Charleston Stage is letting the audience decide how the story unfolds for its newest endeavor, which also happens to be the first show performed at its new West Ashley venue, Pearl Theatre.
"Shear Madness," a murder mystery with multiple pathways throughout the storyline and a variety of endings based on those pathways, will kick off with a pay-what-you-please opening night on June 13 and continue through June 30.
To delve into the process of preparing for such a free-form endeavor, Charleston Scene conducted a Q&A with director Jesse Siak.
Q: What is it like conducting a play like this where the audience votes on different pathways and there could be a new ending every show? How do you prepare the actors for that?
A: The "Shear Madness" folks have been working to perfect a formula for over 40 years, and they send this work to us in the script. I also had to attend a few days of hands-on training in D.C. when we produced this show four seasons ago.
Apart from that, I feel like we're in the Boy or Girl Scouts, to be honest, being prepared. So, we rehearse every permutation of the show we can think of, and then some! Basically, we rehearse a four-to-five-hour show and then pick about two hours to perform. With practice and understanding of each character path, we can break it down and make it work with what the audience gives us.
Q: Can you break down how the audience choice aspect might work during a live performance?
A: The audience members choose what ending they want to see, yes, but it goes so much further than that. In the first third of the play, we set up the action, fully scripted, with no audience interaction. We then interrogate the suspects, which leads to our "Reconstruction." During the "Reconstruction," the actors retrace their steps, counting on the audience to shout out if anything is out of order or if they are missing any specific movements or interactions.
We hit intermission, and then the first half of Act 2 is a question-and-answer period where individual audience members ask direct questions to the actors, and the answers help us build more clues to help us confirm "whodunit."
The audience then votes on their prime suspect, and we will act out one of three potential endings. ... In thousands and thousands of performances, there have never been two identical performances of "Shear Madness," and I think that's pretty amazing.
Q: Why are murder mysteries so popular? What do you think people like about them?
A: I think it's exciting to be a part of a murder mystery knowing there are no particular consequences, but you still get the thrill of being a part of the action. It's like an interactive game of "Clue" that changes based off the audience. It's also exciting to know that if you come to the show again, the chances are it will be vastly different from time you saw it before.
Q: What is the new West Ashley Pearl Theatre space like compared to the Dock Street downtown?
A: Our brand new Pearl Theatre is much more intimate than the Dock Street stage. The audience is all closer to the actors, there aren't balcony sight-line issues, true stadium seating and I think it will be, overall, a much more immersive experience for all of our shows. Every seat in the house is a good one. And if you want to participate, you'll have plenty of opportunities. Also, there's plenty of parking in the complex, so you won't have to deal with parking garages or meters.