Rocky Horror invades NCC: Notes from inside the Time Warp
Oct. 23rd, 11:35pm
When I arrive at Northampton Community College’s 350-seat Lipkin Theatre there’s a line that stretches out of the second floor lobby, down the steps, and into the bright lights of the hallway. I notice Director Bill Mutimer surveying the crowd. He appears pleased. When asked if he is nervous, he replies in the negative and laughs at the thought with an air of excitement.
This is the NCC Theatre department’s third showing of The Rocky Horror Show, so by now Mutimer knows what to expect. The only difference is this show is a midnight performance, following the tradition of Rocky’s midnight movie screenings. So while my ticket says Oct. 23rd— also humorously accrediting authorship to William Shakespeare—the cast will go on stage very early on Oct. 24th.
The original musical-comedy play, produced in the early 1970s, was a satire of science-fiction and B-horror movies, but the film released in Aug. 1975 was itself a B-movie. The play is called The Rocky Horror Show, and the film is titled The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The NCC performance will do its best to recreate both, though this performance may rely more on the film adaptation; especially the audience participation aspect of the experience.
The theater department is selling “prop kits” in the lobby for $3. A printed adhesive on the side of the bag offers instructions, and includes items such as a glow stick, playing cards, and confetti. This is to encourage audience participation, though at this time I am unsure of how it would come into play. I’ve never attended an actual showing.
On the way to the bathroom I run into a zombie with scraggly hair, pale completion, wearing a black suit coat. His appearance is jarring, but I realize as he passes that the man is dressed as the character Riff Raff.
My friend and I enter the 3/4 stadium seating of the Lipkin Theatre and find a seat in the back row. The crowd is already boisterous, lacking the reserved dignity of the usual theater goer. The show was timed to be the final event of NCC’s Halloween Festival and the turnout is huge. Tickets have sold out, and people are already being turned away at the door.
A man in the front row disrobes, revealing golden underwear. The ovation is deafening. “Is he playing Rocky,” I hear someone ask. This is the second time heard someone say that about an audience member. Anxious security guards stand at the top of each aisle exchange nervous glances.
At the stroke of midnight, Bill Mutimer walks out on stage. The crowd erupts, but he motions for silence. He needs the audience to squeeze into the center and fill any empty seats to accommodate for latecomers before the performance can begin. Somehow his second appearance 15 minutes later onstage elicits an even louder response.
“How many of you are Rocky Horror Virgins?” Mutimer asks. 1/3 of the audience raises their hand, and he asks them to stand. I justify remaining seated with the façade of professionalism. The true spirit of Mutimer’s question was to gauge how much of the audience has seen Rocky Horror in theaters at a midnight movie showing—a question of preparedness for the intense cultural experience that’s about to unfold. As the night continues, it becomes clear that far less than 2/3 are at the level of Rocky Horror commitment to have memorized all of the call-and-response lines.
The lights go down, the video screens at the top of the left and right walls flicker images, and we are transported to another world. Tracy Ceschin appears as the Usherette to sing the opening song “Science Fiction Double Feature.”
The minute Brenna Norlander walks out on stage as the character Janet, accompanied by the Tyler Fernandez as Brad, the crowd participation begins. Rice flies everywhere as people dig into their kit bags. A poor latecomer descends the aisle with a look of bewilderment as he fruitlessly attempts to find a seat amid the chaos, rice raining upon him from a packed house. He heads back up the stairs, defeated.
A redheaded woman sitting in front of me screams, “Slut,” at Janet, and “Ass—-” at Brad, lines from an audience script not offered in the lobby. The crowd is restless, but not from boredom . These people are fully engaged and in the moment, eagerly waiting for a character’s pause for breath for an opportunity to verbally pounce.
With a sly grin, my companion turns and informs me, “It’s about to rain.” She produces a newspaper, holding it over her head as if about to dart to her car during a storm, and I share the cover. I feel the water from hundreds of squirt guns being shot in the air. The audience buzzes in response.
