BWW Interview: Beneath the glue stick and glitter with Eric Ulloa of ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW at Lyric Theatre Of Oklahoma
I have a confession. It's a secret I have kept for many, many years and it's time to come out. Before seeing Lyric Theatre's Rocky Horror Picture Show, I was a Rocky Horror virgin! I mean yes, I saw the movie several years ago, but I have never experienced the show live before. I must admit that I have continually put off seeing the show for fear of some kind of elaborate and humiliating initiation ceremony where the cast discovers my secret, drags me onto stage, strips me down to my skivvies, writes "V" in sharpie all over by body and sprays me with blood-filled super soakers. Not to mention the whispers and stares from the decked out die-hard fans, costumes and mysterious props in tow. After all, fans of Rocky Horror are called "cult followers!" What was I supposed to expect? Luckily for me, and any other "virgins," all of my anxiety induced nightmares about popping my Rocky cherry were dispelled. I was quickly awakened to why Rocky has a cult following and there are no tar and sequin hazing rituals involved. Rocky Horror is pure, spooky, zany, sexy, Halloween fun!
Today I had the pleasure of meeting with Eric Ulloa, Lyric's own sweet transvestite himself, to peek beneath the layers of glue stick and glitter and learn about Ulloa's transformation into Frank-N-Furter and delve into some of the deeper, universal meanings at the core of Rocky Horror Picture Show.
BWW: Have you ever played a role before that required such an immense physical transformation?
Eric: No, not at all. In fact, that's what is really exciting about this whole show for me is that I have never done anything like this. I have never played a character anything like this at all where I am letting these parts of myself out. And I have always said to myself for years and years that there are two things that terrify me: The idea of being in drag on stage and the idea of being naked on stage. They are things that I would do, that I want to do because it will break down a wall. When Michael Baron called and said, "How do you feel about fishnets and heels? Wanna come play with Frank-N-Furter?" I said yes! When my agent called for negotiations, I said, "Whatever it is, the answer is yes! I need to do this for myself as a human. I need to do this for myself as an artist because it breaks down those walls that sometimes can be a little uncomfortable. Even as a gay man, these are parts of myself that I have never let down before. I've never put on a pair of high heels. I've never put on a dress and full drag and allowed myself to explore my feminine side and these parts of me. I'm 37 years old, and because of the oppressive behavior that comes with societal stuff put on you, you know, you're always like, "Be butch. Be a man. Lower your voice," all of this stuff and as you get older, you realize the bullshit wears away. So now to get to go out there and do something that no one expects of me is so freeing. And the physical transformation - I paint on the eyebrows and the eyes. Those aren't my eyes anymore. The way my cheekbones are shaded, those aren't my cheekbones anymore. My lips are exaggerated, those aren't my lips anymore. So when I'm done, I look in the mirror, and I always joke, because I do a little strut across the dressing room, like a little, I call it my "bitchy strut." I look in the mirror. I check myself out, shoulder to shoulder and think, "This is a whole new human." Before I go out, I just want to take in who I am right now.
BWW: That's amazing! And of course, we are in Oklahoma. What a place to take these risks! This is a regular event for Lyric. They have been priming the audiences for shows like this but how have you felt playing Frank-N-Furter and performing in Rocky Horror specifically in this part of the country? Do the audiences feel accepting?
