Prince George’s County and fell into acting when a guidance counselor at Crossland High School suggested it as a remedy for her shyness. “I remember thinking, ‘This is guidance?’ ” she says. “But there was something so freeing about not being me.”
Cleary, 57, first joined Shear Madness in 1988. For the last ten years—with breaks for roles on other stages—she has played the wealthy matron Mrs. Shubert, averaging eight performances a week.
Shear Madness depends on audience interaction to help solve the mystery of who killed musician Isabel Czerny. “It looks loosey-goosey, but the irony is that it’s incredibly disciplined,” Cleary says of the partly improvised play. “As an actor, you need a lot of tools in your toolbox to make the right choices.”
The actress has been nominated for a Helen Hayes Award four times, including in 2005 for her portrayal of a housewife in Tony Kushner’s Homebody/Kabul, jointly produced by Theater J and Woolly Mammoth. Three years ago, she was Sister Aloysius in Olney Theatre Center’s production of John Patrick Shanley’s drama Doubt, the role Meryl Streep played in the movie.
Cleary lives in Maryland’s Calvert County with her husband, Brian Davis, a Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission instructional designer, and their two sons, Liam, 21, and Aidan, 18. In a lounge at the Kennedy Center, she talked about what she’s learned.
How did you become involved with Shear Madness?
My first experience was in 1988. It had been playing for a year, and they held auditions for a replacement cast, so I came in as the sassy, gum-poppin’ hairdresser for a few months—clearly I’ve aged out of that one. I came back to do the show again in 2001, and the first day of rehearsals was September 11. I remember driving in, and I had my radio off because I was doing my vocal exercises. I came around the river and saw black smoke over the Pentagon.
What’s kept you engaged in the show so long?
Before Shear Madness, I’d just go where the work went. But I wanted to stay in town to have a family, a house, a dog, a yard, and it’s hard when any show’s run is six to eight weeks. It’s the feast-or-famine thing that every actor goes through. And the wonderful thing about Shear Madness is that it’s a feast for an actor.
I grew up around here and was influenced by Arena Stage, because at the time they had a resident company with the most incredible group of actors—a lot of them have gone on and done bigger things. Anyone who was an actor in this area aimed to be a part of the Arena company. They don’t have a resident company anymore, so the closest thing to one in Washington now is Shear Madness.
Shear Madness relies on interaction with the audience—the questions and cultural references they throw at you. What are the challenges of that?
Well, we’re not supposed to give too much away, because it is kind of magical. But I remember this one little thing that happened. My character always comes in late, so I was getting ready to make my entrance, and every now and then you get the chance to throw in a reason why you’re late and make a joke about someone. Just before I went on, the stage manager told me he had an old friend from college in the audience and asked if I could say I’d been having brunch with him. So I went on and said, “I’m late. I’ve just been having brunch with my friend Greg Forbes— blahdee blah blah.” Sure enough, come time for the audience participation, this woman raises her hand and says, “My husband is Greg Forbes, and he told me he was too tired to go sightseeing. Now I find out he’s having brunch with you.” I’m standing there thinking, “Please, comedy gods, bail me out.” I let her go on and finally said, “Darling, I was having brunch with the Greg Forbes, not a Greg Forbes.” And everybody onstage went “phew.” But that was horrific.
What can you do to prepare?
We’re responsible for bringing in jokes or little topical things, so there is a kind of safety net if you stay up with current events or other things people might call you out on. But otherwise we just show up and know what’s expected of us. Everyone finds their own way to get through eight shows a week.
What has the show taught you about acting?
I’ve been very lucky because when I first came in I was directed by Bruce Jordan, who’s one of the original writers and producers. His understanding of comedy is so huge, and he can do the subtle stuff as well as the big, broad stuff. He used to tell a story about the actors Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne. Lunt said, “I’m not getting that laugh I used to get when I asked for the tea,” and Fontanne said, “Maybe if you ask for the tea instead of the laugh, you’ll get it.”
Bruce also made it clear early on that when there’s a joke, it belongs to all of us, not just the person who’s setting it up and the person who’s landing it. All it takes is one person shifting or coughing or reaching into their pocket, and it can topple a joke just like that.
What have you learned about audiences?
The thing I never get tired of is when it comes time for that “fourth wall” between the actors and the audience to disappear. When I first came back to the cast, I would get choked up seeing the audience’s faces, because it’s like seeing grownups with children’s faces, so eager and playful and present.
Shear Madness is a gift because you get a chance to look into the eye of the audience and see how much fun they’re having. They’re also the wild card—they can be anybody. They can be eighth-graders or senior citizens or people high up in government. They make the show their show every time, and they contribute a lot.
Next: From shy girl to on-stage star