“She’s already wet,” the redhead screams after one of Brad’s lines, in reference to Janet. The glow sticks appear soon after and the college students in attendance murmur with excitement.
Then, the famed Time Warp: everyone leaves their seats and begin dancing with the ensemble on stage. I struggle to follow along, and to be honest, felt a little silly. To say, “The theater was a zoo,” would be too couth an understatement to describe the wild atmosphere.
The narrative of this show is ridiculous. It seems like it was written by a group of teenage boys harboring a pubescent obsession with mammary glands, a vague understanding of story, and characters whose motivations are difficult to understand. It is as if the creator had some fun ideas, added in rock-inspired songs, and settled for a mix of amusing and campy. It feels nonsensical, outlandish, and sexually charged— and yet the audience participation might be ten times as crude. This is the great Rocky Horror? Other than spectacle, where is the substance? What is the point?
Oct. 20th, 6:25 p.m.
“Would it be okay if you just didn’t shoot me in my underwear?” Brenna Norlander, a 20-year-old, 2nd year Theatre major, asks our photographer. Norlander is sitting less than a foot away from me in Lipkin Theatre’s upper lobby in her underwear, because for a good portion of the play she is wearing… only her underwear.
“You know what, it doesn’t matter. Shoot whatever you want.” The actress who plays Janet Weiss in Rocky Horror appears near-apologetic, but she also appears in her underwear in front of hundreds of people over the course of five shows so her unabashed nature is not surprising.
Norlander started at NCC as a Communications major. “For the longest time my favorite show was actually Grease,” she says. I agreed, and we start discussing how the characters are depicted in the time period. Norlander expanded, “If you really think about it maybe the morals aren’t so great.”
This could easily be applied to Rocky Horror as well. Film critic Rodger Ebert wrote, “Inside the theater, the fans put on a better show than anything on the screen,” which is harsh, but the conversation exists. However, I did wonder about the criticisms of the sexually driven nature of the show and how it would be received on a college campus, regardless of the campy tone.
Norlander does have a fan in the director’s chair.
“She’s really good in this part,” Director Bill Mutimer told me, “because the thing about Janet is she has to go from knowing nothing to being that 1950s beauty who—they aren’t going to put out until marriage—all of that [stereotype], to now, she gets touched by these people and becomes almost like a nymphomaniac. And it’s not so much about being what we would consider a ‘slut,’ or ‘easy,’ it’s that freedom to express yourself sexually and not be judged for it.”
While Norlander is a veteran of the NCC stage (Rent, Macbeth, Avenue Q, Les Liaisons Dangereuses), and verbalizes her trust in Mutimer’s direction, she explains how many of the theater students who preceded her have graduated. Part of the challenge is finding comfort with the new crowd while, well, only wearing underwear.
“This is a very physical show, and there’s a lot of physical contact going on. So having to get to know a group of people while incorporating all the physicality that goes into the show was definitely a little bit of a challenge. But it’s been a really fun journey, just getting to know people,” said Norlander. She is quick to explain, perhaps used to answering this question by now. “Everything is choreographed, so no one ever oversteps boundaries. This has been a really respectful cast.”
When asked how she relates to her character, Janet, Norlander seems to be caught off-guard for the first time since she sat down. The actress sighs, smiling as she stares off in thought. “Janet reminds me of a much younger Brenna. Just very innocent, and also a little bit prude. She’s not very sexual at first. She’s very conservative. And she’s just like, ‘Oh, this is really inappropriate. We should not be doing these things.’”
Here, Norlander’s confidence and charisma returns. “And then, as the show goes on, she opens up a little bit more to the ideas that are going on around her. She becomes an active participant, and she’s like a whole other person by the time the show is ending. And, in a way, I kind of went through a similar kind of thing; the older I got, the more worldly I got… you change as a person, and you grow. That’s probably how I relate to her the most: The change that she goes through is the change that I went through as well.”
