– We talk with Alan Paul, co-director of The Rocky Horror Show, about to open at Studio Theatre’s 2nd Stage –
This year marks forty years of pelvic thrusts, cross-dressing aliens, and good old rock and roll that kicks a straight-laced young couple into a time warp of sensual delights and domination. The Rocky Horror Show, thanks in large part to the cult film, has entered into the pop culture pantheon. “GLEE” devoted an episode to the songs, including “The Time Warp” and “Sweet Transvestite.”
The original Rocky Horror Show began as the brainchild of an out of work British actor, Richard O’Brien, who loved classic American horror and science fiction movies. O’Brien wrote the book, music and lyrics and the show opened at London’s Royal Court Theater Upstairs in June, 1973. The author took the role of henchman Riff-Raff and a young actor named Tim Curry raised eyebrows and became a star as Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
The stage show titillated audiences with its irreverence and sexuality and by 1974 O’Brien, Curry and company were filming The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The original production and the initial run of the film were fast flops. In the mid-1970s, midnight showings and audience participation raised O’Brien’s creation from the slab of obscurity. Showing up at their neighborhood theatre, fanatics dressed as their favorite characters, brought props (squirt guns, toast, umbrellas). Yelling at the screen – shouting “Ass hole!” whenever “Brad Majors” is heard on the screen – became de rigueur. A cult classic was born.
Alan Paul, co-director of Studio Theatre’s Rocky Horror Show, (along with Keith Alan Baker, artistic director of 2nd Stage), is keeping an open mind about audience participation and the whole experience patrons will find during the production.
Paul is the associate director at Shakespeare Theatre Company, where, this coming season, he will direct STC’s first full production of a musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.
Just before the final week of tech rehearsals, Alan Paul sat down with me to talk about the production, the cast and the message at the heart of O’Brien’s homage to black and white sci-fi movies and classic rock and roll.
No more antici- (“Say it!) – pation, here’s Alan Paul.
If the marketing department were on strike and you had to come up with a tag line for the show, what would it be?
“Let’s do the time warp again!” I know it’s stealing from the show.
Or something else from the show: “Don’t dream it, be it.” The message is to live your life to the fullest and it’s a celebration of non-conventionality. If you have ever felt like an outsider, you should be able to identify with the freakiness you will see in our show.
What’s it like co-directing this show?
Keith has a great eye, so it’s been great working with him. He’s been a great collaborator on every front. And he has such an expertise working with a thrust stage, where there are different rules for staging. It’s different from a proscenium staging.
How did you and Keith approach the show?
From the movie, my memory of “Science Fiction Double Feature” is the image of those moving lips, which is so iconic. But it’s so different, how it begins with the same song in the stage version. It’s still the opening song in the show. But you really see how it takes you from the thirties with “King Kong” to “The Day of the Triffids,” which is from the early sixties. The whole set up Richard O’Brien wants you to feel is that this is like one of those B movies.
For you, Keith and the designers, what approach did you take to make this Rocky Horror unique to Studio?
Keith and I were not interested in recreating the look of the movie. We wanted to do our own take on the stage show. One of the first things you do is the look of the show, and we wanted it to be sexy, fun and irreverent – and also odd.
Our costume designer Collin Ranney brought in pictures and references from the work of Australian designer and performance artist Leigh Bowery – very wild stuff. (Bowery as a character was prominently featured in the Rosie O’Donnell produced musical Taboo, about but the work New Romantic period of the 1980s.)
It’s all set in the doctor’s lab in the show. What sort of laboratory is it?
We certainly thought of mad scientist labs from the old movies and the majority of the musical takes place in Frank-N-Furter’s lab where experiments are conducted. But our lab is different: we decided these aliens, Frank, Riffraff and Magenta, have come to take over this lab to study human sexuality. After all, sex and science go hand in hand. It’s Rocky Horror, not South Pacific.
On a scale of 1 to 10, the sexiness is about a 13.
In his laboratory, Frank-N-Furter is able to draw people out of their shells to be as uninhibited as they want. To do that in 2013 takes a little different edge than it did back then.
