by Aidan Swirsky
Almost every year around Halloween, it’s customary for University College to stage a shadow cast of the 1975 cult musical film “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. (If you don’t know, a shadow cast constitutes a group of actors lip synching and acting out a movie playing behind them, in this case the acting, producing and elaborate costume making being done by UC’s drama troupe, the UC Follies.) Mix that with the bizarre participatory rituals of audiences watching the film (heckling the characters and poor cinematography, throwing toilet paper and toast, etc.) and you have a truly energetic viewing experience that has evolved into a veritable subculture.
However, having not partaken in this experience prior to this interview, the allure and significance of “Rocky Horror” were unclear to me, not fully appreciating the science fiction B-movies that “Rocky” sends up in song. I’ve been to a screening of the 2003 cult film “The Room”, heckling and throwing props and all, but that just comes from the movie being excruciatingly, humorously, authentically bad. It’s clear from the amount of excitement my “Rocky” fan friends have when discussing this movie that there’s something a different kind of authentic about it – more personal, more significant, more than a pedestrian (and cis, straight, male) cinema consumer like myself would grasp on the surface. I figured that must also factor into why the UC Lit’s Equity & Outreach Commission, whose purpose is to advocate for issues of social justice and those affecting marginalized students, collaborates with the UC Follies on specifically this production each time it’s mounted, and collects donations to go to an almost always LGBTQ-focused charity (this year, it’s Rainbow Railroad, which is talked about later in this piece).
It turns out that “Rocky” was an extremely groundbreaking cornerstone for LGBTQ portrayal in media, and thus incredibly important to audience members looking for that type of representation. One such audience member was Emily Powers, a UofT student and award-winning playwright/director (for “Tinsel Town Bartleby” at the 2018 UofT Drama Festival), whose immense fandom of “Rocky” led her to direct the show this year when the UC Follies opened up the opportunity.
I wasn’t sure what to expect heading into the interview, having been unfamiliar with “Rocky” and its historical significance, and unsure whether I’d enjoy the shadow cast adaptation. My decision to wear a shirt with the likeness of Stefon (Bill Hader’s popular “Saturday Night Live” character) definitely helped break the ice and set the tone for the interview – it turned out Emily was also a huge “SNL” fan, and had bought a Stefon pin at the same NBC Store in New York that I’d bought my shirt. We talked “SNL” for a few minutes before cutting to the chase, and if anything, that foreshadowed the musings that were to come, and which you’ll read below: those of a humble yet passionate vision-setter, extremely knowledgeable in all of the works of art she’s a fan of (from “SNL” to David Bowie’s music to “Rocky”) whose artistic vision and outlook on life has been greatly shaped by life experience, the media she’s consumed and how both affect each other. Coming away from the interview, I thought that the UC Follies couldn’t have picked a better choice to direct this production, due to her encyclopedic knowledge of its history, appreciation of the many students working to achieve her vision, and desire to use her platform to make her industry, and its consumers, more aware of the need for LGBTQ inclusion, in media and in broader society. You can bet I’m going to see it now.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you first get interested in drama?
Oh my gosh, oh boy. I did sports all through high school, because of my family – I have 2 brothers, they’re lacrosse players. My first year in university, I saw a poster for the production of “Rent”. I always had an artsy side to me, so I applied to be costume designer. I costume designed for the next 2 years, and now I’ve kind of branched out. “Rocky Horror” was the second show I did, so it kind of feels full circle having it been my last.
You wrote an award winning play last year for the UofT Drama Festival (“Tinsel Town Bartleby”), which was based on your experience working in the film industry. How easy was it to parlay that into a production?
My #1 passion has always been writing. Through all of my endeavours, it kind of creeps in. When I was working at a production company, I would collect all the fan mail, and my job was to collect the important stuff and throw the fan mail out. strange letters and requests. People would handwrite scores for movies; there was a request for adoption, things like that. I felt there was something there, and used them to create the different voices and monologues in the play. I’ve always loved writing, and monologues were a very easy introduction to playwriting. I had so much fun with it!
This year, I have another play going on for the UofT Drama Festival. It’s called Stretch, and it’s with TCDS [Trinity College Dramatic Society]. I’m very excited. Less monologues, more of a traditional play.
Who or what are your artistic influences?