Norlander’s personality is magnetic, evident in her casual mode of speech, and the way she handles the interview. It is rude to question authenticity, and yet Norlander feels polished at times while appearing raw and spontaneous. Performance seems an innate part of her genetic design.
“You know how people go through stages? Like when you’re 3 you want to be a race car driver, and then when you’re 10 you want to be a doctor. For me, it was always the same answer: ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’ I want to be an actress. I want to be a performer.”
Acting, as with any of the arts, is a difficult life path to follow, and many realists would be inclined to scoff at such an endeavor. But Norlander possesses a passionate confidence in herself and her craft which would cause the most jaded cynic to feel doubt in a quick dismissal. Norlander already has goals to further gag such naysayers.
“Hopefully next semester I will be graduating from NCC’s Theatre program, and the goal is to transfer to NYU next fall and continue and get a Bachelor’s degree in Musical Theatre. However, if I don’t get into NYU I am looking at other options. But, I know that by this time next year I want to be in New York City, whether it’s going to school and continuing education, or just auditioning for shows and working on the side as a server, or a secretary, or whatever job I have—just until I can continue doing what I love to do.”
Despite sitting in a theater lobby in her underwear, Norlander owns the moment. She possesses the perfect mix to play Janet in Rocky Horror.
Oct. 20th, 6:55 p.m.
I have requested to speak to Teague Fernandez three times during the hour I have spent at dress rehearsal, and I fear I may not have a chance to sit with the man who plays Frank-N-Furter. He has been elusive thus far.
The six-piece band warms up from the top of a wooden platform built into the left edge of the theater just for Rocky Horror. They range from loud to thunderous, especially when all six play at once. The cast mills about the stage, attempting to chat in shouts, battling with the music while loosening up for the upcoming practice. It is past seven and the rehearsal hasn’t started yet.
There is a distinct Steampunk inflection to the costuming of this Rocky iteration, the envisioned concept of Mutimer and longtime Costume Designer D. Polly Kendrick. One of the actors, wearing a form-fitting, three-piece suit in lieu with the Victorian steampunk look, is practicing flips: a round off back-handspring back-tuck, to be exact, usually native to gymnastic competitions. An actress, clad in leather and a cap, tap dances, drops to a squat, and pops up. It is an act that appears half for show, half for the show.
15 minutes later, the actress performs some of the same moves during the opening of the show. The actor lands his handspring back tuck for the opening sequence, and Tracy Ceschin belts out the opening number with the ensemble.
Brenna Norlander has transformed from the woman being interviewed in her underwear to the naive Janet, portrayed just as Brenna had described. She lives to sing, displaying a “stage smile” and shake of the head which only appears natural when done by musical theatre performers. She dances about projecting her voice with pure joy that has the authenticity of a child winning a contest to be on Broadway— even if this is the 2000th time she has sang the song.
The set designer deserves applause, though he or she will not get a single clap from the empty seats. An impressive two-story high castle has been installed, and stairs wrap around the left side of the stage, curling up past a platform where the narrator character sits. At the top of the stairs a walkway expands above the castle gates to the other side: the bridge where a self-described “sweet transvestite” will enter. When Frank-N-Furter makes his first appearance upon the walkway, I know I have again lost my chance at speaking with Teague Fernandez.
“You’re looking at my ass, aren’t you,” Fernandez says as Frank, and I realize the line is directed more at the audience than Janet or Brad. It feels odd without a crowd, but practice makes perfect.
Production holds for a lighting issue right after the line is delivered, killing the momentum Fernandez has built. I am told he is in character most of the time, and I wonder if that is why we did not sit for an interview. In fairness, he has 48 hours until the show opens and is probably the person Mutimer does the most work with. During the short delay, Fernandez journeys into the seating to confer with his director.
The lighting issue fixed, a pacing Fernandez reverts into the sassy, charismatic Furter again. Hopefully things will run smoothly Friday at midnight. Mutimer verbally notes everything, from the smallest hiccup to glaring issues. At one point, he shouts directions to his elevated narrator.