Eric: It's fascinating. At first, when I heard they were doing it here and they do it every three years, I thought it was so surprising for Oklahoma City, because I think of Oklahoma as a very conservative state. I know Oklahoma City has some liberal pockets, we're in one right now in the Plaza, but there is still a very conservative lean to it. So I was talking to another publication about this and they said, "Oh, no. Rocky Horror is a big thing here. People go in the theatre, let their hair down, then button up their shirts on the way out, and go back to their conservative, idealistic lives. So I wasn't afraid of it. Though there was one moment, when we did a preview at Live on the Plaza and I sang Sweet Transvestite with this boa and these two men in the front row, looked like those kind of, "good-ole-boy" types. And the moment I started singing the lyrics, they shook their heads and they got up and they walked out. And in that moment I thought, "Well, you're the one missing out on what I'm about to do because it's about to get a lot fiercer from here. I just started!" So that was the only moment where I thought that some people still have an issue but I'm like, "You're in the Plaza watching a preview of Rocky Horror...go watch a preview of The Sound of Music somewhere. That's not what this is." But yeah, people here have embraced it so much and they go so wild during the show. And I know Lyric is a space that does really edgy works. They push the limits of the audience, especially at the Plaza space, so I have felt very comforted in what's been around me and I secretly love the fact that, it's terrible to say, but I'm going to say it, I know The Oklahoman is a very conservative paper, and I love the fact that over the masthead was just a 6 foot tall me, 7 foot with the headdress, drag queen, just looking over the masthead on the preview on top and I love that people are opening their papers and there is this big old drag queen. Ya know, so enjoy that! (laughs) We are in the world. It is a thing and it's not scary. It's not going to change your life. It will divert you for a while and give you new perspectives on the world around you.
BWW: Have you done anything with Lyric before?
Eric: I did! I did Bye Bye Birdie in 2012. I played Conrad which is very different.
BWW: Kind of. There is still tight leather!
Eric: Yes! And the outfits were absurb! It is somebody that does walk in and tries to corrupt a quiet - wow, I guess it is similar. Maybe that's why Michael thought of me! He was like "Does Conrad Birdie look good in a dress? He's in!"
BWW: So you were talking about how once you are in costume/make-up you feel a transformation into Frank-N-Furter. Tell me a little bit about the process of getting ready. Do you do your make-up yourself?
Eric: Yeah, I do it all myself. Well, I would be remiss without saying that a major part of this whole thing is Armando Ortiz who did the costumes for the show. What he designed and what Jeffrey and Taylor and all of the people in the shop physically built for the show, what Armando did is stunning; the work on the details and all of the jewels, it's incredible. They have given me so much of what needs to be there. Looking at my costumes on the first day was a great glimpse into what I had to wise up to. Frank-N-Furter can't be a 5 when the costume is a 12. I enter literally like a giant bird of paradise on a lyra over the audience flying in. That's a 12 or even a 20 on a scale of 1-10. I have to enter on that level energy wise. If I don't, the costume is wearing me, I'm not wearing the costume. So that really set up a lot of it. Armando is also a very famous drag queen in Oklahoma City, for 20 something years, her name being Maria Isabel and I am so bummed that with my schedule that I don't get to see her do her thing and live her life, but because of that, she was able to teach me my full make-up and take me through a tutorial. Also, my best friend back in college for 4 years did drag so I lived with a drag queen for many years. So I've seen a lot of it. I also took make-up classes in college for my degree, we had a theatre make-up class, so we learned. And I have always been adept at picking up make-up pretty fast from the fact that I have a background in painting and drawing, so I get shading and color. So we had one day where Armando did my make-up fully for the photoshoot. Then at the first dress rehearsal, he sat me down and did half of my face and I did the other half. From there, the rest is me.
BWW: So talk me through the process of putting on drag make-up.
