The Rocky Horror Picture Show holds the distinct honor of being the longest-running theatrical release in film history, a phenomenon likely no one saw coming when it first debuted in 1975. Rocky‘s staying power can undoubtedly be attributed to audience participation and shadow casts—the groups of actors who perform the entire movie in front of the screen, complete with props, costumes, and rapid improvisation. Audience members also dance along to the Time Warp, throw objects around the theater (when allowed and appropriate), and shout out established callbacks to different events that occur during the performance.
To coincide with Fox’s “reimagining” of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which premieres tonight at 7:00 p.m. Central, Twin Cities Geek reached out to your friendly neighborhood Rocky Horror shadow cast: Transvestite Soup. Brian Watson-Jones and Jenna Powers were able to meet for an interview.
Lydia Karch (TCG): I’ll start with an easy one—can you tell our readers what roles you currently have with the cast?
Brian Watson-Jones: I’m the cast director, but on stage I usually play Riff-Raff and Eddie or Dr. Everett Von Scott.
Jenna Powers: I’m the crew director. If needed I will play the Criminologist, Dr. Scott, Eddie, or Betty.
TCG: How long have you been involved with Transvestite Soup?
Brian: I joined the cast in 2012 and took over as director in January 2013.
Jenna: I’ve been in the group since 2007. You know, I should do a big thing for 10 years where I pretend to quit.
Brian: You should!
TCG: When did you first see a Rocky Horror performance?
Jenna: I had a fun one. My best friend and the guy she was interested in were going to the Picture Show, because he really wanted to go, but neither of them could drive. So I was the awkward third wheel for their weird-ass date. I was kind of “meh” on the whole thing at first. Then they both joined the cast, but they still needed rides, so they gave me $10 a week for rides. I slowly got absorbed, kind of uncomfortably, like an angler fish. They just started giving me things to do because I was bored, and I just started doing more and more and more. And then I was on crew, and then I just took over crew. Mostly I was in the right place at the right time, and then people were like, “You’re responsible—do this!”
Brian: I saw it for the first time in high school. Our theater teacher showed it to us, which I still don’t quite understand. I loved it; it was ridiculous. I really wanted to play Riff-Raff, and I didn’t know about shadow cast at that point, and I couldn’t sing, so I was like, “Oh well . . . that dream will die.” Then I went to college and someone was starting the shadow cast, and I was like, “Oh! You don’t need any talent!” So I was in shadow cast in college for about three years. Then I moved here and saw the show at the Riverview and was like, I should join! Then five years later I saw it again, and was like, I should join!
TCG: And when did you first join a shadow cast?
Brian: I first joined in 2000, my sophomore year of college. Out in New York in Yonkers—close enough to the New York cast that we went once or twice, but it was something like a 40-minute drive, so it didn’t happen often. We performed once a year on Halloween. It meant that we got to do a full six-week rehearsal period, in the space where we were going to perform. We even had a full cast of Transylvanians. Then there was a big gap until I finally pulled the trigger and actually showed up for an audition out here in 2012.
Jenna: And we’re so glad you did! I didn’t have anything before Transvestite Soup. I started when I was in high school in Stillwater, although I was 18 at the time—Transvestite Soup doesn’t allow cast members under 18. Minnesota has weird laws about sex acts in public. You can’t show nipples, ever. There was a girl who was playing Trixie, the girl who dances during the opening act, usually burlesque. She was like, “How far should I strip down?” And we said, however far you’re comfortable. And she was apparently very comfortable, because she went down to just panties. The assistant director at the time immediately shot up and covered her with a blanket. I still don’t know how they moved that fast.
TCG: Over time, have your roles with the cast changed?
Brian: I started as just cast, obviously, and that was all I was interested in doing. When I joined, the director at the time had for a while been looking to scale back, mainly because she had family, a kid who was getting older. She’d been looking for a replacement, and she wanted to pass it into good hands. For some reason she picked me, maybe because I showed up to things? I do other theater stuff, so she knew I had experience in other fields. She grabbed me, shifted me into it, scaled back, and then eventually left altogether. In terms of roles, that’s where I’ve been ever since, but it took me a few months to figure out my directing style, rather than just imitating the style of the previous director.
Jenna: My first ever helping-out thing, other than giving rides, was when the old crew girl had something happen—she wasn’t able to make a show, so I got pulled on to do Betty. It was purely because I fit the dress. We had a wedding dress at the time, and I fit it, so they put me on the stage. I think at that time I was just a groupie. This was when we used to do shows every other week. I ended up doing that, and was just given duties, and then I just kind of took over crew.
