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Film

What it is really like to be in ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ shadow cast

@notmyyaztattoo

“It’s like, we’re too punk for the theatre kids, but we’re too much like theatre kids for the punks,” I remember saying this to one of my castmates as we tried to describe the unique conditions of shadow casting to a new recruit who was paying their stage crew dues. 

The Rocky Horror Picture Show actually began as a stage performance in London during the 1970s, before the film was even made, and its history as a cult classic is one that’s long and winding—and relatively well known at this point. After flopping at the box office so badly that it was pulled from theatres one weekend into its run, The Rocky Horror Picture Show found its last chance by replicating John Waters’ midnight runs at The Waverly Theater in New York City. 

The rest, as they say, is history. People began showing up as repeat viewers, the callbacks and callouts at the screen picked up gradually, and soon enough, casts of people would show up in costumes to “shadow” the movie onscreen. People sang along, threw things at the actors, and acted as rowdy as humanly possible.

Although you can find a chronicling of Rocky Horror’s history pretty much anywhere at this point, it is important to know that from the 1970s up until the 1990s and 2000s, the casting and formation of the casts, in general, was a gradual and casual process, much like the development of said rowdiness. People would be cast into roles simply by having the right friends and showing up. There were no understudies; if somebody got sick or was a no-show, they’d send a newbie in their place and throw you to the wolves.

But I promised a picture of what it’s really like to actually be in the cast, and my frame of reference is in the 2010s. For three years at university, I performed with two different RHPS casts. I donned my red lipstick, sparkly jacket, and tap shoes, and stepped into the role of Columbia roughly once a month (and much more often during Halloween season). It was a blast, and that’s obviously why I kept doing it for so long, especially considering that, on the whole, it’s an entirely unproductive pastime with no discernable transferable skills. We’re not really singing, or even speaking and acting. We mimed things in front of a screen. So, why?

Well, it offered fun and community. I stand by what I said to my castmate that day while we did our outrageous makeup in the theatre bathroom. Rocky Horror is punk, it’s queer, it’s welcoming, and it’s joyful. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a relic of a counterculture, but the nature of it demands structure and dedication. We didn’t run on “punk time” because the theatre employees rolled the movie at midnight every time without fail. If you wanted to be in the cast, you had to make your costumes, you had to learn the steps, learn the callouts. It took a lot out of you. Sure, it was alternative, but you had to be willing to put in the extroverted elbow grease—you needed a flair for the theatrical. This made for a highly specific and eclectic group of people.

The thing about doing RHPS by the late-2010s was that with the rise of its cult classic status, it’s become more popular than ever, especially among the younger generation. The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the live revival cast of the stage show no doubt contributed to this. As a result, I had to audition for my cast, which no doubt might have appalled some of the old heads who shadowed in the 1970s and ’80s. Our cast had what we referred to as “elders” who were essentially old-timers who hardly performed, but had been in the game since the ’90s and knew everything about putting on the show. 

As for the performers, I’d say we were a scrappier, slightly quieter version of your classic theatre kid crowd, but with a lot more cigarette breaks. People were best friends, partners, hookups, and everything in between in the cast. Our main Brad and Janet were dating in real life, and I knew a Frank-N-Furter whose mother had played Magenta in her time. Oh, and I also dated Rocky on and off for about a year.

The shows themselves were chaos but in the best possible way. I got to the point of knowing my part so well that I was able to have fun with it and interact with the callouts onstage, but I kept the dances spot-on every time. Since Columbia has the most costume changes out of any character in the show, I was basically always in a rush the moment I left the stage to tear off some article of clothing and put something else on immediately after. Since ‘Floorshow’ comes after ‘Toucha’, I always had to wear a corset and thigh highs underneath the only comfortable costume I had—the pyjamas. Such fun.

On the way out, we’d linger around the theatre, chat with the audience members who stuck around and help clean up. The high heels and feather boas would get stuffed into our giant costume bags again, and we’d usually head to some 24-hour diner for some late-night junk food after a job well done.

Even though Rocky Horror culture has changed with the times, it’s clear to me – as someone who wasn’t even born in the early days – that the most important parts have stood the test of time. And by that, of course, I mean the stilettos…obviously. 

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