“ASSHOLE!” shouts the crowd in unison. It’s Nov. 7, the closing night of the Musical Forum’s production of “The Rocky Horror Show.” Brad, played by Rhys Long ’24, has just tried (unsuccessfully) to shield his fiancé Janet, played by Mia Lane ’24, from the wandering eye of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Masha Breeze ’22.5.
The cast is performing for yet another full house in the Granoff Center for the Creative Arts. Presale tickets for the show sold out in a matter of minutes, and at each of the five performances, students arrived hours early to line the halls of the Granoff Center in the hopes of snagging a last-minute vacancy.
Director Sierra Riley ’24, who came from a background of high school theater, brought the cult classic to campus. Earlier this fall, after a year away from the stage during the pandemic, Riley applied to direct for Brown’s Musical Forum, a student-run group dedicated to musical production.
“When I saw the event on Facebook for proposing to direct for Musical Forum, I was like ‘I’ve got to jump on this,’” Riley said. While initially they weren’t sure just what production they wanted to propose, after scrolling through the Concord Theatricals website, they saw the “Rocky Horror” title and knew it would be perfect for their directorial debut.
“The board was most excited about ‘Rocky,’ and I was really excited about it too,” Riley said. “Growing up somewhere that was a lot more conservative and (with) not a lot of exposure to this stuff, being able to see ‘Rocky Horror’ and have memories of driving around town blasting ‘Sweet Transvestite’ (felt) like I was speaking myself for once.”
The creative freedom of a student-run production allowed Riley and their team to put their own spin on a time-honored musical.
“I feel like Sierra has really kept the integrity of the show but also made it our own, which is really cool,” Anna Davis ’24, who played one of the show’s phantoms, said.
“It was very cool feeling like ... I have more of a say in what my character was doing — like the journey I wanted to take her on — and I don’t think you would necessarily get that if you had a faculty member directing the show,” Lane said.
“After I started getting involved and started realizing some of the bigger themes in ‘Rocky’ like queer liberation ... I wanted to get a lot of input from actors in terms of their choices,” said Camille Donoho ’24, the production’s choreographer. “Most of ‘I’m Going Home,’ which is that big number that Frank does, is all Masha’s decision. A lot of it is kind of on the fly as well!”
Donoho, who came to Brown with 15 years of classical ballet experience, was referred to Riley by a friend as a potential candidate for the choreographer position. Despite knowing little about ‘Rocky Horror’ before stepping into her role, Donoho came out of her interview with the Musical Forum board intent on getting involved.
“Immediately after I had the interview for it, I started listening to the soundtrack,” Donoho said. “Actually the first day after, I choreographed the entirety of ‘Sweet Transvestite.’”
After listening to almost every version of the soundtrack available on streaming services, Donoho meticulously workshopped her ideas until she felt they accommodated the visions of both the Brown cast and the 1975 film.
Not all of the show’s changes, however, came about purely due to creative interpretation. Musical Forum also wanted to ensure that the show’s themes were in keeping with campus values in 2021.
“There are more difficult parts of the show to reckon with in the 21st century,” Riley noted. “It’s a product of its time.”
Cast and crew members alike noted that some elements of the original “Rocky Horror” were done away with in order to make the production the most inclusive space it could possibly be — especially given its significance to the LGBTQ+ community and the struggle for both queer and sexual liberation.
“There were some internal changes on the direction of the show and (Sierra) decided not to cast a cis man as Frank-N-Furter,” Long noted. Additionally, Musical Forum updated the script to use she/her pronouns for Frank’s character.
“Obviously in ‘Rocky’ there are some pretty sensitive topics and issues that we cover, and for every step of the way, everyone was very supportive,” Lane said. “It was a very safe rehearsal space.”
Still, the team kept many of the production’s hallmark elements, most notably its tradition of audience participation. As viewers entered the theater, they were given confetti to throw at the end of Act One’s wedding scene along with the cast. When Brad and Janet got caught in a storm, each audience member found a newspaper under their chair that they could place over their heads to bring them into the scene.
The film’s subculture dates back to 1976, where, after being shelved as a commercial failure in the wake of its initial 1975 release, it was revived in the form of a midnight screening at the Waverly Theater in Greenwich Village. Night after night, the showings brought together eclectic crowds enthralled by the film’s exploration of sexual liberation and self-expression. The film, which was an adaptation of a stage musical, eventually returned to the stage and became a staple in queer and punk circles.
The significance of being able to participate in the cultural tradition that is “Rocky Horror” wasn’t lost on the Musical Forum cast members, with many expressing a sense of honor in being able to bring such an iconic show to life.
“I’m not a major theater kid, but I do know ‘Rocky Horror,’ you know?” Dhruv Anand ’25 said on his decision to get involved with the production.
Many cast members also expressed their appreciation for being back on the stage after such a long break during the pandemic.
“We rehearse five days a week, four hours a day, so you get to know everyone pretty quickly,” said Hayley Gasbarro ’24, who played a phantom. “The show is so high energy, and so coming every single day and getting to be with everyone is a nice break from work and everything else.”
Despite being an incredibly time-consuming effort, the consensus in the dressing room was that the hours of hard work were more than worth it.
“From my experiences at Brown, it is such an open and inclusive space — probably even the most inclusive space that I’ve ever been in,” Lane said.
“After theater being gone for so long and knowing we’re going to have to draw a lot of people back into this community and really build it up again, I just thought that (‘Rocky Horror’) would be perfect for that,” Riley said. “It’s definitely something that can draw people together.”