Eric: So the first thing and the part that is probably the worst to deal with later, is the glue stick. I take a glue stick to my eyebrows, and I have large eyebrows. They're not small. I glue them down tight. While that dries, I'd say there are probably 4-5 layers of glue stick on my eyebrows, powdering in-between, so I am basically creating a shell over my eyebrows because those will become the heightened portion of my eye that I will put eye shadow on. So my eyebrows in the show start right above my real eyebrows and they are penciled in obviously. I always joke that I kind of look like the Evil Queen from Snow White because the way they are arched I'm like, "Oh I know who this is. I know her!" So, eyebrows are the first thing. Then it's a full face of a white foundation to give me a matte. Then I suck in my cheeks and take a bronzer and create a cheekbone line and fade it down. Right above that, I place the blush in a straight line down to the bronzer so it's creating a cheek look for this character. Once the eyes are set with enough glue stick and powder, I take the eye pencil and draw on the eyebrows. It's sort of a dot system to try to make sure they are even. They have never been perfectly even but you know what, I think it gives it character. That's what I'm telling myself because I don't know how to do them perfectly. On top of that is a blue eyeshadow that goes over, it's like a deep turquoise, it's actually a really beautiful blue, then a white highlight underneath the eyebrow to make the eye pop out more. Eyeliner, which as you can see right now, does not come off for days. I always joke that between my eyeliner and the black nail polish, I look like a washed up 80s rockstar by day. People are like, "What band did you play for?" Because I just look tired and reckless by morning. So then the next step is the lips, which is just penciling on an outline outside of my lips, I go higher and a little lower, fill all the way in with lipstick. Then my amazing cast member, Kat Metcalfe, who plays Magenta, she does my eyelashes for me because I can not do it. I wear contacts. I have worn them since I was 13. I can stick a finger in my eyeball, but the moment I try putting on an eyelash, I guess because I can't see, my eye isn't open, I start blinking and it flies off. I can't do it. I tried. So Kat's really good at it and every night, bless her, she volunteers to do my eyelashes before she has to go on stage for the opening number. She's a blessing. Then I spray some glitter in my hair to match the opulence of everything else so when that light first hits me on the lyra, every part of my body sparkles.
BWW: And the costumes! You talked a little bit about the design. They are beautiful, but I imagine they are probably not very comfortable to perform in. You wear corsets and bustles and feathers and headdresses. You said you are 7 feet tall in the headdress!
Eric: The first look, if you go from the top of the headdress to the bottom of my heel, I am 7 ft 5 inches.
BWW: And you are coming in on a lyra!
Eric: I am flying in over the audience literally on a hula hoop. I mean let's call it what it is.
BWW: And you are singing!
Eric: Yes, Sweet Transvestite. That's actually one of the easier ones to come in on because the audience is going crazy and it's such an acted song. But "I'm Going Home" is when you are really just singing your face off and I am belting my face off up on that lyra holding on for life and just trying to like, sing with abandon but also sing with abandon but not enough where I am going to fall and die! I'm tied in only by the wrist. There is a little wrist strap that goes on and that's what holds me onto it. God forbid, if anything ever happened, I would be hanging by my wrist, but also, I don't want to dangle by my wrist. That sounds like a horrible, horrible incident.BWW: So you mentioned you have never worn this kind of costuming, you've never performed in heels. For women, from day 1, you are on stage in heels. What has it been like training in heels and getting ready to perform and dance in heels with all of the other costuming elements?
Eric: So the heels, yes this is my first time ever doing it. So I say this fortunately, being on a long streak working between my writing and performing work, I have been going non-stop since June. A musical of mine premiered at Goodspeed this past summer. I left straight from there to do a production of Working in upstate New York and then the day after, I was here. So I'm ready for a break but I am grateful that I have had a very busy last four months with non stop working. But when I was doing the show Working, around my apartment, while I was learning my lines and going over lyrics for songs, I would do it while wearing a pair of heels that I borrowed from my ex-boyfriend, who happened to wear the same size shoe and he said he had a pair of heels I could borrow. So I went over there and grabbed them and I was able to just walk around. I would post little teasers of me singing the Mason Song in my apartment in these high platform heeled boots but that helped me. That helped me be more comfortable. My amazing cast members, all of the amazing women in the cast, came together one day and Lauren Sprig choreographed a number that we did at the YMCA in a little private room in heels so I could learn a dance number in heels so I could feel really confident dancing in heels. It was so much fun and it was so empowering. And in that moment I thought, "Yeah my calves are on fire right now," but there is something very empowering about wearing heels. When you put them on you're like, "I'm in a heel. Don't mess with me." I lean into you more. It was really interesting. I had never experienced that. It sounds odd, but it's true, I found more parts of my masculinity in wearing women's clothing. I found more of a sense of dominance and power and parts of myself that I had never opened up in donning women's apparel, being in touch with a more feminine part of myself which is amazing! I have even more of a deeper respect for women than I had, which was already so profound, for what you all have to do when you pop on a pair of heels and even just something as simple as putting on make-up or something like that, things that men never deal with, it's taxing. It's exhausting. When I take off those heels and my arches hit the floor I'm like (groan of relief), the feeling. So that's how I prepared for it. Here in rehearsal, of course, we would learn blocking and then I would ask our director Jimmy, I'd say, "Hey can we do that again?" and I would pop on the heels and that changes everything. Like if I was running around the set, well guess what? In heels, it's going to be a little slower, and I need to make sure I'm not tripping on confetti or other hazards.
