The success behind Shear Madness, America’s longest running play, does not simply lie in its witty dialogue. Nor does it reside in the fact that we are all, to some extent, intrigued by a mystery and by the opportunity to test out our detective skills. Instead, the success lies largely in the play’s ability to capitalize on the American gene for innovation: the apparent aptitude and desire for all things new.
How did I come to this conclusion? Oddly enough, by seeing the play’s British counterpart, The Mouse Trap.
Agatha Christies’ classic ‘The Mouse Trap’ has been thrilling audiences in the UK since Queen Elizabeth II took to the throne and it has now surpassed its 23,000th performance. (Yes, it is the world’s longest running play.) Throughout the performance the audience is teased into quietly guessing who the murderer is, and while the mystery is revealed at the end, the audience makes a pledge to keep that knowledge a secret and hence, to preserve the decade-long convention of the play’s plot. While there are some modernized references sparingly inserted throughout the play, The Mouse Trap thrives on tradition and on delivering audiences a slightly cold slice of British culture.
This is quite the contrary to Shear Madness; a first generation American murder mystery with a German heritage. The ever-evolving Shear Madness was actually born out of an adaptation of a German play entitled ‘Scherenschnitt’ (scissor cuts), which is important because it demonstrates that new ideas can be, and often are, adaptations and syntheses of old ones. (I challenge you to think of a modern-day product that is not the result of evolution from an older relative.)
During the play, the cast encourages further ‘evolution’ through audience-driven innovation. The crowd shouts questions and answers (however ridiculous) at the actors who, in turn, improvise upon the given cues. The play embraces change and constantly reinvents itself by allowing its audience to vote and co-create the ending each time. The play’s characteristics of user-centered and generated content, (often found in many of today’s multimedia products), allow the audience to customize its entertainment experience. In the words of Bruce Jordan, the play’s producer, the cast must “let the audience win”. Thus, Shear Madness reflects a wider ideology about the customer’s evolving role into a prosumer and exemplifies and further perpetuates American beliefs about innovation.
The German heritage of the play is also noteworthy as an indication of today’s global scale of innovation. Through its American adaptation and abundant use of current, and often local, affairs references Shear Madness emerges as a culturally laden product. Moreover, the play taps into the American desire for novelty and engenders a new awareness of cultural relevance. By placing an emphasis on current and local affairs within the plot, Shear Madness emerges with a flexible template for a play, which can be successfully replicated in front of the growing members of the creative economy in the US and worldwide.
So what does the structure and success of Shear Madness tell us about the predominant American beliefs about innovation? Well, for starters, it tells us that innovation is valued. It also tells us that innovation is seen as a fluid, user-generated (bottom-up) concept, which happily feeds off previous ideas and places heavy emphasis on the ‘here and now’ factors. Finally, it tells us that innovation is global and, if done right, highly profitable.