Some Washingtonians steer clear of anything that might peg them as visitors—Segway tours, Madame Tussauds—but it’s hard to find a local who hasn’t seen the tourist magnet Shear Madness. The comic murder mystery set in a Georgetown hair salon opened at the Kennedy Center 24 years ago and has run for more than 10,000 performances, several thousand of which have featured actress Brigid Cleary.
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
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.