BWW: Have you had any mishaps in rehearsals or performances?
Eric: Oh I have some good mishaps for you. Many a heel have died. I'm not joking. I swear to you when I say that, I broke 3 pairs of heels in rehearsal. I went through 3 pairs of heels! I think it was too that they were ones that they had in storage and they were older. The pair that, (knock on wood again), god forbid they break on stage! What am I going to do if they break? I'm just going to take them off and go heelless. But the pairs that they had were in their costume storage and had been previously worn quite a bit so maybe they were on their last legs. I'm going to say that to excuse myself. One, the entire bottom just tore off and I was like, "Oh wow, I really destroyed that." And then the other two, the heel portion just broke right off. These are new. They're leather, not pleather, like the other ones were. They stretch with me. In fact, I had to have them taken in to give me a few more notches on my strap because they move with me so much that they have stretched out a bit and so far so good! They've been good to me. Thank God! Because that's what I live upon. They are keeping me from hitting the ground.
BWW: So talking about the relief taking the shoes off at the end of the night, what are your post-show routines to get all the make-up off? Are you getting foot massages? Are you finding glitter and sequins in mysterious places?
Eric: Yeah. Everywhere.
BWW: And I assume you are not used to wearing make-up so is your skin rebelling against you?
Eric: Yes. Yes, it is. So after the show, what kind of sucks really, for any guests that I have coming to see it I'm like, "Just a heads up, you are going to have to give me like 20 minutes at least." Because it takes a minute to get the make-up off. So usually after the show, I leave the glitter in my hair because I take a full shower at home to get everything off. But I'll go in the sink and wash off the face. Also because I am driving around Oklahoma City and I don't want to be hate-crimed! I'm not sure, I mean anywhere really, we're not in a world quite yet where I can drive around with a full face of make-up. I don't look like a woman enough to pass in that look and I just want to get home safely. So I wash the full face off and then I'll go home and take a full shower and my bathtub looks like I've murdered unicorns. It's just covered in glitter and color swirls all the time because all I do in there is get rid of excess make-up and glitter. And then on the way home, the hardest part of the show actually isn't the physical body, it's vocally. Vocally, this show is very taxing because when he's not singing, he's overreacting at a higher pitch than I am in. He screams quite a bit, you know, trying to find a healthy scream is tough. By the last show of the week I'm like (stroking throat), "Do we have it? I think we have it. We're gonna do it." So on the way home, I'll vocalize myself kind of down. I'll do a warm down that I know that brings my voice back down and calms my chords and says, "Thank you so much for being with me. Come back tomorrow. Same time. Same place. I need you." And so I'll do that. And I haven't done any massages, I've been cheap. But I do go to the gym every day. If it's a show day, I'm at the gym. I have to be. I'll go straight to the gym from here actually. I do a mile at least everyday on the treadmill just to get my breathing going, to get my body limber. It actually vocally warms me up too, running. I lift a lot when I'm there and try to do some things to tone because I'm also in a corset and panties. I have to make my body look decent. I'd like to look good in a corset so in a very vain sense, I want to look good in the costumes, so I workout. But definitely the running is a big thing for me to get ready because it helps me pace my show because once he hits the stage he never stops. When I'm off stage, I'm changing into a different costume. My costumes weigh so much which brings back a very funny memory. Years ago I went backstage after La Cage Aux Folles to visit Harvey Fierstein in his dressing room. I remember I was talking about how amazing he was in the show and we were just sitting back there talking and he said "Go over there and grab that dress. Lift it." And I went to go lift it and it weighed so much. And he said, "Try putting that on!" I mean there were so many pieces of glass, that dress was damn near 30 pounds. At the time, I didn't think anything of it. But now, cut to this role, I have costumes that weigh about 30 pounds. That leather jacket I wear is covered in so much jewel work and chains and things. That jacket probably weighs about 25 pounds. So just little things like that requires me to keep myself built because if not, that just wears you down. My back would be killing me, my legs...So I have to work out. I don't think I could physically do it. I'm not the young man I used to be. I'm nearing 40 sooner than later and things hurt now.