“They’re going to be clapping,” he yells, reminding his actor to pause or slow down. Mutimer tries again, but the actor continues with his lines. He cannot hear over the music, which can be felt pulsating in one’s eardrums. Mutimer does not mind letting it go, knowing they will adjust. Often during dress rehearsal he spends time mimicking the expected audience reaction from his seat, then makes comments to a woman seated next to him: this actor is ahead of a line, this person needs to move to the left.
“We’re going to have to Velcro his whole shirt so they can rip it,” I overhear Mutimer discussing about the Brad character’s wardrobe being stripped from him. “Because he wouldn’t undress himself at all.”
In a show with dancing, singing, and acting there are many moving parts to an ensemble cast, often onstage at the same time, and Mutimer is in charge of it all. It is much to handle, even with the production staff assisting him. That may be one of the reasons Tracy Ceschin was cast in the show.
Oct. 20, 6:35 p.m.
“Is this your first show?”
“I guess I should start by asking you how old you are,” I say.
“Oh, I’d rather not answer that,” she says, followed by a heavy laugh that projects like her strong singing voice.
“Oh,” I say, realizing my error, “are you not a traditional student?”
“I’m not a student at all.”
This is how I learned Bill Mutimer had brought in a “ringer.” In fairness, Ceschin was in full costume—hat, wig, and bulky Usherette outfit.
Tracy Ceschin is a veteran actress of the theater. She has been in the business for over 35 years, working primarily in the Lehigh Valley and also New York. She tells me her most memorable role was playing Mama Rose in Gypsy at Civic Theatre in 2012. She has also acted in Rent, Full Monte, and Nunsense.
She’s one of only two non-students in the cast, along with Danny Abruzzi. Abruzzi is not far past “traditional student” status, whereas Ceschin is a known figure in the Lehigh Valley theater community. “I think their thing was just to bring someone in [from] the business,” Chesin says.
Mutimer expounds further, “They get to see what it’s going to be like in the real world. What is expected of people, and how they come into rehearsal ready to go.”
Ceschin also mentioned the range it takes to hit some of the notes while signing in her Rocky role as Usherette/Belasco Girl (Trixie), the opening and closing numbers. Having watched her in rehearsal, it is difficult to imagine many young actresses would possess a vocal register trained well enough to reach such heights. She also plays the character Magenta, a role commonly fulfilled by the same actress portraying Usherette.
Ceschin brings much to the cast as her primary role of Magenta. “I think the biggest thing is coming into rehearsals, I’m always full voice. Always being focused. Also, learning from each other. They keep me young,” she smiles, “a little bit.”
“Are they intimidated by you?”
“No. not at all. Not at all. No.”
Her old friend Mutimer supports this claim, though the two are so professional it is easy to imagine if a young actor/actress shrunk in the moment and broke into tears after playing opposite Ceschin for an afternoon, neither would “sell them out” in public.
“No,” Mutimer confirms. “[Maybe] when they first heard her voice, because it’s so strong, but she’s very personable and approachable, and I think that now it’s just like they all just do it together. They make mistakes. She makes mistakes. So they also see it’s okay to make mistakes in rehearsal. That’s what rehearsal is for. Whereas before they were like, ‘I don’t want to do anything wrong,’ so they don’t do anything.” The cast seems like a playoff-ready sports team, with Mutimer as their coach and Ceschin filling the role of experienced role player.
“The whole entire cast is just focused, committed. They’re having fun.” This seems to please Ceschin, though one gets the sense that she’s seasoned enough to give a cast member, or Mutimer, detailed notes on everyone from Frank-N-Furter to Guy # 2. Her professionalism outweighs her need to single anyone out, whether positive or negative. “They’re learning, and that’s the biggest thing.” It is a definitive statement, and one she probably has more of a hand in than she realizes, or is willing to admit.
“I believe this is also something to do with what Bill teaches. So you can see during the rehearsal process— it’s almost like a lesson every rehearsal, like a class,” she says of how Mutimer directs the cast.