TCG: What is your favorite thing about putting on the show?
Brian: The energy in the room. Every single month, no matter how stressful that month has been, whether it’s because I have a lot of things going on, or it’s been a tough casting month with a lot of conflicts, or it’s been a really smooth month and everyone’s on time, or everyone’s late and there’s a lot of paranoia that I’ll have to do a one-man Rocky—which happened one time!
Jenna: Was that the first blow-up-doll show? We have a blow-up doll that we’ve used to replace characters. It doesn’t look great, but it’s funny for 30 seconds, so we use it for the whole show. Because you know—if it’s funny for 30 seconds, it’s funny for the whole show.
Brian: The flow just kicks in, and everything is great. The feeling in the room is just running, and you get that runner’s high.
Jenna: I kind of have two reasons. One is just when you have a big show, or any show really, and you go, “Hey, they’re here to see something I’ve put my heart into.” Especially when it’s a sold-out show—last month we had a sold-out show, which is just unheard of for September. I got on stage and was like, “Why the fuck are you guys all here?”
Brian: Because whatever it is, we want to duplicate it!
Jenna: I’ve just gotten so much confidence. I used to be such a wallflower, and now I get on stage and curse at people. When you make an audience laugh, there’s nothing like that high, ever. The second thing is that Rocky cast and crew are family. You work with these people, you know the ins and outs of their lives, and it’s just family. We probably have the best group that I have seen in years.
Brian: People step up if “step up” needs happening.
Jenna: We had one girl who joined cast, and we had someone cancel that day, and she had—what did she originally try out for? Columbia?
Brian: Yes, Columbia.
Jenna: She had tried out for Columbia that day—
Brian: Like two hours before—
Jenna: And we had a Janet drop out, so she was like, “I’ll do it.” She had no idea what she was doing, but she tried. Another time we didn’t have a Columbia and we were gonna use a blow-up doll, and a girl who came in saw I was going to dance with a blow-up doll, so she just walked in, threw away the blow-up doll, and started dancing with me. I think she finished the rest of the show? The whole relationship is like, “Hey, I need a ride.” Somebody’s on it. “Hey, I need this picked up.” Somebody’s on it.
Brian: I’m officiating Jenna’s wedding because of Rocky. I officiated another cast person’s wedding. We all have other lives, everybody’s got external stuff, but there’s still something weirdly connected about being in a group like this, maybe because it’s so unlike anything else.
And this is how Rocky still stays relevant. When it started it was the place for alternative lifestyles to go, the only really reliable safe space anywhere. Obviously that changed a bunch when the Internet got big—gay kids from tiny, tiny places nowhere near Rocky could find communities that could sustain them, and stay safe, until they could get out. The Internet is great—you can meet all sorts of people—but it’s not a physical place. Rocky is still the first place where you can physically go and interact with strangers. You’re going out and dressing up and having people compliment you on it. Rocky is still, for a lot people, their first baby steps out into the real world as themselves. Obviously you don’t see it every show, but when you do see it, it’s wonderful. Every show we’ve had since I joined, it’s been about a third “virgins”—which is what we call people seeing the show for the first time, because the other kind of virgin is a social construct and it’s meaningless—and a lot of virgins are straight college guys who are cross-dressing and just trying something new and finding out it’s fine.
Jenna: I think boiled down, that’s what Rocky is. Acceptance. It’s amazing when you can see someone who’s very quiet and introverted, and you see them get on stage and they’re loud and boisterous. They fall into themselves. Rocky is the place where you can discover who you really are.
TCG: What is it like putting on a monthly show with an all-volunteer cast?
Jenna: The problem that most people have when they try to run a volunteer organization is that they try to treat their volunteers like employees. No. That’s not how you get people to do shit! You treat them like volunteers, you make sure they know that their work is completely valued. Bribes are also extremely helpful. “Hey, if you show up to rehearsal, I’ll bring you cookies!” Another thing is cast-only parties. Last year, we had a woman who we called Rocky Mom, she was kind of part of cast for about 10 to 15 years because her daughter was on cast, and her daughter kept dragging her to shows, and when her daughter quit she just kept coming to shows. Because Rocky tends to bring in the more alternative people, they don’t tend to have the best relationships with their family, and Rocky Mom became our mom—we knew that we could talk to her about anything. She moved to Sweden four years ago, but she came back around Thanksgiving. So I set up a Rocky Horror Thanksgiving to just say hi to her and hug her, and about 60 or 70 people showed up.