We’re diving in! My original artistic influence would be David Bowie. I was 11 when I discovered him, and literally every decision I made after that was under his influence. He exuded freeness of sexuality and gender expression, art and creativity extending past the physical self. I really admired him.
More into my creative writing aspects, I’m really into André Alexis, just in his rootedness in Toronto and sense of home within his characters.
[Note: André Alexis is the Faculty of English’s Writer In Residence this year. You can make an appointment with him to get his input on your own work!]
For playwriting, I really like Brian Friel, just with his use of language as a storytelling and character device. That’s a big question, I could go on and on!
Obviously there’s some parallels to be drawn between David Bowie and “Rocky Horror” in the ways that you mentioned. Did you have any prior experiences with “Rocky Horror” and its subculture before you took this job?
I grew up in California, and it was almost tradition for my friend group, from the time we were 14, to drive downtown and go to “Rocky Horror”. I would say there were 3 pillars in my coming out process: first David Bowie, then Joan Jett, and finally “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. It is a very close, intimate part of myself. I went all through high school just going to see it. When I moved to Toronto, I went to see it at Hot Docs Cinema. I jumped on the opportunity to costume design 2 years ago.
When this came around, I knew I wanted to direct it, because “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” symbolizes so much for queer and gender nonconforming people. It came out at a time where sexuality in general, but specifically queer sexuality, was seen as an agent of disease. Putting such a blatant, non-caring, beautiful expression of sexuality, especially queer sexuality, on film was almost unheard of. Even though it’s a terrible movie, it meant a lot for the community!
There’s definitely dated language within the movie and the way it deals with the trans community, but if you look at the other people within the Stonewall Riots, a lot of the leaders in the queer community have always been people of colour and trans women. For example, Marsha P. Johnson was one of the founders of Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries, or S.T.A.R., a group dedicated to finding rights, safety and homes for trans people, trans people of colour in particular. I truly think it was the language of the time.
One of the fun things we did in the production was pulling queer icons from the time the movie came out, and giving all the Transylvanians their own characters and their own names, kind of honouring these icons. We have a Freddie Mercury character [played by Rachel Leggett]; Marshy [Clare O’Brien] is our Marsha P. Johnson, and we have Rivera [Jen Dufton, honouring S.T.A.R. co-founder Sylvia Rivera]. I didn’t put David Bowie because I thought I was already doing an overkill on that.
In terms of the logistics of the play itself, are there any parallels that can be drawn between shadow casts and traditional plays. For someone who’s done work in traditional plays, with actors actually speaking dialogue, how hard it is logistically to mount this and rehearse for this?
There’s definitely a learning curve to it. I think the biggest hardship we ran into was blocking, because not only is this a film, it’s a bad film, so a lot of the cuts are horrible. There’s jump cuts with no continuity, characters all over the stage, they move to one side of the set. It just feasibly doesn’t make sense for the physical blocking of a stage production. We had to get creative in the ways that we copy the movie.
Another struggle is costume changes. Especially with the floor show, a movie can just cut to an entirely different wardrobe, but we had to get a little creative with how we change our actors on stage. As far as lip synching and the act of following the tradition of the shadow cast, it’s been nothing but a blast. We’ve been so lucky just to be able to even do it at all.
The interesting part of the shadow cast tradition was that it was entirely started by a queer woman named Dori Hartley, who was kind of rioting against the classic movie theatre going experience. There’s this whole thing about queer visibility, when you’re going to a movie and watching all these straight actors. She fully dressed up as Frank N. Furter and stood in front of the movie screen, at a regular midnight screening. She was the origin of the shadow cast and really shaped the future of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”. What I’m really excited about is, since it all started with Dori Hartley, we now have a mostly female cast pushing that forward. [Dori Hartley’s Transylvanian tribute character is played by Emily Johnston.]
You already mentioned you’re putting a bit of your own spin on the production. But having written and directed your own play, does the movie impede your ability to impose your own vision on the show?
It’s kind of a beautiful give-and-take between staying loyal to the traditions of the shadow cast and to the movie itself, and bringing in my own visions. My loyalties are in following blocking, and in costumes – my beautiful costume designer Alberta Saunders has been lovely in recreating the costumes and giving her own spin on different colour forms. Where my vision comes in has really been making sure the actors know that this is a bad movie, we’re making fun of it, but there’s also a deeper underlying meaning, and making sure that people are aware of the history and the people we’re celebrating while we’re performing this.
