Don’t dream it, be it: ‘Rocky Horror’ offers creative outlet

Rocky Horror Picture Show celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Jeff Ahearn | Assistant Visual Editor

Carlisle Walker’s performance in Pitt’s 2014 run of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”  became an intimate, personal transformation in front of 500 audience members.

“It was one of the reasons I came out as transgender,” Walker said of his portrayal of Brad Majors’ character in Pitt’s annual shadow-cast show. “I’d known for a few years before [I played Brad], but putting on that costume and going onstage like that was really validating for me. It boosted my confidence and gave me the courage to come out to my parents.”

Celebrating its 40th anniversary, “Rocky Horror” encourages audiences to be true to themselves — especially regarding sexuality — through crossdressing characters and its recurring theme, “Don’t dream it, be it.” The film emphasizes sexual freedom, as seen through protagonist Dr. Frank N. Furter, whose most prominent characteristic is his sexual identity. He’s a male scientist who habitually wears a corset, fishnets, pumps and heavy makeup. It serves as an outlet for creativity and expression, and establishes a familial community among fans of all sexual preferences.

“Rocky Horror” shadow-cast shows actively involve audience members by encouraging them to join in on the act. Audience members dress up like the film’s characters, bring props — such as rubber gloves, squirt guns and flash lights — sing along to the musical numbers and collectively shout unscripted responses to the film’s dialogue, called callback lines.

This year, Pitt’s 10 member shadow-cast will perform on Oct. 27 at 9 p.m. in the William Pitt Union assembly room. The Engineering Student Council performs one “Rocky Horror” shadow-cast show a year, where the cast acts out the film in front of an audience while the film itself plays on a large screen behind them.

“[It’s] a creative outlet. [It’s] also a good outlet to express yourself,” Walker, a fifth year urban studies major, said.

Walker will play Riff Raff this year, an assistant to the protagonist, Dr. Frank n Furter.

Dana Och, a lecturer in Pitt’s department of English and film studies, teaches a course exploring cult films, including “Rocky Horror” for its “staying power” in youth culture. 

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was filmed in 1975. It’s a science fiction, musical, horror and satire that morphed out of Richard O’Brien’s small stage production in London. According to Och, the audience’s behavior defines the film more than the actual content.

“Cult films that offer audiences the chance to be the ones in control of meaning, to declare themselves in opposition to adult and/or mainstream values, and to create a sense of exclusionary community have traditionally appealed to youth audiences,” Och said.

Any Pitt student may audition to officially join the show. Cast members aren’t all engineers, although the ESC organizes and hosts the event every year.

Billy Epting, a mechanical engineering major who graduated from Pitt in 2009, joined the cast in 2006 and participated for four years.

His first year, Epting played both Eddie and Dr. Scott, two supporting roles whose paths never cross onscreen. He went on to play Riff Raff and, finally, Frank.

Epting enjoyed “Rocky Horror” for its “goofy fun,” as well as how seriously and personally it connects with students.

“Our society is still quite prudish,” he said. “[Rocky Horror] brings out a lot of people who are usually pretty normal. Even the squarest square can muster the courage to wear a corset and make sex jokes all night, and I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

Drew Maksymowych, who has directed Pitt’s “Rocky Horror” show since before he graduated in 2012, said college students, in particular, identify with the film’s positivity toward the unconventional.

“It’s generally countercultural. So are young people. [They] don’t want to do what everybody else does,” he said. “It’s that whole acceptance thing. Do what you want, be who you are.”

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