Even if you’re not on cast now, you still have that affinity with people who were on cast before. I guarantee you, you throw a rock in any distance around this, you will find someone who was in Rocky. You’ve got Hal Bichel at Twin Cities Geek. Almost any theater or geek community in the Twin Cities has a Rocky member or old Rocky member. Guaranteed.
Brian: Even if they only did it for a short time. People cut their teeth on it. Even though I still meet people who are like, “Oh, I didn’t know that existed.”
TCG: Do you think you’re currently at capacity, or are you looking to change up the schedule?
Jenna: We could always use more people. Always.
Brian: When people audition, they audition for a primary role, which we ask them to stick with until they’re ready to branch out and do other things. So we have a couple of roles with three or four people. But the cast as a whole, yeah, we’ve got spots.
Jenna: It’s hard when you only have one primary for a role, because if they don’t show up one month, it’s like, “Ehhh?” I think we only have one Frank right now.
Brian: We have a couple training up. But yeah, we definitely need more crew; there are definitely some roles we need more people for.
Jenna: Rocky Horror has always been a place where we try to promote safe sex and positive LGBT environments and—what am I missing?
Brian: Just sex positivity.
Jenna: A lot of Rocky is just a safe space for people who don’t feel like they fit in anywhere else in culture, because that’s what it used to be. This was the safe haven for the goths in the ’80s. You could go to Rocky in the ’80s and actually tell people you were gay and not have them be immediately affronted, like, “Oh you have AIDS.” Right now a lot of the partnerships we do are caused by Hal. She was just like, “Hey, our interests overlap, let’s see what we can do here.” It was such a great click for us—they give us condoms, and we give out publicity! At CONvergence for our room party we have a info rack next to the condoms where we have all the pamphlets Family Tree Clinic and Pro-Choice Resources give us. We also have a small partnership with the Satanic Temple. I’m not sure we’ve actually done anything for them.
Brian: We at least give out their pamphlets. At CONvergence we make sure there are condoms, female condoms, dental dams, latex gloves, nonlatex gloves. We just make sure everyone who wants to have fun can stay safe. That’s a big thing. We put the bowl of sex-positive toys as far out of vision as possible so there’s not a sense of embarrassment. You don’t have to prove you’re 18, you don’t have to ask anyone for advice on which one to pick.
Jenna: There’s still that taboo of condoms, like you don’t really want to talk about that. We get around that by putting a giant inflatable penis on our table. If you’re going to pose for a picture with a penis, you’re going to grab condoms. And I really enjoy that we’re able to provide that information to kids. A lot of the Rocky fan base is kids who aren’t going to talk to their parents about sex, or their doctors about sex. I can give them a pamphlet that says, “Hey, here’s how you put on a condom.”
Brian: The percentage of people who are going to have sex only if they can find a condom, at least among kids, is pretty low. So maybe we can help them figure out how not to spread HPV?
Jenna: Yeah, I’ve been really proud of our partnerships.
TCG: Of the original cast, who would you most like to grab a drink with? And what type of drink would it be?
Jenna: I want to get martinis with Patricia Quinn. She just seems like an old lady who likes martinis. Or a beer with Barry Bostwick. He is so much fun at conventions. He regularly signs underwear for people—they just bring in the pair of ugly-ass underwear he had to wear for Rocky, and he signs them. He’s just such a nice old guy. He’s in such awful, awful, cheesy movies. He’s in a movie called FDR: American Badass! It is the most terrible movie you will ever see, and he plays FDR, and he’s awesome. He fights werewolves.
Brian: I’m pairing that up with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for a double episode. Then I’m also pairing that up with vodka.
Jenna: So who do you want to drink with?
Brian: My heart says red wine with Susan Sarandon, but I don’t feel worthy of that. So I’ll probably also go with beer with Barry.
Jenna: Everyone in the original—Susan Sarandon, Barry, Patricia Quinn, Nell Campbell—they’ve just been all into it the whole time. They’re so good to their fans. There’s a Rocky convention every year; it’s hosted by different shadow casts across the whole US. The original cast makes sure they’re at it every year, and they don’t just sign pictures. They judge things, they interact with fans—they’re just amazing. I know Patricia Quinn went to Gallifrey One last year, and she was signing Rocky pictures.