This is also a charity event – all the money is going back to the community with the Rainbow Railroad. I worked specifically with Anna [Stabb], who’s playing Frank, in her performance of “I’m Going Home”, which is the classic Tim Curry number. I really wanted her to understand that even though this is a crazy alien guy who thinks he’s going back to a wild planet and is performing for an invisible audience, it’s really the story of the queer community and how often we have to make our own home. Oftentimes, it feels like there isn’t space, or a safe space, in the world if we don’t make it for ourselves. It’s about finding each other, growing with each other and making this a home for each other. I wanted her, in this performance, to know that she’s making it for herself and for the audience in front of her, and hopefully the queer people in the audience will feel that.
Now that you mention that, is this the reason why Rainbow Railroad was selected as the charity? Because there are definitely parallels between the theme you just discussed and Rainbow Railroad’s mission, helping find “homes” for queer people around the world.
Yeah, genuinely. The way we picked our charity is that I put forward 4 possible charities on the cast page, and they voted on which one they would like the best. Some of the options we looked at are the 519, the community centre on Church Street, famous for helping the LGBTQ community. RAINN, designed to help women who suffered sexual assault grow past that, and the Trevor Project, which helps queer youth around the world. But we really liked the global aspect of Rainbow Railroad – and I think everyone in my cast was on the same page – and that we’re not just helping the community within Toronto, but everyone across the world who feels out of place or unsafe escape these areas of state-sponsored violence, and get to a place they can call home like Toronto.
What’s the most exciting number of the production? What’s your favourite number? Are they the same?
If you want to go with classics, “Time Warp” is the stunning feature of the number. Almost every one of our cast members are in this number and dancing. My good friend Julia Balm is choreographing. We went beyond the usual “jump to the left, step to the right” – that’s probably going to be the big feature number, but I have my own personal biases.
I’m a big, big fan of “Hot Patootie”, because of Meat Loaf, but just in general! Cole [Currie, who plays Eddie] and Julia [Balm, who also plays Columbia] are incredible dancers. There’s lifts, there’s splits, it’s ridiculous. It truly follows the choreography of the movie! That might be my favourite number, but also, anytime Katherine [Burke] comes on stage as Riff Raff. She completely transforms into that role. She’s going to be a showstopper too.
How “into it” should the audience expect to get when they come out on Tuesday?
They should expect to get very “into it”! One of my priorities in putting on the show was to maintain the original gritty shadow cast attitude, while keeping that in balance with everyone feeling safe and comfortable, so we set up 3 different sections in our audience seating.
- The first four rows are the “splash zone”, and people sitting there are literally going to get wet, have people crawling over them, running across the aisles, cast members will be in their face, communicating with them, confetti thrown, all sorts of things!
- There’s a middle zone called the “roulette zone” where you kind of don’t know what you’re going to get. You’re not going to get hit with the water guns, but you could have Rocky [Hannah Fleisch] running across you. Then we’ll have safe zones in the back, where we’re not going to mess with you. That’s probably where most of the parents will sit.
We also want to encourage the audience to yell anything they want. We want to be very interactive.
Finally, what is it about directing that you enjoy? Directing a play seems to be the pinnacle of one’s drama experience at UofT.
I’ve been incredibly lucky to work with amazing actors and to be able to use this talent to impart my vision. With “Tinsel Town”, it was my directing debut. That’s very close to my heart because it was also my writing debut. Ultimately, I think I’ll be a writer going forward, but directing has been very wonderful with “Rocky” – almost like a celebration. I got a chance to celebrate my community, my actors, and use my own vision and the queer history I know surrounding “Rocky Horror” to give back to the people of the past who fought to allow us to even do this. This is a crazy show to do! To give us the chance to celebrate queerness and the way that we are. Queerness and sexuality. I just feel incredibly lucky.
Catch “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”, directed by Emily Powers and produced by the UC Follies, this Tuesday, November 20th at 8 PM, in Innis Town Hall. Reserve your spot in advance at the UC Lit office, in the UC Junior Common Room. Suggested donation is $5 to Rainbow Railroad (http://rainbowrailroad.com).
Also, Emily and I would both appreciate it if you don’t miss Steve Carell hosting “Saturday Night Live” this week, Saturday at 11:30 on Global or NBC!