The Show Must Go On

Taylor Griffin takes the stage as “Frank N. Furter.” PHOTO BY LEILA TSELNER/SF FOGHORN

Almost 300 USF students and San Franciscans took to campus last Saturday in fishnet stockings and platform boots to watch the College Players’ production of  “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” 

The College Players, USF’s student-run theater company, continued their yearly devotion to the film. For over a decade, they have started their season with “Rocky Horror.”

The movie flopped when it debuted in the ‘70s, but queer communities have since embraced it around the globe. “Rocky Horror was one of the first movies to show complex LGBTQIA+ characters, an aspect which has gained the film a kind of ‘ritualized worship,’” reporting from the BBC notes. “It’s a love letter to queer history,” said Fen Wright, a third-year psychology major and one of the show’s directors. 

Each year, theaters, performing arts troupes, and bars perform a classic “shadow cast” version of the show. Fans watch the 1975 film play on a large screen, while performers simultaneously lip sync and dance to the musical. Audience interaction is one of the main components of the show; throughout the film people in the crowd yell responses to the movie’s dialogue.

“Rocky Horror is a really interesting movie because it’s a product of its time, but revolves around whoever is performing it and their identities,” Wright said.

While the College Players kept certain “Rocky Horror” traditions like audience involvement alive, a COVID-19 case presented a new challenge to cast members. 

Two days prior to opening night, one of the lead actors playing Riff Raff tested positive for COVID-19 and they did not have an understudy.

Sam Joon Fernandez, an ensemble actor, stepped into the role with only two days to prepare — a challenging task for Fernandez’s first theater production. 

In an interview with the Foghorn on opening night, Fernandez said the audience actually calmed his nerves. “The audience response has been amazing, and it’s made my job on stage really easy. It was really super fun to be able to do this role.” 

“Putting Sam in a main role, he’s really come into his own,” Wright said. “He got the blocking instantly, because he had watched the previous person do it so many times.”

The College Players are one of many theater groups around the globe that have stuck to the “show must go on” spirit in coexisting with COVID-19. In early 2022, NPR found that in one Broadway show alone, producers canceled a week’s worth of shows due to a COVID-19 outbreak. When the show resumed, more than 60% of the roles on stage were performed by understudies. 

Despite the COVID-19 induced challenges of the performance, audiences enjoyed themselves. Elena Freiwald, a fifth-year performing arts and social justice major, was excited to see the show for the first time. “It was pretty crazy. I loved how into it the audience was. Even though I had never watched the movie before I was able to follow the storyline pretty well because of the callers and the actors doing such an amazing job,” she said. 

For Freiwald, “The Time Warp” performance stood out. The 20-person cast stormed the stage to dance along to one of the film’s most iconic musical numbers. “It’s such a classic. The choreography was excellent and everyone performed it with a lot of energy,” she said. 

A lively, fun performance coexisted with more serious moments in the show. In one instance, the College Players’ cast left the stage entirely, as the scene in the film involved sexual coercion. Moments like this have brought up larger arguments over the dated and problematic nature of some of the show’s content. 

Phoebe Perkins, a second-year politics major and a co-director of the show, said that the creative team focuses on performer well-being because the content can be intense. “We have our consent workshop at the beginning of the production, essentially to establish that anyone is allowed to say they are uncomfortable with blocking at any time,” she said. “We check in with actors every step of the way.”

As the executive producer of the College Players, Wright supports the company’s yearly return to “Rocky Horror.” The show continues because of what it means to the queer community, especially in San Francisco. “It is easy to make fun of it as a bad movie, but it’s also interesting to watch it as a love letter to queer history,” Wright said. 

The love for the film and its legacy of camp and queerness brought together the audience and the cast that night. “I love theater at the end of the day,” Wright said. “Talking to the cast and crew, they also love theater and they can feel the love from each other. I hope the audience can feel the love of theater through us.”

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