BWW Exclusive: Audiences and Actors alike are being Seduced by The Stratford Festival's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

BWW Exclusive: Audiences and Actors alike are being Seduced by The Stratford Festival's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW

One need only take a quick stroll in the downtown core of Stratford, Ontario to figure out that a production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW is happening somewhere nearby. Fishnets and feather boas are in the windows of shops on every street corner, local businesses are naming dishes and drinks after the show...And quite frankly, you will probably hear somebody talking about the performance they just saw. The city of Stratford has officially caught Rocky Horror fever and as you get closer and closer to the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre on a show day, you are bound to catch it too. That's ok though. It's a good fever to catch!

For the uninitiated, here's a brief synopsis of the musical by Richard O'Brien: A tightly wound, sexually repressed, recently engaged couple named Janet (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) and Brad (Sayer Roberts) find themselves with a flat tire on their way to visit their high school science teacher (Trevor Patt). They end up at a strange castle and meet an array of interesting folks who are more interested in dancing the 'Time Warp' than in pointing them in the direction of a phone. They then meet 'Sweet Transvestite' Frank 'N Furter (Dan Chameroy), along with Rocky (George Krissa), the muscle man he has just created. What ensues is a night of hijinks, weirdness and sexual liberation, set to some fantastic live rock music. It is a strange story...so we also have a Narrator (Steve Ross) to help guide us along.

This envelope-pushing cult classic may not sound like something you would expect to find at the famed Stratford Festival, but as Director/Choreographer Donna Feore points out, it is actually a really good fit. "I always felt it would do well here because it is a classic, and we do classics really well." She explains.

The Stratford Festival is a big draw for theatre lovers around the globe and there are plenty of Stratford locals who have always taken advantage of the world-class theatre available in their own backyard, but this season feels a little different. The whole town has completely embraced the Festival's production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and many townsfolk who do not typically find themselves attending the theatre are not only making a point to check out this production, but are actually returning for a second or third time! "You'll hear people on the street say that they've never been to the theatre, period, much less the Festival-and they've come to see this. So it's great." Says Steve Ross, who plays the Narrator. "It's exciting to see new folks and new faces," he adds.

Actor Jennifer Rider-Shaw, who plays Janet, shares that she and her partner Robert Markus (who plays Riff Raff in the production) have enjoyed hearing from locals about how excited they are about the show: "From the cashiers at the grocery store to the people at the lumber yard, everyone is responding so positively."

Stratford local, Rebecca Price admits that she had not set foot in the Avon theatre since crossing the stage for her high school graduation in 2011. "[Rocky Horror] is more in line with what I'm interested in." She explains. Upon entry into the lobby for THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW she was surprised and delighted by the scene that greeted her. "It's very casual...I'm seeing people in jeans and shorts and costumes. It's not at all what I expected [of the theatre]."

In addition to zero judgment in attire, the lobby is equipped with large cardboard cutouts so that audience members can take pictures of themselves 'in bed' with Frank 'N Furter, Brad, and Janet. There are also Audience Participation Packages for sale to allow for the full experience. "We wanted the audience to know that this was a different experience and the most important thing to me was that nobody felt excluded. I didn't want it to be [an exclusive] club" explains Feore, who describes Stratford's production as an "event" rather than simply a show.

BWW Exclusive: Audiences and Actors alike are being Seduced by The Stratford Festival's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOWDon't worry if any of this confuses you due to a lack of familiarity with the show. You certainly wouldn't be alone, and as Feore emphasized, there is no "club" here. It is clear that the Festival's goal is for all audience members to enjoy the experience. Frank 'N Furter himself, actor Dan Chameroy explains: "I'd say maybe 15% of the audience, the majority of the time, knows what the show is. Then there are the [ROCKY] 'virgins' who don't have a clue what they are in for...and then you have those people coming in who are excited about this evening of wild rock 'n roll...and then there are the people being brought by others...We're getting a mix of all sorts of people who are having their first theatrical experience and people who have been coming for years. They're all sort of jammed into a theatre and it's a wild thing to hear-how it progressively gets wilder and wilder throughout the show."

It can be just as wild outside the theatre too, as many patrons gather in full costume before and after the show. When asked if she has a favourite audience costume, Rider-Shaw explains that she actually has a favourite theatre-goer: "There have been SO many amazing costumes, but a special shout-out goes to Rhonda Gesinghaus. She's a local woman who runs some fitness boot camps here in town and she has been to our show five times, I think - and she dresses up as a different character every time she comes."