Director Bill Mutimer, an Assistant Professor in the Communications/Theatre Departments, is in his 7th year at NCC. However, in regards to theater in general, he’s been involved for 45 years. At NCC alone, Mutimer has directed the musicals Rent and Avenue Q, and the plays Angels in America, Fortinbras, and Macbeth. In February he will direct Honky, a show about race relations, also for NCC.
Mutimer thinks outside of the box to get what he can out of his casts. Geoff Gehman, on NCC’s own website, once did an article on Mutimer that stated, “Mutimer draws heavily on engaging, expanding exercises. He personalized a production of “Angels in America” by telling stories about witnessing the AIDS crisis in ’80s New York City. He uses yard-sale items— an Abominable Snowman figure, a gun that shoots Nerf balls-to make improvisations easier and harder.”
For this show, Mutimer tells me he has brought in friends or acquaintances on random nights to sit in the audience and scream things out during rehearsal. It is the only way to prepare for the midnight performance’s audience participation.
“We’re hoping they do it through the whole thing,” he says of the audience. “We’re selling bags, we have it laid out if you don’t know— what to throw when, and what to look for— so that people start to see it and they start to have fun with it.” Rocky Horror has a long history of audience interactivity, though that interaction is usually limited to the movie screens and not a live cast.
Sal Piro, President of the Rocky Horror Picture Show Fan Club, has written two books on the subject of Rocky Horror and its fan participation. He goes into great personal detail about the chronology of how the fan base was built in New York City after the original theatrical release of the 1975 film flopped. By chance, a low level 20th Century FOX executive convinced the company to re-release the film 6 months later as a midnight movie at the Waverly Theatre in the spring of 1976.
He talks about the small group of people who started coming to see it weekly, becoming regulars who sat in the front row of the balcony. “Two young ladies named Amy and Theresa; Bill O’Brien, the first person to dress as Dr. Frank-N-Furter; Lori Davis, who wrote the Ten Commandments of Rocky Horror; and Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island.”
Farese was the first one to yell at the screen, and that wasn’t until early December of ’76. He called it “counterpoint dialogue.” One of his earliest lines was, “Buy an umbrella, you cheap b—h!” This was directed at Janet as she walked in the rain.
They had a Halloween party, and people dressed as the characters. A sense of community began to develop. They met at the theatre, but they interacted beyond it. Piro goes on to talk about the invention and spread of lines:
“I not only invented lines; if I heard someone else’s line and liked it, I kept it alive by integrating it with the rest of the litany. This is how the show ‘went public,’ people inventing lines and using the lines of others. An individual would yell a line; others would pick it up; then a whole group and eventually the entire audience would shout out the line together.”
What he’s talking about is not a vulgar shout from a random vagrant who ruins the experience. This is the invention, and consequent spreading, of shared language.
Alan and Ed Bordenka were responsible, according to Piro, for taking this language and spreading it to other theaters in the New York area. He mentions arguments that would ensue when he ran into devotees from other theatres claiming audience lines originated from their groups, not Waverly. It may sound geeky, but he is talking about ownership: pride in co-created agency. This is how Hip-Hop grew in the same city, this is how culture works.
He writes “Lori Davis was the first to throw playing cards during the song, ‘I’m Going Home,’ while Frank is singing ‘cards for sorrow, cards for pain.’” A man named Alan Riis, who sat in the orchestra section instead of the balcony, week after week would put a newspaper over his head, mirroring Janet’s character in the rain. He was mocked by the Waverly faithful, but Piro reports in 18 months at least 1/3 of the audience was doing it. Today it is standard.
These people weren’t just watching a satirical flick, they were building community with locations. Waverly represented Waverly, a pride to their creations and ownership to their ideas as it spread across the country. But inside the theater, it subdivided into balcony and orchestra, as communities usually do in some form. To me, those are just playing cards and old newspapers. To them, those are cultural artifacts.