It was very interesting for me to be in the auditions and being very explicit about what could be asked of them. This time, on the audition form, we asked how comfortable they were with nudity – yes, no, maybe. And if they said yes, we had to determine what that meant for the actors. Some of that may creep into the show.
Talk about the cast.
We have a lot of performers from the Studio summer shows who have come back. As Brad and Janet, we have Tim Rogan and Jessica Thorne. Matthew McGee is Riff Raff, the part Richard O’Brien originally wrote for himself. Magenta is played by Kayla Dixon and Columbia is Matthew Delorenzo. As Eddie and Rocky, we have Matthew G. Myers and Will Hayes.
A very familiar face is Sarah Marshall who plays the Narrator and the rival Dr. Scott. Sarah is so great and I have known her for many years. It’s great to work with her like this.
What about everyone’s favorite sweet transvestite, Dr. Frank-N-Furter?
It is really exciting to have Mitchell Jarvis as Frank. He was in the original production of Rock of Ages and followed it to Broadway. He also has this great web series called “It Could Be Worse.” I am thrilled he’s is doing Frank for us. Mitch is extremely smart, extremely compelling, and wickedly witty.
You need an enigma to play Frank. That’s what made Tim Curry so compelling in the original (and the film), you didn’t know what he was thinking but you trusted him. Mitch has those essential enigmatic qualities with the cast and I think he will have it with the audience. There is something very attractive about his persona – that a straight woman could find something sexual about him, or a gay man, but a straight man could be compelled to him for other reasons. Mitch has that charisma that cuts through everything – like Bill Clinton – that draws you closer.
It was not originally participatory like it is now, not on stage. It was not audience participatory until many years after the movie had come back and became a late night cult sensation. We still have it here in Washington on E Street. Onstage, I know audience participation was a big part of the Broadway revival in 2001. Some people are going to come because they want to have that participatory experience. I am very curious to see what happens with the audience here. It’s easy to talk to a movie screen, but it’s different when the actors are live onstage.
Any surprises in store?
For the audience, it might surprise them that there are a lot of video elements to the show. And there are the props. But they will have to see what those are when they see the show.
What was the biggest surprise for you working on the show?
When I heard the band play the score for the first time, that was huge. Our music director George Fulginiti-Shakar is so good and he knows how to put together a band. Plus, this score rocks. It just has a pulse and energy that will get you excited. People know the music is exciting, but it’s different on a recording than it is when it’s a real band doing their thing. It just thumps. You automatically think about “Sweet Transvestite” and “The Time Warp” but the rest of it is just as good.
What do you hope people will take away from this production of The Rocky Horror Show?
I hope they come with an open mind because that’s what leads to the most fun in the theatre. I know they will come and have a great time. I hope that when they leave they will see it’s a rich story and that it pushes boundaries in an interesting way. You see Brad and Janet pushed to the limits of their own inhibitions and then we see them lose them. And no matter who we are, we have inhibitions in our lives and it’s a relief to get rid of them sometimes.
I hope that by living vicariously through Frank, and through seeing Brad and Janet and this ragtag group of interesting people, people will be able to come out of their shell a little bit.
I keep going back to the words “Don’t dream it, be it,” and I hope that spirit touches the whole theatre in some way. That’s my dream for it.
Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show. Book, music and lyrics by Richard O’Brien. Directed by Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul. Featuring Mitchell Jarvis, Sarah Marshall, Tim Rogan, Jessica Thorne, Matthew McGee, Kayla Dixon, Matthew DeLorenzo, Matthew G. Myers, Will Hayes. Ensemble: Sherry Berg, Maria Egler, Aaren Keith, Ashleigh King, David Landstrom, David Little, Victor Maldonado, Nora Palka, Chris Rudy, Matthew Wojtal, Jaysen Wright.
Music Director: George Fulginiti-Shakar. Choreography: Michael Bobbitt. Set designer: Giorgos Tsappas. Light design: Justin Thomas. Costume Design: Collin Ranney. Sound Design: Jeffrey Dorfman. Projections Design: Erik Trester.