BWW: What would you say has been your favorite part of becoming Frank-N-Furter?
Eric: I just love the entrance he has, especially in this production. The fact that I get to fly in over the audience. From the moment I come in, Richard O'Brian built in a hell of an entrance in general for Frank-N-Furter because the whole thing, we know the show, we are waiting for Frank-N-Furter to show up. So after The Time Warp, everyone's had a great time and then you just hear that pumping beat and everyone in the audience starts cheering because they know who's coming. And then when I come in, the audience can't see me at first, and I just love that right when the light hits me, everyone turns around and I just hear this huge swell of screaming and applause because he's arrived. So I walk in riding a tidal wave of excitement and I get to literally surf that wave for the next hour and 20 minutes in the show and it's a blast! I feel like the audience is like, "We're here! We're so glad we're here. We love you. Let's do it." and I'm like, "Yup. Let's go! We're in tandem. We're gonna go on a ride."
BWW: You've talked a lot about some challenging elements, what do you find to be the most challenging part?
Eric: Stamina, for the midnight shows especially. So Friday and Saturday we do an 8 pm and a midnight. And look, I guess the midnight show element of Rocky Horror is a part of it but midnight shows suck. I will say this in two parts to be fair. There is nothing less that I want to do after an 8 pm show than a midnight show. Literally, I look forward to it like I look forward to a root canal. But I will say this, the moment we get out there with that midnight show crowd, the audience is cheering. You look out there and they are in costume and they are wild and they know it and they love it, all of the sudden it all changes. You are in it again and you are riding that wave again. So it's a weird dichotomy. Because you're like, "Oh my God. Loathing. Can't do it. How could I possibly do this right now? I just came out of make-up how am I possibly getting back into it? How is this happening?" And then boom! I'm in it. I'm loving it. I'm happy. And then the next thing you know it's 2 am and you're like, "What the hell just happened?" All I need to do is go home and pop some Zzzquil so I can go to bed because my adrenaline is so high. Sometimes those nights I'll fall asleep with glitter in my hair because you know what, I can't be bothered at 3 in the morning to wash my hair.
BWW: Fair. That's so fair! Were you a Rocky fan before?
Eric: Not as much as everyone else. I don't have any kind of tie to the film. I've seen it.
BWW: The fans are a little intimidating.