He names Dori Hartley as the young lady who cemented costumes. “At her thirteenth viewing, she appeared wearing make-up identical to Frank’s and a cape like his that she made herself. Outside, the crowd waiting in line applauded her. She was encouraged by the response, and worked constantly to improve her costume and make-up. It was Dori who re-introduced special clothing for the film and it was here to stay.”
There is love and adoration there. Not just from those in the late ‘70s who encouraged her, but from Piro’s writing, years later. These were special people to him, and probably to each other. That’s the goal of community building and the resulting culture: a connection.
If you take a look around the internet, there were similar things happening in places like San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Austin, Texas. In a few years there would be conventions to connect more people, and the internet has now globalized the fan base.
So when I circle back to Bill Mutimer, the context added, the passion with which he speaks about this show makes more sense.
“Have a good time,” he says of the expected audience, “Let yourself experience it. It’s one of those theatre pieces [similar to when] you go to the movies now and people are talking and yelling things at the screen, or at the football game. Now you can do that at a play that allows you to be participatory, and actually asks you to be participatory.”
Mutimer chose Rocky Horror for its positive underlying theme. “Because I like the message that it has, which is ‘Don’t dream it, be it,’ that [Frank N Furter] is always telling people about. Don’t dream about it, be what you want to be, be what you think you can be. I like that message. Especially here [at NCC], you know? You can be anything you want. Go for it.”
One of the biggest difficulties Mutimer and the production team struggled with was “the sexuality of the piece, in that today’s sexuality is not the sexuality of this piece. It’s not about being slutty. They’re not overt. It’s about expressing your sexuality. It’s okay—gay, straight, you know, experimenting; whatever works for you, allowing that to come out. We see it [modern day] as, ‘Oh, this is sex. This is a sex joke’ as opposed to burlesque, and the tease, which is what the play is really about. It’s about exploring and teasing, [but] it’s not a porno.”
Gehman’s article on Mutimer and the Theatre Department adequately summarizes one of Mutimer’s strengths as an educator: “One of the keys to good acting [Mutimer] likes to point out is opening the door to the imagination by shutting the door to cynicism.”
There is much to learn from a teacher like Bill Mutimer.
Oct. 24th, 1:23 a.m.
Somehow after the intermission the show has become more lewd, and the prop kit is yet to be exhausted: there are still the playing cards. The intermission and late hour have made the natives more restless, but also more connected to the show. Bigger song and dance numbers advance one by one, and the intense sexual content— titillating, but humorous in intent— has only increased. There are two sex scenes in the second half, as well as implied oral sex on both sexes by the main character, Frank N Furter.
Teague Fernandez possesses genuine poise. He struts about the stage with sass as he performs his numbers, licking the face of a patron seated in the front row during a moment of zeal. The crowd’s reaction is huge; someone tips him a dollar. My female companion shakes her head, and I ask what has disturbed her.
“Nothing,” she tells me, her face filled with awe as she follows Fernandez with her eyes. “You just have no idea how amazing what he’s doing in those heels is.” Fernandez is far more impressive here than in rehearsal, and he wasn’t bad then. The cast is seizing the moment, feeding off the crowd’s energy.
There are a noticeable amount of empty seats now. The theater-goers have either succumbed to the late hour, or several older viewers possessing no prior knowledge of Rocky Horror experienced intense textbook definition culture shock.
Mutimer’s direction has an adroit subtleness. I notice similar body movements throughout the night from the ensemble. These steampunks are known as Phantoms to Rocky Horror fans and readers of the program alike. None of them falter with the attention elsewhere. When a female Phantom puts her leg up on the third step of the staircase, buried in the large ensemble, I know it was premeditated. The detail put into the movement of each character stands out on repeat viewing; nuanced yet understated.
The redhead in front of me has not yet exhausted her copious supply of “slut” and “—hole” shouts. My personal favorite Brad follow-up occurrs after Brad swears that his car broke down: “—holes never lie!”