Sayer Roberts, who plays Brad, says he loves that the people who dress up range in age from their teens to their 80's, but in terms of a favourite, he too had a specific patron come to mind: "There was a man I met at the stage door named Bruce, he's 71, and he was dressed in a black tux with a plaid bow tie and cummerbund. He said he was Brad, 40 years in the future. That's the love and dedication to this show that I've just been blown away by."

BWW had the opportunity to chat with audience members at several different performances, and sure enough, there was a good mix of frequent theatre patrons and people who were experiencing the Stratford Festival for the first time. During the first late night performance, BWW approached a group of four patrons who were fully costumed-one as Magenta and three as Frank 'N Furter. The expectation was that they were hard-core Rocky Horror fans, but as it turned out, Sandy, Ian, Doug, and Phillip were in fact self-proclaimed "hard-core Stratford Festival fans"! Doug shared that he was seeing the show for the fifth time and that he has seen many a show at the Stratford Festival, but "can't recall one that has grabbed local audiences like this one has."

Jackie Kitchen (who was also in full costume) is on the other end of the spectrum. The Torontonian had never seen a show at the Stratford Festival before but came to this one because she has been a fan of THE ROCKY HORROR [PICTURE] SHOW since she was thirteen years old. "My best friend's older sister had the album." She explained. "We used to listen to the music every single day and dance to 'Sweet Transvestite' outside on the sidewalk." Kitchen says she absolutely plans to return to Stratford to see THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW again before the end of its run. She now has a little more time to plan that trip, as it was recently announced that the production has been extended until November 11th.

When asked if there is an intimidation factor that comes with the knowledge and expectations of the hard-core Rocky Horror fans, the performers acknowledge that they were not quite sure what to expect from the rabid fan base. "I was really intimidated because people are diehard fans of this show." Explains Steve Ross. "I was a fan of the show. I saw it when I was a kid a lot-the movie and stuff, but not like these guys who come back again and again."

Rider-Shaw echoes this sentiment: "It was a bit intimidating at first - we didn't really know what to expect at our first few previews." She explains that although she knew all about the hard-core fans and the call-outs, she never expected the Stratford audiences to be as wildly enthused as they have been. "It's awesome! People are dressed up and ready to party!"

Dan Chameroy cites a slightly different source of intimidation-Tim Curry's famous portrayal of his character. "When this opportunity came up...you kind of go...Ok it's Tim Curry's thing." He says he knew right away that they couldn't (and shouldn't) change the look of the character. "I'm going to have the black hair and the corset and the heels and fishnets...I can't create my own visual of the character. I'm ok with that because it informs a lot about the character." He did make a point to work with Feore to create his own version of other aspects of Frank though. He has never seen the movie and made a point to not copy anyone else's portrayal. "It's been a slow process with Donna and the cast of creating our own version of what the show is," he explains, adding that audiences have been very kind. "It is very rewarding coming out and feeling the love from the audience...It's weird to be a rock-star in your 40's!"

BWW Exclusive: Audiences and Actors alike are being Seduced by The Stratford Festival's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOWAnd what do the Rocky Horror faithful have to say about this production? BWW reached out to Amy Taylor, the Cast Director of the decades-long running 'Shadow Cast' screenings of the ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW in Toronto. She explains that the hard-core fans of the movie have a lot of respect for the stage show because the stage show came first. Her cast is currently planning a group outing to see the Stratford show. "The bigger themes and concepts in the musical wrapped in a tongue-in-cheek 'Sex, drag and rock 'n roll' mean it was both ahead of its time and is still so relevant today," notes Taylor. "So long as the production respects that heart of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW 'Don't Dream It Be It', which it seems like this production has done from what I've seen so far, it will only add to Rocky's legacy."

Sayer Roberts very much feels the love of the ROCKY HORROR faithful and the message that they support: "I'd seen it when I was in my teens, but it wasn't an instant connection for me. What's been so memorable about the process of putting this show together though has been discovering that connection, what so many people found in both the movie and the show, the freedom to be one's true self, embracing what makes us unique and not trying to be anything else. Being loved and accepted for just showing up as our full selves."

As much as the costumes, fan base, and enthusiastic applause certainly make for a great audience, what makes this show different from anything else that has been performed on the Stratford stage is the extent (and nature) of audience participation. The ROCKY HORROR tradition includes audience call-outs at key times during the show. There are some common call-outs but there are also opportunities to reference something local or topical. "It's like nothing we've done-simply because of the nature of the interactivity of it," explains Ross.

