Showings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show have historically provided positively weird, wacky, and fun safe(r) spaces for queer and trans youth in particular. However, the show has slowly been exploited over the years, from mainstream appropriation in the popular TV show Glee to the Hollywood movie The Perks of Being a Wallflower, fans of the Rocky Horror experience wonder if Halloween showings are still radical spaces, safe enough to explore gender and sexuality freely.
For those who are haven’t seen a Rocky Horror production (known as “virgins” and, once quickly spotted, often emblazoned with sharpied Vs on their foreheads), the gist of the event is Richard O’Brien’s cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show playing on the big screen. Actors mime the dialogue and action on stage while audience members yell lines and throw some choice objects as they appear on screen.
Montreal has a history of lavish Halloween Ball showings, where theatre-goers in circus-like vaudevillian attire and blood-streaked lingerie throw toast and toilet paper at the stage, as per tradition at live showings. But has the Montreal community been able to sustain the original movie’s intention of providing a diving board for discourse on trans and queer activisms, or has annual repetition caused the show’s trans and queer positive spirit to wane?
Montreal has a history of lavish Halloween Ball showings, where theatre-goers in circus-like vaudevillian attire and blood-streaked lingerie throw toast and toilet paper at the stage, as per tradition at live showings.
The Daily sat down with the director of Montreal’s Rocky Horror Picture Show showing, Phil Spurrel, to find out how he meshes this year’s Halloween Ball version with the original film.
The McGill Daily (MD): Rocky Horror is a Montreal staple, and it’s easy for the actors to just mimic the movie plot on stage line by line as it happens in the movie. What’s different about this year?
Phil Spurrel (PS): Besides the fact that it’s the 40th anniversary [of the film], part of what we do with this Halloween Ball version is we have a lot of pre-show things going on – costume contests and other entertainment – and it’s going to feel like a 40th birthday party for Rocky Horror in this town. And of course, as per tradition, our host is Plastik Patrik, as he has been since 2001.
MD: It seems the show gets more popular every year. Do you think this year’s adaptation, and years’ prior, are swaying more toward entertainment, or are they staying closer to their roots as political activism for trans rights?
PS: No, I think it’s staying true to its roots. This being the 40th anniversary, we see a lot of big mainstream media corporations south of the border observing that and dragging out [the appropriation] by saying, “Oh, remember Susan Sarandon and Meatloaf?” but they don’t go into any depth with the political aspects behind it. But in Montreal, it’s more queer-friendly and more inclusive, [which is] partly to do with the city being particularly open minded compared to other cities, and the fact that a lot of the cast members identify as somewhere within the LGBT [spectrum].
As the producer, I want to provide quality entertainment with a good production value so people get their money’s worth – but there’s also the cast, [bringing] their own energy and ideas and all their creativity. And I don’t have much control over what they do; they do their thing and I’m happy with what they do. There’s a real energy behind the whole thing.
MD: You mentioned earlier that most of the cast identifies somewhere on the LGBT spectrum. Is that a requirement?
But in Montreal, it’s more queer-friendly and more inclusive, [which is] partly to do with the city being particularly open minded compared to other cities, and the fact that a lot of the cast members identify as somewhere within the LGBT [spectrum].
PS: It’s not a requirement, it’s just the way that it turns out. It’s interesting that whether it’s people who are sure about their sexuality at a certain age, or whether it’s somebody that’s uncertain and they see this fun group they want to be part of, their coming out happens gradually within the group or by attending the show and getting a closer look at themselves and being in an environment where they feel safe and free to express themselves however they like. The cast, it’s very open, and every orientation is welcome and everybody is just… it’s one big happy family.
MD: What was the most difficult or intensive part of production this year?
PS: [The cast is] always trying to perfect their Time Warp dance, and they do variations on it. You see a sexier, raunchier take [than in the film]. Speaking of choreography, one of the elements we tried out maybe six years ago – it was such a hit and I as the producer insisted that we keep doing it – was the Thriller mashup, where they take Michael Jackson’s Thriller choreography, but partway through the song it stops and another song invades it. We always make it a surprise; this year it’s based on a viral homemade Youtube video.
Also, over the last four years, we’ve gotten professional circus performers doing acrobatics and an aerialist coming down from the ceiling. It looks dangerous, but people seem to know what they’re doing. So I would say some of the more difficult parts go toward complex dance and stunt acrobatic choreography.
MD: Rocky Horror obviously has a lot of sexual content and mimicking of sex acts. Does that have roots for you in the film’s activism or is it more for shock value?
[The cast is] always trying to perfect their Time Warp dance, and they do variations on it. You see a sexier, raunchier take [than in the film].
PS: I think it’s more for fun. One of the more common questions we get asked by parents is, “Is this appropriate for children?” and I say, it depends on how open-minded you are as a parent, and how you convey that to your kids. I tell them that they’re better off attending the 8 o’clock instead of the 11 o’clock show, because [the show] tends to get a little raunchier as [the cast] gets loose a little more on stage, and the audience [as well].
MD: It seems like the cast members deliberately play with gender norms, as well.
PS: Oh yeah, [it’s] one of [the actor who plays Frankie’s] favourite things; if you go to her place, she also has this poster on her wall that says “Gender is flexible,” and she in her daily life tries to express [that] as much as possible.