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Shear Genius: What Ten Years Playing the Same Role Has Taught Brigid Cleary
Comments () | Published July 22, 2011
What do you think has kept Shear Madness going for so long?
It is a tourist attraction, which keeps people coming, but it’s also a good old reliable thing that people know they can bring out-of-towners to and be entertained. And the fact that it offers you a completely different viewing experience every time you come.

What do you look for in your other roles?
It’s hard at my age to be selective about what I’m going to do or not do, because if you pick up any script, the ratio is usually more men to women, and more young women to old women. There are some great roles out there, and I’ve been lucky, but what I look for now is something that’ll make it worth stepping out of Shear Madness for.

The one thing that Shear Madness doesn’t have is the ability to start from the page and build your own character, your own version of a person, as opposed to filling a role. I don’t mean to paint that as a negative, but sometimes I feel the need to start something and have it grow and build.

What are your favorite other roles?
I played Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire at Olney Theatre, a place I’ve always loved working. And I had an incredible experience playing Homebody in Homebody/Kabul. There’s a long, long monologue with a lot of tangents. I don’t think I could have done it had I not had Shear Madness under my belt, because it involved being very vulnerable and speaking directly into the faces of the audience. To be able to talk to them so freely is such a vulnerable place to be.

Do you still get nervous?
Yes. Isn’t that crazy? I think that if I ever get to a point where I don’t get nervous, it’ll mean that I’m not caring enough. Any number of things can go wrong out there. You can say the wrong thing, or you can fall. I got my heel caught in the step once, and I just tumbled on my entrance. Anything can happen.

How did you get into acting?
I was a transfer student, and it seemed like I was always behind. I had never really paid that much attention to what I should do with my life. I got cast in a high-school play and suddenly felt like I belonged. I was very shy, so much so that I would shake and get all blotchy if our newspaper boy didn’t come and my mother told me to call and ask him for another paper. I think I found a way to function by becoming other people.

I went from playing an Indian in Peter Pan to Maria in West Side Story in under a year, and my parents got onboard after seeing that, even though anybody with any sense would talk somebody out of doing this for a living.

Tell me about your training at Catholic University.
I went from high school to Prince George’s Community College, where I learned a lot and did show after show after show. You’re only supposed to be there two years, and I was well into my third, just pacing myself so I could do plays, but then I transferred to Catholic and really took off there. That helped funnel me into Olney Theatre, which back then was more associated with the Catholic University drama department. I’ve had a long and happy relationship with Olney.

How did you get into comedy?
When I used to do audition pieces, there were so many people who’d come in and try to be as serious and dramatic as they could. And I remember thinking, you have to be really extraordinary to engage somebody in such a short period of time, but if you can make them smile or laugh, they’ll remember you. My father was the funniest man, and I never thought I’d be able to find someone who made me laugh as hard, but my husband does. It’s the secret of a long marriage.

How did you meet your husband?
I was in Light Up the Sky at Arena Stage, and we were in rehearsal. They brought a batch of people through who were going to be understudying us. My first professional job had been as an understudy, and I remembered what it felt like—the cast is so tight and you want to be involved, but it’s an awkward place to be. You’re required to know how to play a particular role whether you’ve had a rehearsal or not.

I always want to make understudies feel welcome, so I was trying to make eye contact and smile at them all. For some reason, I couldn’t seem to get his eyes, and then I finally did and it felt like, where have you been all my life? We’d never met, even though a lot of the theater people I knew were people he knew.

That show happened right before I was cast for the first time in Shear Madness. We were married in 1989.

How has the Washington theater scene changed?
When I started, there were very few opportunities for actors. It was either Arena or Olney, and back then Olney only operated in the summer. Now Washington is a place where people come from elsewhere to do theater, whereas it used to be a place everyone left to go to Chicago or New York or LA.

There are some incredibly gifted people in this town, and a lot of them remain because they wanted the same things I did—a dog and a house and a yard. Years ago, you had to be really good to be cast in your hometown, because the assumption was that directors had to go to New York to get actors. It took them a lot of time to realize that anybody can move to New York and become an actor. You have to be good no matter where you are.

Would you recommend acting as a profession?
That’s a tough one. Only if there’s nothing else you love. I followed my bliss, but the reality is that even working steadily year-round, it isn’t enough. You have to do other things, and in my case those were being the mom and the chauffeur and the tutor, and those jobs don’t pay. That said, I’ve always felt very lucky, because I worked so much when I first started that I didn’t need another job. And rehearsing during the day and performing at night is what makes me feel the most alive, the most rich.

Is it hard to combine acting with having a family?
If you can surround yourself with a supportive family that’s excited about your venture and willing to support you in your moments of need, it’s worth it. But it’s a huge sacrifice. My schedule is killer, and it’s completely opposite to the schedule of my family. Sometimes you start to wonder: Why should this little whim of mine be indulged? It’s difficult.

Your hopes for the future?
I love the relationship I have with Shear Madness and that I can always come home again when I run away. Now that my children are older, I might run away a little farther—and hopefully come back.

Every actor always feels like there’s something more they can do, something out there yet to be written. Part of thinking forward like that is a way of keeping retirement out of the picture, because you have to stay active and keep your mind working. I don’t know any actors who have had the luxury of retiring, unless they’ve been soap-opera stars or movie actors. I guess we should all plan a little better.

What have you learned about life?
There are a lot of laughs and a lot of ups and downs and a lot of stuff that you just have to bounce back from. You learn to be on the balls of your feet, ready for anything, and to do it all with a smile.This article appears in the August 2011 issue of The Washingtonian. 

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  • Greg Jones

    I first saw Brigid Cleary playing Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woold at Prince George's Community Theatre. She was all of 20, I think. I was mesmerized. When I looked up in class at Catholic U and there she was, I thought, "if only I get to act with her!" I did, and I became an even bigger fan. When people ask me, "are some people just born actors?" I say, "no...except Brigid Cleary."

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