Before the lights dimmed and the teleportation to Transylvania commenced on a recent fall Friday, host Zoey Hayes crawled on stage at the Nuart Theatre in West Los Angeles to fluff the crowd—by demanding the virgins in the audience take part in a rite of passage.
Virgins in this case included anyone who has not seen the live adaptation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Those who got on stage were asked to pick their favorite cartoon character—and then instructed to fake an orgasm as that animated alter-ego. After they each groaned it out, everyone ran back to their seats for the main attraction.
Each weekend, the Nuart welcomes people from all walks of life and immerses them in the longest-running continuous midnight movie of all time. And although they were not the first live cast in the country to perform along with the movie, Sins O’ The Flesh is a veteran crew willing to get extreme when the lights go out.
Abby Mahle has been participating in the cast since she was 16. Starting as a Transylvanian, because it’s the only role you can play when you are younger than 18, she then tackled other roles, such as Magenta, Columbia and Rocky. Now she serves as the group’s photographer.
“I think the thing that gets me the most about this is the community space and generational mixing, which is really uncommon,” Mahler said. “To have that community space, which is LGBTQ safe and is not alcohol centered, is really amazing, because most LGBTQ places are not only 18-plus, but they are bars. Having a place that isn’t that, where you can see people getting older, is rare and should be treasured.”
Mahler explained that the important thing about joining the Rocky Horror community is being open, because there is so much history to learn, and to enjoy the experience.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s general U.S. release date was in 1975, but RHPS had its first midnight showing around April Fool’s Day at the Waverly Theater (now called IFC Center), in 1976 in New York, according to the official Rocky Horror Fan Page. This was the start of Rocky Horror’s “audience participation” that has lasted throughout the decades.
Dressed as characters from the film, amateur performers create a replica of what’s happening on screen, while audience members play their part with props and lines of dialogue that have developed organically through the years.
The response to a movie that didn’t do well in its initial run during regular hours was a surprise to everyone—including its creators Jim Sharmon and Richard O’Brien as well as to its cast.
Tim Curry, who played Dr. Frank N. Furter in the original motion picture, even attended a showing while living in New York, just down the street from the Waverly Theater, and he often witnessed fans going to midnight showings in costume, according to NPR.
Living up to the cult classic’s legacy is a big act to follow, but it doesn’t discourage generations of fans from dedicating themselves to learning every facial expression, dance move and stage block.
Austin Fresh, who is Sins O’ The Flesh’s cast lead, said there is still pressure to get creative because it is such a phenomenon, and they have seen so many iterations of it.
“I come from a very strong theater background, so I have a lot of tools in my to break down and analyze a character as far as emotions go,” Fresh said. “Like when I played Frank, I probably took about 50-to-60 hours to break down all the facial expressions and motivations in a scene. I feel it naturally, then I build upon it. But with Trixie (the waitress or usherette), that one is nuts, because there is no one on screen, so you have to build it from scratch, and it has to be different every time.”
Fresh also touched on what is like to go outside of the box and to push boundaries.
“I’m Trixie, for the most part, so I do a lot of gender bending Trixies,” Fresh said. “So I’m either a full blown drag king or full blown drag queen. Very over the top, old school burlesque style.”
Fresh thinks that newcomers should continue to push boundaries but also maintain the integrity that has been built.
Marlee Blackwell, who has been with the cast for six years, said that the audience base and excitement has remained consistent, and that gives her hope that it will continue.
“It’s because the people you meet here are amazing, and a lot of us tend to be outcasts or don’t quite fit in, and then you come to Rocky Horror and no one cares who you are, what you look like or where you come from,” Blackwell said. “We have people that are in theater, people that are disabled or police officers and teachers. It is such a widespread group, and it is cool to see how we can all bond over this.”
Blackwell picked up sewing and costume design because of Rocky Horror, and said she has sewn more sequins than she can count, all of which as an unpaid volunteer. She tells people it is more than a hobby—it’s a lifestyle.
“This experience has been very cathartic,” Blackwell said. “It’s our home away from home. It gives me an outlet to perform as someone who likes to be on stage but not necessarily act in a traditional setting, and it’s a blast getting to put on makeup and costumes as well as having the community play a big part in it.”
The Sins O’ The Flesh has many recurring cast members, including Lindsay Huston, who has been with the cast for more than a decade, as well as Nina Minnelli and Renee Jeske, both of whom are coming up on 20 years.
Huston said that when you are first rehearsing, a lot of hours go into preparing a character. To fully study them, you must watch the movie “an obscene” amount of times.
As one of the older castmates, Huston now is at the point where she knows her roles so well that she doesn’t usually need to spend a lot of time on them. She watches the movie in October for refreshers, but it’s like going on autopilot.
“I would say I bring history to the cast, because I was around when a lot of the original cast members were still around, and I remember what happened, what lines were yelled out, what signs they held up,” Huston said. “Also, I feel like I’m the cool dad or the cool uncle. I just take people and I’m like, ‘It’s going to be okay my sweet summer’s child.’”
Minnelli said she can’t comprehend how many hours of preparation has gone into being a part of this cast.
“Thankfully, I’ve done and seen the film so many times that I can just naturally pick up and crawl into the skin of any character that I play,” she said. “It is just fun to see that people still want to come out, and that it is still relevant in so many ways.”
Renee Jeske said that the family atmosphere is why she doesn’t quit it.
“The reason I’ve been doing Rocky Horror for so long is just the people and having a cool group of friends that are just as much of weirdo as I am,” Jeske said. “We are always looking for people to join the cast, and most of my long time friends I met through Rocky. Even when people leave the cast they remain friends with people forever.”
Pierce College Department Chair of Performing Arts Michael Gend said going to see a movie versus a live theater experience such as the Rocky Horror Picture Show is much like comparing listening to your favorite song on iTunes and then listening to it live in concert.
“There is this viceral energy that you get from being surrounded by a live audience watching an actual actor or performer on the stage that you can’t replicate in the movies,” Gend said. “It’s this unique piece of theater that is so reactive and has this element of improvisation where the actors can really play off of audience response.”