‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ back on after meeting with SGB


Then-senior Delena Obermaier played the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Pitt’s production of “Rocky Horror Picture Show” last October. This year, she returned to campus as an alum to advocate for the show. (Photo by Sarah Cutshall | Staff Photographer)

After a confusing last few days, those involved are confident “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” will see the stage this year despite a surprise cancellation announced on Monday. The show, hosted annually by the Engineering Student Council, encountered funding dilemmas — which some interpreted as a malicious attempt by Pitt’s Student Government Board to deny the group support.

But at what participants called a productive meeting on Tuesday night, SGB presented the production staff and the executive board of the Engineering Student Council with options to keep one of Pitt’s traditions alive. Here’s how the confusion arose, how it was resolved and what the next steps are for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” this year.

Drew Maks, the director of the annual production of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” for the past nine years, was optimistic when he emailed the director of activities for the Engineering Student Council on Monday to give an update on the show’s progress.

“Yesterday’s rehearsal went really well,” Maks wrote in an email. “The show is really starting to come together.”

Just a few hours later, activities director Zachary Dissen replied.

“It is with great sadness that I announce the cancellation of RHPS this year. We encountered several budget problems, along with getting shortchanged by SGB,” Dissen wrote. “I am so sorry it had to end like this.”

Maks couldn’t believe it. Tasked with the “horrible job” of informing the cast, he sent an email that evening and CC’d members of SGB, the Engineering Student Council and the editor-in-chief of The Pitt News.

“Engineering Student Council has ‘encountered several budget problems,’ which is mostly due to the inability of the Student Government Board to govern with the best interests of students in mind,” he wrote. “In a time when the rights of LGBTQ+ members of the community are being assaulted, Student Government Board has taken away another safe space that welcomed all kinds of people with open arms.”

That email was the first time SGB President Maggie Kennedy heard the group was having funding issues. In a phone call Monday night, she was taken aback by the allegations that SGB wasn’t supporting students and that it disregarded the LGBTQ+ community.

“I’m just shocked by all of this and feeling frustrated,” she said. “I really believe in the mission of the show and creating safe spaces for the LGBTQ+ community … I know that I and nobody else from SGB would ever do anything intentionally to shut down anything like this.”

Kennedy didn’t understand why the show was cancelled because Engineering Student Council is a governance group, which means its budget for the 2018-19 school year was approved in spring 2018. The group was denied $1,371.33 of its request for $2,661.33, which Dissen said was expected. SGB typically denies some funding for items that are non-reusable, including paper hats, a popcorn machine and gift bags for attendees. It wasn’t an issue at the time.

“The assumption [in the spring] was that this is a workable amount of money and there’s no reason we need to appeal for more,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday evening. “But as the semester and summer went on, things began to happen that we didn’t anticipate that led to us not having the amount of money.”

The license for the movie, which the production requires to project the 1975 comedy-horror, usually costs about $750. But when Dissen inquired, he found out it cost $1,000 this year. He was able to negotiate the price down, but just a little bit. This alone wasn’t a big deal.

Then when Dissen tried to reserve the William Pitt Union Assembly Room, he discovered Pitt Program Council had already booked the room for the dates needed for the show. The next best option, he said, was Bellefield Hall — but Dissen said Bellefield Hall cost at least $1,000 more.

Moreover, while in other years the SGB denial for funding for non-reusable items wouldn’t have been an issue, the group’s collection of props and costumes — valued at nearly $600 and consistently denied by SGB for being non-reusable — went missing.

“I think what people were assuming happened … was that in the middle of production, SGB just came in and said, ‘You need to stop, this event is shut down,’” Dissen said. “But that’s absolutely not what happened.”

Faced with dilemma after dilemma, Dissen and the executive board couldn’t see a way out — so he sent the email announcing the cancellation to Maks, which attributed the funding dilemmas in part to underfunding from SGB.

Maks’ email took it one step further — thinking Dissen meant SGB was to blame for the cancellation, his email accused the board of eliminating a safe space for the LGBTQ+ community.

“I am so sorry the University of Pittsburgh has failed you in this way,” it said.

The recipients were furious. Delena Obermaier, a 2018 alumna and former “Rocky Horror” cast member, sent an impassioned email to Kennedy, which outlined a key misunderstanding in why it was cancelled.

“I … recently found out that [“Rocky Horror”] is being shut down MID-PRODUCTION … by SGB for ‘budget’ reasons,” she wrote. “Rocky Horror is a space for queer joy and celebration of sexuality in general.”

In response, Kennedy called a meeting for Tuesday night after SGB’s weekly public meeting and invited the Engineering Student Council, the show’s cast and crew and members of SGB. The private meeting, attended by more than a dozen people, clarified what happened with this year’s production and outlined the multiple unexpected increases in price that led Dissen and the Engineering Student Council to cancel the show. The meeting also addressed what SGB called a “misplacement of blame” about why the event was slated to be cancelled.

“I realize that I was not clear and [my email] implicated SGB as having some sort of malice toward this event,” Dissen said after the meeting. “I take responsibility for that miscommunication, and I think that’s what caused a lot of the conflict.”

After listening to the Engineering Student Council and cast’s concerns, SGB outlined some possible solutions — including the budget modification process, which allows groups to reallocate money in their own budgets to fund other events, finding a student organization to co-sponsor the event, crowdfunding the production with Pitt’s proprietary Pitt Engage platform and applying for various supplementary grants.

“[SGB] is basically the reason why we’re going to be able to have the event after all because of their immediate support, working with us and realizing this is an extenuating circumstance,” Dissen said. “They’re using all the knowledge they have to help us have the event because they realize how important it is to so many people.”

A new venue has not yet been determined, but the show will go on. Alex Rangel, a fourth-year neuroscience major who will play Eddie in this year’s show — his fourth time with “Rocky Horror” — can’t wait.

“I’m not a theater major, it’s just a hobby for me,” he said. “But this takes up my whole fall semester. This is the biggest entertainment for me, in a part where I feel I can put something back into the Pitt community.”

The show is still scheduled for its original date and time, Oct. 29 at 8 p.m.

“I’m confident, I’m happy now,” Rangel said. “I’m ready.”