Eric: Woo yeah. They know those callbacks so well! And it's been fun. It's been a fun process getting to know the callbacks. Because when they yell them back at you, to find the ones that are consistent so that you can hold. Like any kind of comedy, the best thing to do is, if you know a callback is coming, set them up, let them throw it at you, and then give them the punch line like any kind of good show. So I think sometimes the less successful people are kind of waiting for them, because there are ones that come every night. You know they're coming no matter what. When you open up the opportunity for them, you get the satisfaction of one, two, three: the perfect comedy recipe. But as far as being a fan, I've seen the film once before. I made it a point to not re-watch it. I have a deep admiration and respect for Tim Curry as an actor in general and what he did in this role. The last thing I wanted to do was be Tim Curry. That's not what a revival is for. A revival is to take a different look at something, to re-invent something and once I heard it was being set in a French Quarter feel, there was this Mardi Gras thing, and I was wearing this Mardi Gras-esque peacock feather costume, I was like, "Oh, I want to try something different." I want to see what is it like if he lives in a world more of a southern belle and like a Blanche Devereaux, Golden Girls feeling with Liberace. What if it was that? Decadence but also like the Southern culture of it all. So I was like I am going throw all of it in there and play with that. It was funny, some people and our music director have come up to me and said, "I love this Frank Underwood thing you are doing from House of Cards." And I am like, "What?" They're like, "Yes. You are giving this like devious, like Frank Underwood." And I thought, "Oh I guess it does come through there." I didn't even think about that but it's just fun to take something different on it and try something brand new and not do anything that's been done before. And how I know this show more than anything, I saw this show on Broadway years ago. I didn't live in New York then but I was visiting and I happened to pop in and get a ticket. And it was so incredible and Tom Hewitt, who played Frank-N-Furter was so frickin' unbelievable in that role because he didn't do anything that had been done before. He just made it his own and he was this sexual beast. He was a man too. I love that about Frank-N-Furter. Frank-N-Furter is a man. He is a sexual man. He's not gay. He's not straight. He is sexually fluid. He is gender fluid. He just lives in the moment of what he wants. And one of the best pieces of advice that I got, Jerry Mitchell is a very good friend of mine, in fact he was my director in On Your Feet on Broadway and I remember I was texting him about something and he wrote back about this show and he choreographed the revival on Broadway and he said something to me and when he said it I went, "Oh, that's something to listen to." He said, "Remember, with Frank, everything's innuendo. Everything. So look for those moments." And I remember one day in rehearsal the Rocky scene where he is running around, I had a giant net in my hand trying to catch him and I caught it out front of me and it was sticking out and I was like, "Oh, this is exactly what he means." And I saw Rocky look at me, and I gave him a look and I started doing a very sexual gesture on the handle of the net and it got this great reaction from the audience and I thought, "Oh go further with these. This is what he's about." He sees opportunity in everything. It's all about sex and decadence. It's about trying to unleash this in Brad and Janet and show them, "Your rigid way of life is not working for you. You are not seeing the full spectrum." So he lives his life like this and by that, allows other people too. So Jerry's advice really made me take it from this level and go, "We have another level to go to."
BWW: I love that. I think a lot of people think of Rocky Horror as just a fun Halloween thing, you know, put on a costume, be silly and sexy, but there's a lot more layers to it.
Eric: Oh my god, there are so many layers to it! Even the phrase, "Don't dream it. Be it." It's so interesting. I make sure every night, in that moment in particular, that when I am singing those lyrics and everyone is unleashing themselves and letting go of their sexuality, Brad, Janet, everyone, when I am singing those lyrics, I look an audience member in the eye every time I say it to remind them, just to have a moment. It sounds silly but the idea that we only get one life and living in your sexuality and what you feel like doing, as long as you aren't harming anybody, stop being so scared of it. Don't make it a fantasy in your head. Live in your fantasy. Put on a dress if you want. Paint your nails if you want. Because you get one life. We get one chance at this on this earth and we oppress ourselves so much and this show is all about that. You know, deep in the core of it, yes there is silliness thrown on there and aliens, but in the core of it, it's a commentary on society and the repressed nature of it, which is why I think it does so well here. We have this puritanical fear here of expressing ourselves and our identity and then you go into the theatre and see the kind of life you want to live. Then you go outside and maybe you try one or two things in secret, I don't know, but I think that's why it does so well here. Because like, in New York City, so many of us just do whatever the hell we want and people are so open to it there because it's like live and let live. There are so many of us here on this tiny island. So yeah I think there is some really cool stuff in this show that sometimes goes untapped. A lot of credit to Jimmy, our director, who was big on making sure that there was a bigger story to tell than just silliness.
Additional performance photos courtesy of Lyric Theatre and K. Talley Photography.
Rocky Horror runs through November 2.
For more info and to buy tickets click here!