The importance of the Rocky Horror Picture Show
People often have distinctive and even nostalgic memories of the first time they saw the Rocky Horror Picture Show, the 1975 cult classic where newly-engaged and straightedge couple Brad and Janet stumble upon the mansion of cross-dressing and highly sexually active Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Tim Curry. There, they meet a cast of seductive characters and enter an evening of heavy sweating (more, more, more, more).
Afton Geil, an electrical and computer engineering graduate student, saw the the show live at UC Davis her first year as an undergraduate; Camilla Mariscal, a 2018 UC Davis alumnus, said their dad saw the show when it was first released on a date in San Francisco, adorned in fishnets and a tuxedo top. In whatever form it is viewed — either a live performance, a shadow cast lip-sync or simply the original movie — the sexualized and liberating musical has left its mark on viewers and the general population.
The first time Summer Schulze, a third-year cognitive science and linguistics major, saw the film version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show at age 15, she instantly had to watch it another four times — she was hooked.
“It was edgy, it was so groundbreaking for the 1970s,” Schulze said.
Upon coming to Davis, she joined Sensual Daydreams, the on-campus Rocky Horror Picture Show cast. Each quarter, the group holds casual auditions and puts on a Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast production.
“We hold auditions every quarter, but it’s really open and pretty much anyone can join as long as you’re dedicated,” Schulze said. “Shadow casting is where we act out the movie as characters while it plays in the background. We do callbacks and have a bunch of props and physical gags.”
Mariscal clarifies that while the group loves the show, “it’s not a big production theater troupe; we are not going to take ourselves too seriously.”
Since its creation by Richard O’Brien in 1973 and later adaptation to film by Jim Sharman, the Rock Horror Picture Show has been a means of sexual liberation in the midsts of the punk revolution. The show is interactive with call-backs and innuendos that have managed to keep the attention of audiences for decades.
“It pushed the envelope in so many ways, carved the path for exciting rule-breaking theater and films yet to come,” said Mindy Cooper, a theater and dance professor at UC Davis. “Cross dressing, sex, wink-wink nudge-nudge innuendo, power struggles … strong female role models, sci-fi meets romance, it has it all. For me, Frankfurter was the ultimate pathway to non-cis acceptance. Tim Curry was an up and coming established actor with real acting chops, sex appeal to everyone and chutzpah to boot. Everyone found him hot […]. He made wearing fishnets and heels divine in an age when it was not yet. His charm and defiance against prototypical casting choices helped carve the path for acceptance.”
The initial impact has continued into the present day, as Rocky Horror actors still connect to its seductive plot, timeless music and liberating themes. Such a type of production attracts a specific demographic together, according to Schultz.
“We have these events called bondage parties, instead of bonding parties,” Schulze said. “We all get together and sometimes we go to events or have a little party. We are a fairly close-knit group, and share a lot of like mindedness in identity and sometimes politics. It’s nice to have a group where you are free to correct people if they use the wrong pronouns or have your breasts out, where you can’t always do these things freely elsewhere.”
Such community has been instrumental for many of its members in finding their own identity and becoming all the more comfortable with themselves — the intention of the show itself.
“Joining the cast was a really great thing for me,” Schulze said. “Freshman year was when I was really struggling with body issues. Being in a show where everything is kinda about owning sexuality and an eccentric and weird way was really great. It was about dressing sexy and feeling sexy.”
The Sensual Daydreams community has had tangible impacts on Schulze. At one of the most recent shows, she was able to perform without a shirt.
“Traditionally a lot of our biologically female characters who play Rocky usually wear a bandeau because Rocky just walks around in gold spandex,” Schulze said. “Mostly the guy castmates who play him will walk around shirtless. But I was like, ‘I wanna do that too,’ so I just wore pasties and I had my breasts out. This is something we can do this space that you can’t do in other spaces.”
Such acceptance that yields personal identity has also translated to understanding one’s sexuality and gender alike.
“I auditioned around the time I was coming out as gender fluid and pan sexual,” Mariscal said. “This club has allowed me to experiment with drag, with my gender dysphoria, with performance. Our main rule is that anyone can join, but you can’t be a d—. It’s been a loving, beautiful place.”
Not only has the Rocky Horror Picture Show helped Mariscal define their sexuality and gender, it has helped them play within those arbitrary definitions.
“I am female bodied, but when I first came out I remember saying in my audition I only wanted to play the male characters because I spent so many years pretending I was a cis female and I wanted nothing to do with the color pink or skirts,” Mariscal said. “I played Frank last show, and my costume was pink as hell. But it was ok for me to mix things together and figure out what I was most comfortable with. I really changed since joining this cast. There are no gatekeepers in our cast, saying that we are this gender or this sexuality and that we have to play this character a certain way.”
For Schulze, such concept of fluid acceptance can be applied to “anyone in an outgroup, any person who feels outcasted or can identify with some aspect of the movie.” The Rocky Horror Picture Show stands as an emblem for all forms of acceptance.
“If you want to wear modest clothes, if you want to come out tits ablaze we will applaud you,” Mariscal said. “We want it to be a loving supportive place for however you want to be. [We hope] we can you laugh or we can make you feel like you have found a community. I have known people where they have been able to discover their sexuality and gender because of this show, like if we can do any of those things then it’s worth it to me.”
Written by: Caroline Rutten — firstname.lastname@example.org
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to Camilla Mariscal as “she.” Mariscal’s pronoun is “they.” The Aggie regrets the error.