Actresses tend to be described in physical terms: dazzling, luscious, flawless. Upon meeting Claudia Shear, currently starring as Mae West in the Pasadena Playhouse production of her play Dirty Blonde, the first adjective that might pop into one's head is "effectual." When our original meeting place, a hotel pub, turned out to be closed, I scouted out other areas, noting the pros and cons of each to have a clear list of options when Shear arrived. Before my explanation of the obvious was even out of my mouth, she led me rapidly into the large, quiet dining room, set in anticipation of the lunch rush, and, while I was explaining to the hostess why it would be such a huge help if we could use one of the tables, Shear simply pointed to a deuce in the corner and informed the hostess, "That one will be fine," as we sailed off to begin our interview. Did I mention she was from Brooklyn?
"I'm rarely intimidated," Shear freely admits. "There's very little I'm frightened of." There was a moment's hesitancy before she made a full confession: "Other than electricity and driving." Fortunately neither was intrinsic to the process of creating the one-woman show that initially brought her public acclaim, Blown Sideways Through Life, which played at the Coronet Theatre 10 years ago and was taped for the now-defunct American Playhouse series. The project, which she developed with director Christopher Ashley and New York Theatre Workshop's artistic director Jim Nicola ("The country's premiere theatre, if I do say so," Shear says with some pride), was initially daunting, as Shear makes no bones about the fact that, "My weakness is that I didn't spend any time studying writing. I've never been in a writing workshop, I've never done anything like that." Indeed, she recalls, when Nicola informed her that, no, he would not help her get an agent and that he expected her to write something instead, her dismay was palpable. "What are you talking about?" she asked him. "I was so angry. I had worked so hard for so many years and now I have to be a writer? I can't just be an actress? All I wanted to do was go to rehearsal with a cup of coffee. That's all I wanted." (Coffee at rehearsal is still something that brings Shear "tremendous joy … there's nothing I love more.") But what to write?
The seed had been planted, but six months passed before Shear sat down with a yellow legal pad and wrote across the top a quote from H.G. Wells' novel Tono-Bungay about a life disrupted, which concludes, "One gets hit by some unusual transverse force, one is jerked out of one's stratum, and one lives crosswise for the rest of the time." "That's me," says Shear, "blown sideways through life." Years before, a good friend informed the impecunious Shear during the holidays, "Don't give me a Christmas present. Give me list of every job you've ever had." Shear dutifully typed it up and gave to him. With little more than this, Shear went to Nicola and asked, "If I wrote this stuff down, based on this one sentence, would you give me a reading?" Nicola said, "Why wouldn't we?" "And that," summarizes Shear, "started the whole process."
Nicola kept her on track, reminding her that she was working on a play, not a collection of anecdotes, "Because, believe me, when I first wrote it, it was just my funny stories," she says. He made her keep at it until it had an arc, until it took the audience on a trip, constantly working toward the goal that, "This will be a play, and the other character is the audience." Fortunately, Shear's inexperience as a writer worked to her advantage in this instance. "I'm really quite willing to listen to what people tell me," she admits. "They say cut it, I cut it. I hear people who are probably far better writers than I am, they cry, they suffer when things get cut. I just go, eh, I've gotta write more."
When The New York Times review came out, Shear's life "went from zero to 60 overnight, basically." A self-described "completely unsuccessful" actor, she was suddenly someone who, when she attended the opening night of Passion, was startled by the flash of an Instamatic. "And I said, 'Hello?' and he said, 'Hi, I'm James Lapine,' and I said, 'You know who I am?' and he said, 'Yes, I saw your show.' And I though, 'Ohhhh,' and I sort of swept off into the room." She adds, "That was also the night I met Mr. Sondheim, so it was a big night."
While success brought its share of writing and acting work, Shear also did what everybody dreams of but few rarely manage; she moved to Paris. She always swore she was going to live in Paris and "be able to eat a goddam meal." She did that and more, recalling it as a "very cocktail-dress louche period. My friend Alice was single and living it up in Paris, and we would have these immense parties." It wasn't all play though. "I was actually writing the book to Blown Sideways Through Life," Shear is quick to point out, but her disarming honesty forces her to fess up, "…which is why the book is, I believe, not the quality I'd hoped to achieve. But then it was not the top thing on my mind. I had an apartment on the Île Saint-Louis. What can I say?"
Lapine was to enter her life again when he called to begin working on Dirty Blonde, but, again, the creative process took time. "It took a year to even meet with him because he was so busy, then I did a year or two of research, then we would meet, then we started writing, then we started workshopping it and reading and workshopping, because that's what you do." Of the experience of working with Lapine, Shear says, "I couldn't have been more respectful or grateful or inspired. I mean, can you imagine going into a room with James Lapine?" And how did she get around the intimidation factor of working with someone so eminent in the field? "Well," Shear says, "you're me."
After opening Off-Broadway, Dirty Blonde has since become one of the most produced plays in the country. It played San Diego's Globe Theatre with Kathy Najimy in the lead last year, but Shear particularly wanted to play Los Angeles. "L.A.'s the cherry," as she puts it. "I'm doing it here because I want to. I think it really fits here. It's about Mae, it's about Los Angeles and fame, it has some reverberative qualities here it doesn't have anywhere else. It's probably the only place you're going to run into people who knew Mae West." Shear emphasizes, however, that it's not in any way to be construed as an act of impersonation or simple appreciation. "We had a bigger picture in mind, which is why there's a love story, which is why it's not a biopic." When she encounters those people whose feelings about Mae West tend toward the proprietary, however, she says, "I salute them. [They] prove everything I'm writing."
Shear isn't nearly so territorial about her own work. With Dirty Blonde playing in so many places, Shear gleefully admits, "I've seen four or five people do it. I love it. It works for everybody. Everyone brings something different." Blown Sideways, however, was a different story. "I held it inviolate, which was a bit foolish and quixotic but I stand by it." It is now being performed by others, and though she has yet to see it, that's due more to a lack of opportunity than to a lack of interest.
Shear plans on taking Dirty Blonde to the West End, something she considers to be nothing less than "a life goal." As she says, "If you're an actor and you don't want to be on the West End, I don't know what kind of actor you are." In the meantime she's enjoying her Pasadena run immensely. She is lavish in her praise of her co-stars, referring to the Juilliard-trained Bob Stillman, whom local audiences will remember from his unforgettable performance in The Last Session, as "brilliant and irreplaceable. I can say no more than that." She also finds "the lovely and talented Tom Riis Farrell" to be in a class by himself. "He does imitations of people to the point where I roll on the floor," Shear says, chuckling. "Roll! Just drop and roll. Like it's a fire drill."
As heady as it all sounds, though, Shear considers herself, "Very, very, very … let me stress the word very … at the other end of the scale from star. I'm lucky I have wonderful agents. I'm lucky that if I write something people want to read it. I'm lucky that if I go onstage and hop around, some people will buy tickets to go see it. And it would be disingenuous of me to pretend that that isn't different from not being able to get an agent and still struggling. I'm not saying that I don't know the difference. I know the difference." BSW