Throwing toast, snapping rubber gloves, shouting “Borrr-ing!” and doing the Time Warp. The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a classic of audience participation. First produced as a live stage show at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs) in London in 1973, and then transformed into a midnight-movie cult-phenomenon at some point in New York at the Waverly Theatre around 1976, Rocky Horror puts audience involvement centre-stage. Through rituals of dressing up as the sexy-camp-glam characters, bringing specific props, and taking up the call-and-response script, the audience creates its own show, running in parallel to the filmed performance.
And so, having seen a live stage version at the Stratford Festival (!) recently, I was struck by how the intensive audience participation of Rocky Horror seems (at least at first) so entirely different from the other theatrical examples of audience participation in the socially-turned performance of the 2010s that I have been collecting. I want to think this through a bit here.
One place to start is with the origins of audience participation in Rocky Horror. The now well-known popular audience contributions to the show developed in an entirely grassroots mutative way. As documented in Sal Piro’s book Creatures of the Night, a core group of regular attendees first started adding interjected commentary, then they brought props, and eventually donned full costumes and even staged short live scenes that mimicked the action on the screen. How does this happen? One recognizable source for this kind of behaviour is the tradition of live pantomime where booing the villains and cheering the hero is a familiar convention.
Another critical component that makes this possible initially, I think, is not theatrical but rather relates to the fixity of Rocky Horror as film. Specific features of film as film create space for these atypical-for-theatre interactive behaviours: 1) The actors are not really present. They cannot be disrupted. And so this allows behaviour that is ordinarily suppressed in contemporary theatre by fourth-wall conventions. No matter what the audience does the film rolls on. It is impervious to interruption and so the stakes for audience interpolation are low. You can’t ‘break’ it. And that is very liberating. 2) The fixity of the film means that every showing is exactly the same — exactly the same — exactly the same. Devoted repeat audiences–who see the film sometimes hundreds or even thousands of times–learn the film in precise detail and are able to interject commentary into the known gaps and pauses. This sets up a call and response, where the audience sets up the joke and the film provides the predictable punchline. We laugh because the film dialogue is being repurposed in often lewd ways. The filmed actors have no choice but to reply as they always do, generating a secondary channel for our amusement as they are ‘forced’ to play into the rude jokes. 3) Unlike live performance, the repeatability of film allows for myriad showings in multiple locations and over many years. Rocky Horror is the longest continuously showing film, being shown weekly in many cities over the last 40 years. This intensity of repetition enables patterns of audience participation to be developed, but also refined and codified, becoming itself a full second script that is transmitted via popular culture from audience to audience and from theatre to theatre. Of course there are local variations, and commentary evolves to pick up current references (the 98-pound weakling call-out has variously referenced Calista Flockhart, Mary-Kate Olson, former VP Dan Quayle, and when I saw it: Stratford-native Justin Bieber), but there is a more or less stable core pattern of audience participation. Innovation takes an almost Darwinian form as people test new interventions and those that are well-received survive and are repeated. (Apparently there was a phase of throwing hot dogs and other cylindrical meat at the end of “Planet Schmanet Janet” but this fell out of practice, because, well, gross.)
All this action is great fun, but from another perspective Rocky Horror is not really participatory — if we understand participation to be interactive. The audience is participating, that is taking part in a collective action or event, admittedly together with other members of the audience. Also perhaps the audience participates with the inert film. But any true interaction–mutual action between two parties– is impossible. Participation only flows one-way because our performance is asynchronous with that of the actors. The audience has 100 per cent control but only over 50 per cent of the performance. This issue of the scope of control or audience influence is central to thinking about what role audiences occupy. How high are we on Arnstein’s ladder where the highest rung is “citizen control?” Typical theatre performances never (never?) reach that level because it squeezes out the control/influence of the artist. Arguably the work of conceiving and executing an experience is the purview of the artist, who applies their skillset to offer a specific understanding or feeling to the audience. Who is the artist of Rocky Horror Show? This question brings me back to the point that Rocky Horror takes place on two disparate channels: the film and the live event. Richard O’Brien, who wrote the book, songs and lyrics, and the actors and technical crews et al. are the creators of the artifact that is the film. But the audience is the creator of the live event. Maybe we can see film then as simply much-loved but subordinate material used in their own artistic collective creation.
The collectivity of the audience–developed over decades of screenings–is another remarkable feature of this participation. Convention forges the audience into one actor, shouting or dancing in unison. The single point of attention on the screen also works to unify these actions aligned to a single track. Audience members act individually but the collectivity of the experience moves us as “one.” Contemporary interactive or immersed performance tends to have a dispersed individualized audience. Each person moves through an environment essentially alone– alone even in a crowd. Each person responds to prompts with personal information or choices. Indeed, the point of much contemporary participatory performance is focused on “me.” Self-awareness of my own actions and reactions are the show. And this gives rise to the entrepreneurial, competitive, self-oriented behaviours and attitudes discussed by Keren Zaiontz that she describes as characteristic of the “narcissistic” spectator.
Finally this brings me to think about labour. A recurring critique of 21st century participatory performance concerns the donation of audience labour in the creation of the work in the context of neoliberalism. (See Jen Harvie Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism or Shannon Jackson Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics). What are Rocky Horror audiences giving? What is our labour? Does this particular kind of participation manage to avoid becoming complicit in the neoliberal ethos? Unlike many recent socially-turned performances, we don’t provide personal information; we don’t make navigational choices. Indeed it seems that my participation in Rocky Horror is not about ‘me’ at all. I am not the focus of the event–as I am in so many works in the contemporary genre. I am dancing and shouting rude epithets and throwing toast, but the show is not about me. Moreover, I am not ‘used’ in the same way. If I chose to do nothing, the show would go on. Mind you, it would be diminished without mass audience participation, but it would not fail to exist.
Ultimately the next step — which I have not gotten to here yet — is rather than focus on the differences between these two participatory genres, but instead to look at similarities and figure out where the touch-points are. I would like to consider where 21st century ‘socially-turned’ participatory theatre draws on some of the strategies evident in Rocky Horror to do two things. One, to leverage increased audience influence as creators. And two, to shift the point of focus from a self-absorbed individual audience to a group-thinking adaptive collective — more like a flock of wheeling birds or a bacterial culture than a solo hunting mammal. This is not to put a value on one type of engagement over another but to think through not just how these behaviours manifest but what they mean and how those meanings leak off the stage from audience participation to citizen participation.
The Rocky Horror Show directed and choreographed by Donna Feore with Dan Chameroy as Frank-N-Furter continues at the Stratford Festival through 25 November 2018.
Harvie, Jen. Fair Play: Art, Performance and Neoliberalism. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013.
Jackson, Shannon. Social Works: Performing Art, Supporting Publics. New York, Routledge, 2011.
Norman, James.”A Virgin’s Guide.” TRHPS Official Fan Site: Participation http://www.rockyhorror.com/participation/virgins.php
Piro, Sal. “It was great when it all began.” Excerpted from Creatures of the Night http://www.rockyhorror.com/history/howapbegan.php
“The fan rituals that made Rocky Horror Picture Show a cult classic.” The Guardian 19 October 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2016/oct/19/rocky-horror-picture-show-fan-rituals-fox-remake
Zaiontz, Keren. “Narcissistic Spectatorship in Immersive and One-on-One Performance” Theatre Journal 66.3 (October 2014): 405–25.