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Shear Genius

Playwright and actress Claudia Shear discusses the creation of her new Off-Broadway play Restoration.

Claudia Shear
(© Tristan Fuge)
As any playwright will tell you, inspiration comes in mysterious ways. For Claudia Shear, seeing a picture of Michelangelo's famed statue David as the screensaver of her travel agent and reading a newspaper article about the woman who was asked to clean him combined to spark the idea for the genial comedy Restoration, which is now making its New York premiere at New York Theatre Workshop.

As Shear -- who had previously penned the acclaimed solo piece Blown Sideways Through Life and the popular drama Dirty Blonde -- notes, there was one other important element: Her friend and former director, Christopher Ashley, had been appointed artistic director of the La Jolla Playhouse and called Shear to commission a new work for the theater (where Restoration eventually premiered).

She was soon off and running in creating the work, which focuses on Guilia (played by Shear), an irascible Italian-born yet New York-raised restorer who gets the chance of a lifetime when she's hired to get "David" back in shape for its big museum unveiling. "After Chris called, I did about six months of research at different libraries, like the Frick and the New York Public Library," says Shear. "And then I went to Florence and went to the restoration studio there, and I also interviewed people like a museum security guard and a local grandmother, who ended up as inspiration for characters in the play. I never thought of writing the play as a solo piece; in fact, I never really want to do another one again."

Ultimately, thanks in part to her daily dealings with a handsome museum security guard, Max (Jonathan Cake), a stressed-out public relations guru, Daphne (Tina Benko), and other Italians, Guilia changes -- as do the people she meets. "I really believe in the idea of change," she says. "I asked a friend recently why I'm always writing about redemption, and then I realized I'm living proof of it -- which you know if you've seen Blown Sideways Through Life. I think so many of us can relate to the idea of losing one's way and finding one's way back."

Jonathan Cake and Claudia Shear in Restoration
(© Joan Marcus)
However, Shear wasn't originally all that interested in playing Guilia, although the character and author-actress do appear to be quite similar in many ways. "That was Chris' decision; I actually asked if we could find someone else to play her," she notes. "I think there's a broad swath of actresses out there who could play her and who would understand her passion. Of course, it can't be anyone who is 25 and six feet tall and blonde or a 65-year-old. But i didn't write her with myself in mind; I wrote what was right for the play. And the funny thing is when we finally went into rehearsal, I actually had to memorize the lines."

Still, Shear had no problem with the fact that Guilia isn't the most likable person ever seen on a stage. "I don't see why she can't be damaged and irascible and unconfident," she notes. "So many male playwrights write male characters like that and no one has a problem with it. But what's more important to me is that she isn't completely transformed by the end of the play -- I don't think that's believable. But she certainly has undergone some personal growth."

The play has undergone a great deal of growth as well. Both Shear and Ashley admit numerous changes were made not just from the La Jolla production, but during the New York rehearsal process. "I did 32 separate drafts from February 3 until last week," she says. "There were changes and cuts I had to make that I didn't want to, but this is now the play and the production I really wanted. Who is luckier than me?"

As for audiences, she hopes they react emotionally to the work, as Restoration is a piece designed to touch the heart, not the head. "I am never someone who wants to make a big statement. I am always just an earnest person," she notes. "Yes, I would confess that I happily wear a joker's crown, but truthfully, I can't even buy a tomato without it feeling like it's a heartfelt experience."


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