Remember the blaring band that dominated traveling sound at dress rehearsal? In a room filled with people, the cast “coming with full voice,” as Tracy Ceschin would say, you barely noticed the band.
I don’t know that I’ll ever understand Rocky Horror as a narrative, but I enjoy the spectacle of it. Perhaps that’s the point.
The Janet’s sexual awakening has already occurred, and presently Brenna Norlander stands bent over the steps of the staircase, Rocky behind her thrusting at air in a suggestive manner. The crowd hoots, giggles, claps.
Oct. 20th, 6:10pm
During the suggestive thrusts, all I could think about were Matt Hogan’s dance moves.
Hogan, an actor who went to Lehigh Valley Charter High School for the Performing Arts in Bethlehem, is polite and patient while the photographer struggles to find lighting which will not give the illusion of nudity. He understands, as he is in nothing but golden spandex shorts.
What’s more interesting is that this is Hogan’s first semester on campus and he jumped at the chance to wear tight golden underwear.
“In the audition they asked, ‘Are you interested in a particular character?’ And I just wrote, ‘all,’ because I just want to be involved.” Rocky, the creation of Dr. Frank N Furter, was the role Hogan received.
“I love acting, and I didn’t want to hold back for any personal insecurity. It’s not easy, and there have been moments where I’ve been a bit hesitant, but I think taking this chance and this opportunity to try something new has been a good experience and a building experience.”
Hogan has a decent amount of pressure on him, not only because he needs to perform a larger role in his first show, but because of the intrigue the show has generated on campus among students usually are not interested in theater events. There will be many eyes on the nearly naked Hogan. Regardless, Bill Mutimer is pleased with his progress.
“He’s doing a great job,” Mutimer says. “He’s really open to direction. He’s interested. He plays with the part, which is good, because the thing about Rocky is he’s just [been] born. He can have no knowledge. He’s totally innocent. Well, we aren’t innocent anymore because we’ve lived however many years of our life already. So we’ve gone through it, in a sense. Santa is no more. The Bunny has been taken away. All these things. And so, you have to go back to that ‘I don’t know anything,” you know, and that’s a challenge. But he’s doing really well at getting to that wide-eyed, innocence.”
Like Norlander and her character Janet, Hogan found a way to relate to playing a newborn man, but in a different way. “It’s tough. It’s been a challenge for me. Rocky is very confident. Very sure of himself and his appearance. I think I relate mostly to his pessimistic view. His ‘woe is me, my life is a misery’ from Sword of Damocles,” a song which Hogan sings in the show. “But just like him I’m totally full of it and my life is fine.”
There is one concern on Hogan’s mind: “I really had to work at choreography. This is the first musical I’m working in where I actually dance on stage.” Norlander agrees the dances are difficult, and offers, “Some of the dances are a little more on the physically demanding side. There’s a lot all at once. I can definitely see that as being something that is challenging.”
Norlander has had a decent amount of experience on stage, but the cast’s opinion is second to Mutimer’s thoughts. “Yeah, he’s doing really well. He works really hard at it. Every day he gets better and better. So it’s exciting.” Mutimer has a realistic view. “We’re not a professional company. We’re a college teaching students to do this. So we strive for perfection, knowing that growth is what we’re ultimately looking for. Did they grow from when they started to where they are? Because that’s what school is ultimately about—being able to grow, being able to be the best at producing what you can. It’s more about the journey.”
Hogan seems to be doing well in rehearsal relative to his dancing experience. He stands in the center of the ensemble as the practice run progresses. In 48 hours he will get his first test in front of a live audience, but two shows Friday will test everyone’s nerves, physical endurance, and mental fortitude. Dress rehearsal is an audience of almost no one, but Friday, 3 days from now, there will be hundreds watching each performance.
Oct. 24th, 1:50 a.m.
The dance moves Matt Hogan was concerned with should elicit few worries. Clad in tight gold underwear, glitter coated chest, and bedazzled gold boots, Hogan is nailing the dances— and appears to be having the time of his life preforming.