Brian: Yes, Hal got me a signed picture! So just one to go now. I love hearing Meat Loaf stories from when he just signed. He was the guy on cast who more than anyone else went in really uncomfortable with it, and came out such a fan. He joined cast as Eddie and Dr. Scott. He went to the first rehearsal, met the rest of the cast, and then Tim Curry walks in the back of the theater in full costume, singing “Sweet Transvestite,” like this is happening. Meat Loaf freaks out, tears out of the theater, runs across the street, and gets a ticket for jaywalking. The director went out and talked him into coming back and performing. And by the end, he was upset about not getting to play Dr. Scott in the movie because he wanted to show off his legs. That really shows how the transition from discomfort to comfort is just familiarity. Although Meat Loaf has since gone kind of crazy, but it’s not related.
Jenna: I think it’s from Spice World.
TCG: Fox’s reimagining, The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again, is airing on October 20th. What are you expecting in this production?
Jenna: I was very, very apprehensive at first because it was pitched as a remake. But this isn’t a remake. They are going to be very, very lovingly giving Rocky shadow casts and fans their due. From the trailers it looks like this is a love letter to us.
Brian: At the very least a love letter to the original cast. And we are also sending a love letter to the original cast.
Jenna: I think it’s a love letter to casts and fans.
Brian: I was very against the remake at first, and then I had this pseudoepiphany another month ago where I realized, they’re making more Rocky Horror. And that’s a good thing. If that’s not a good thing, why are we doing this?
Jenna: Literally all it’s going to do is bring more people to our show. Best-case scenario, it’s amazing, and people come to our show because they want to see more. Worst-case scenario, people come see our show and forget about the reboot.
Brian: In every trailer and clip I’ve seen, Laverne Cox looks astonishingly good. She is just killing it.
Jenna: I just don’t like the lab coat. It’s cow print—why?
Brian: I don’t know. I’m also really excited about Benjamin Vereen. You cast one of the best Broadway dancers ever as the wheelchair-using character. Okay.
Jenna: It’s a win-win no matter what. Any time Rocky is in the media, our audience boosts. Even when Glee did a version—it was awful, but more people came to our show.
Brian: And shadow casts, we’ve always been gender blind, race blind, age blind.
Jenna: Yeah, our Frank is in at least his 50s. Most people quit Rocky around the age of 30; they kind of do their own thing.
Brian: Our Frank did that same thing, but then he came back.
Jenna: We’ve got such great cast for everything. We do theme shows too, sometimes—when Game of Thrones premiered, we did a Game of Thrones show, and that was the weirdest show I’ve ever put on. I pulled a throne of swords out of my ass in two hours.
Brian: It looked good.
Jenna: A throne of swords with dicks.
Brian: Who knows how much of that spray paint you inhaled. I played Eddie as Jon Snow.
Jenna: That was so funny.
Brian: I have no idea if anyone else enjoyed it, but Jenna was sitting in front of me laughing so hard.
Jenna: I really enjoy acting, but I also just really enjoy messing with my cast. If you can break anyone out of character with a joke—we had this actress who played Janet, and she had never heard the callback line before Frank goes, “Oh, honey!” and someone screams, “What do Irish bees make?” And she just lost it. I don’t know why she hadn’t heard that before, but she lost it.
TCG: You have the Halloween show coming up—anything else you want to promote or share?
Jenna: We’re getting a new tank, and it’s glorious and it lights up! Everyone should also preorder their tickets for Halloween early. Every Halloween we sell out weeks in advance.
Brian: If you rely on seats at the door, you might be going home in your fishnets alone.
Jenna: We had to do that at the last show—we had to send like 40 people home! For Halloween we used to be able to go up to 700 people in the old Uptown Theatre. For probably about six years, we held the record for the biggest Rocky Horror audience sell-out show. In the Landmark chain at least.
Brian: Landmark, the company that owns Uptown, does Rocky in at least eight or nine cities. It just works for them.
TCG: Any other final parting words or wisdom to share?
Brian: Oh, I finally wrote the elevator speech! It’s how we spread—
Brian: We don’t have a mission statement, but if we did, it would be that we support spreading sex-positive and LGBT awareness by acting like idiots in front of a 40-year-old movie.
Transvestite Soup performs The Rocky Horror Picture Show at midnight on the last Saturday of every month. As noted, Halloween weekend performances always sell out, so buy your tickets in advance at the Uptown Theatre website! For more information, visit TransvestiteSoup.org or follow the shadow cast on Facebook or Twitter.