It all began in the summer of 1976 with a production of I Do, I Do at the Lake George Dinner Theatre in Upstate New York. Bruce Jordan, a former high school teacher, was directing the summer stock production. Marilyn Abrams, also a former school teacher whose first love was performing, was acting in the musical. Jordan and Abrams worked well together and quickly became friends. They discovered that they shared a similar sense of humor as well as the same favorite play (Noel Coward's Private Lives). Of course, as actors in constant pursuit of work, they also shared a similar life style. When production of I Do, I Do ended, their friendship continued.
Later that year, Jordan was working at a theatre in Rochester, New York when he came across a play entitled Scherenschnitt, which had been written in 1963 by German writer and psychologist Paul Portner. The playwright had written the script to use as a study of how people perceive or misperceive reality. The brief play was set in a unisex hair salon and revolved around the off-stage murder of a concert pianist. Subjects were asked to solve the murder based on their individual perceptions of the events and the six stereotypical characters surrounding the murder.
Jordan was intrigued by the concept of the script and suggested that he and Abrams stage the play together in Lake George. Abrams read Portner's original script, which she describes as "primitive" and says that if she hadn't known and trusted Jordan as she did, she "would have run for the hills" at the prospect of revising and staging a production of such a work. She did trust him though and they opened the newly titled Shear Madness in Lake George in 1978 with nothing more than a basic outline of a script.
The first year that Shear Madness played in Lake George it was truly a work in progress with the majority of the show improvised each night. As an ensemble, the cast maintained the action and the characterizations that received a good response from the audience night after night. They also incorporated the actual audience responses into the play. Jordan says that he continues to instruct the actors to "let the audience win." He explains, "if the audience has something funnier to say or do than the actors, let them. That is the basic magic of the play."
Soon Shear Madness developed into a show that changed every time it was performed. The actors followed a basic format and changed the specific lines along the way. Now, decades later, Shear Madness incorporates not only the contributions of the audience, but also frequent references to the latest media scandals and local news items.
Jordan recalls, "It occurred to me when we started actually performing the play that it would work well as a comedy. Early on, most of the laughs in Shear Madness were attained during the times when the audience was actively involved in solving the crimes. And the laughs were derived from the wild and conflicting misperceptions that the audience had."
Thus Portner's serious psychodrama became an interactive comedy whodunit. The show evolved, in the presence of an audience, into a raucous comedy that let the audience into the act. When they first opened the show, Jordan and Abrams were in the lead as well as at the helm of the production. Because they were on stage each night, Abrams says they experienced the "magical" chemistry between the actors and the audience. They were acutely aware of the audience's response to Shear Madness. Jordan and Abrams then purchased the world, stage, screen, and television rights to the play. Cranberry Productions (as in, they are quick to explain, "What else goes with a turkey") was created to nurture the hit that they knew they had cultivated. With complete financial and artistic control over the show, they now had an enormous project on their hands. Receiving rave reviews and frequent suggestions from tourists from the Boston area, they decided that Shear Madness may work well in Boston. After more than two years honing the comedy, Jordan and Abrams moved their show to Boston. They scheduled a brief run at the historic Charles Playhouse in Boston's Theatre District to begin January 29, 1980.
The rest, as they say, is history.