Something that sticks by the final scenes are nods to not only homosexuality, but all forms of sexuality, as well as a lack of sexual shaming: an ideology well ahead of its time considering when it was first written.
The original play, penned by the unemployed actor Richard O’Brien, was inspired by the writer’s childhood love of science fiction and B-horror movies, backed by a rock and roll soundtrack. It was not intended to have the weight of a mainstream drama or the centrist-humor of a Hollywood comedy. It was a genre-bender complete with a gender-bending plot.
People like Bill Mutimer admire it because of thematic elements they see regarding sexuality, namely in regard to repression, and the decision to move towards ultimate self-expression. Lines that have the ensemble yelling “slut,” “—hole,” and variations such as “castles don’t have phones, —hole” can be jarring if a spectator is unprepared. In addition, there is the omnipresent sexually-charged atmosphere. This is crude and brazen to the uninitiated, but that’s because it is not from modern, politically correct culture. Despite the recent 40th anniversary of the film’s release, we are still not at a point where Rocky Horror is a mainstream show.
By the last scenes people are yelling out anything. Not just typical Rocky Horror audience scripting, but anything. The show ends with an encore performance of The Time Warp, and the buzz travels through the lobby into the parking lot. It is after 2 a.m. when I find Mutimer chatting with a mutual friend. I congratulate him and ask if I am correct in my assessment of rouge audience participation.
“We had a lot of younger people who were unfamiliar with the Rocky experience, and I think they heard fans of the show yelling out at parts and by the end they just wanted to be involved.”
I mention how students did not seem bored, but engaged and attempting to participate.
He gives a hearty, but tired “Yes!”
Sal Piro dedicates an entire section of his book Creatures of the Night to the friendships he formed at the Waverly Theater in 1977, and the silly scrapes and disagreements that audience members of this “scene” were involved with. From a superficial perspective it sounds outrageous for grown adults to argue about things such as when people should shout vulgarities at the screen, what the agreed derisive line to hurl at Janet should be, or a battle of wills between cliques of audience members in the orchestra pit and the balcony section. It is absurd— but only on the surface.
This is culture, community, and ownership. It is theirs. Every community possesses a shared language. That is why a person is able to read the carefully rendered ink blots printed on this page. Every society has customs, and every culture has agreed upon tenets that are modified from generation to generation over different regions; New York City pizza is different from Chicago pizza.
The niche culture native to Rocky Horror fans that sprang up in the 1970s and evolved over time is no different. It is only seen as such because the culture is viewed through the prism of modern society as “low brow,” and misconstrued through that perception. This explains why I received reports of older adults—virgins in Rocky Horror parlance—leaving the Lipkin before the show was halfway over.
People do not want to be alone, and once they know they are not alone, they wish to communicate and share. The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, through the mediums of theatre, film, song, and dance is not communicating orgies, d–k jokes, or pornographic sex. It’s communicating self-expression, a comfort in one’s self, and acceptance in those around you. It may be doing this in a heavy-handed manner at times, but it is doing it. And it has spawned a culture where the disenfranchised can feel that comfort, enjoy that acceptance, and revel in that that self-expression.
When I asked Mutimer for a final thought before the midnight performance of Rocky, he quoted Shakespeare and said, “All the world’s a stage,” that famed theatre expression. On several levels, he is correct. Mutimer and his troupe didn’t bring “vapid trash” to NCC, but artistic expression and community. Above all, Rocky Horror, while encompassing the thrill of acceptance and self-expression, is more than images on a screen or a theatrical production: it is an experience.
At intermission the redheaded woman in front of me stood up to stretch. A man scooted down my row, reached down, and touched her shoulder.
“Excuse me, Miss?” he said.
“I’ve been listening to you all night and…”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she began, most likely imagining her higher levels of participation had offended the man.
“No, no,” he reassured her, speaking with his hands and an approaching smile appearing. “I just want to thank you for making this amazing for me.”
All photos courtesy Devon Walker.