Rider-Shaw adds: "We can't really get used to the call-outs because they change all the time. We had to learn how to let the audience participate without getting distracted or losing our lines. We want to let the audience in so it's a bit of a dance of giving them space to do their call-out but not too much space in case the call-out doesn't come."

Roberts notes that company members would shout their own call outs during the rehearsal process, so he was able to get a bit of an idea of how it would influence the show. That said, "Every single show there are at least one or two new ones, and sometimes I have to fight a little bit not to smirk." For Roberts, the hardest part of keeping a straight face is actually not the audience, "What I've actually found MOST difficult to fight against laughing at is Dan Chameroy. He gets this humour and style so well, and his choices are just killer. He's a master of working a moment just right and I could easily fall apart if I don't stay on my guard."

BWW Exclusive: Audiences and Actors alike are being Seduced by The Stratford Festival's THE ROCKY HORROR SHOWAlthough the whole cast has call-out moments to contend with, no one's experience is quite like that of the Narrator. Booed and called "boring" from the beginning, most of the Narrator's interactions are with the audience, and he is often alone on stage, reacting to the good natured insults hurled his way. Ross explains: "I have never had to be so present in a show, because a lot of the people in the cast can ignore [the call-outs]...but we've set it up right away that I will acknowledge you, so I can't ever not acknowledge someone."

Chameroy notes that there have occasionally been some poorly timed call-outs, or things shouted that don't quite make sense, but that he encourages audience members to give it a try. "That's what the show's about! It's an intimidating thing...it's awkward...but this is a place where it's ok." His main piece of advice: "Be respectful of what the show is, but have a good time with it!"

Everyone seems to be in agreement that the vibe to this show, and the relationship between the performers and the audience is unique and different from anything done at the Stratford Festival before. "Rocky Horror is a magic show. The company and I all agree that it is like a drug." Says Feore, who adds that she has never felt so inspired as she has this season while tackling both THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW and THE MUSIC MAN as Director/Choreographer. "It makes you euphoric. There's something about it."

Rider-Shaw agrees that this is a different animal: "I've never experienced anything like it in the theatre. The audience participation is off the charts and we love it!"

Roberts explains that although an audience is always a big part of a show, "With Rocky, it's a whole different game." He continues "Every single show is different, sometimes drastically so, and that's been the most fun. Showing up at the theatre and not knowing what kind of audience we'll have keeps us on our toes for sure."

With this in mind, Chameroy wanted to make sure to extend a thank-you to audiences. "They really do make the show. It's a two-sided kind of experience for us as performers and for the audience. It's pretty rewarding having done this for as long as I have. I've never experienced anything like this in terms of audience reaction."

So with all this love from the audience, are the performers getting stopped on the street? "That doesn't tend to happen to me because I look so different when I'm not in my blonde Janet wig." Explains Rider-Shaw. "I walk home amongst patrons who have just watched me perform for two hours and no one ever recognizes me!"

It apparently takes even less than a wig to go fully incognito though, as Sayer Roberts has come to learn: "I'm the only one in the show who basically looks like my normal self, no makeup or wigs, and yet people hardly ever recognize me. Who'd have thought just a pair of glasses could disguise me so well. I guess it worked for Clark Kent though, so I shouldn't be surprised!"

Perhaps this anonymity might be for the best, as the excitement level of audiences exiting the theatre has at times been quite intense! That said, Chameroy notes that whenever he has gone to the lobby after the show, the patrons could not have been kinder.

If there was ever any trepidation about mounting this show in Stratford, the risk was clearly worth it. "It shows you not to ever question a challenge and not to back down from it. Donna's so smart," exclaims Ross.

As for the biggest takeaway that Donna Feore wants audiences to get from this wild ride of a show: "I hope that everyone feels welcome, and if that's their first theatrical experience I'm so proud of that...because maybe they'll come back, maybe it won't feel so intimidating, because theatre is for everyone. It should be inclusive."

Many thanks to the Stratford Festival, Donna Feore, Dan Chameroy, Jennifer Rider-Shaw, Sayer Roberts, and Steve Ross as well as the multiple diehard fans and members of the audience for their enthusiastic participation in this article.

THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW continues in repertory at the Avon Theatre until November 11th.

Photo Credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

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From This Author Lauren Gienow

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