Rocky Horror at U.Va. proves the prevailing power of the picture show

Year after year, students find acceptance as part of the University’s shadowcast club 

by Sophie Hay 

Photography by Finn HolbrookNovember 9 2023

Fans swarm, side by side in a theater, a few of their faces labeled with red lipstick Vs. Sometimes they shout as one or sling a prop — trails of toilet paper decorate the aisles. Onstage, actors in corsets and fishnets flounce in front of a flickering screen.

This performance could be taking place in the early ‘80s, the 2020s, or anytime in between — University students have been putting on performances of the Rocky Horror Picture Show for generations.

This year, Rocky Horror at U.Va. — the University’s shadowcast club — is preparing for a Nov. 17 production in Newcomb Theatre. Members believe in Rocky’s continued relevance, as they bring a modern sensibility to their interpretations of the movie but maintain respect for its past. 

Isabelle Jordan, fourth-year Batten student and president of the organization, said she is proud of her organization’s history. The group gained official CIO status in 2014, but Jordan believes they have existed in one form or another for over 40 years. 

“I've heard from some of our cast members about parents that have either seen performances in Newcomb Theatre of ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ or been in them,” Jordan said. “We don't have an extremely well-documented history telling us exactly where we came from, but we've definitely been around Grounds since the ‘70s.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is a campy movie musical starring Tim Curry as Dr. Frank N. Furter, a self-described transvestite from the planet Transsexual in the Transylvania galaxy. Midnight screenings following its 1975 release gave rise to intricate rituals involving costumes, props and participation. 

Soon, groups of fans started putting on shadowcast productions, acting out the movie as it unfolded on screen. Spectators played a role, too — sheltering under newspapers during a rainy scene, for example, or screaming “slut” or “asshole” in response to Susan Sarandon as Janet or Barry Bostwick as Brad. These interactive performances have been popular ever since. 

Rocky Horror at U.Va. stages one shadowcast production per semester. Anyone involved in the club who wants a role gets one, and casting for bigger parts is based on seniority. This year, Amelia Millard, fourth-year College student and club vice president, is playing Frank N. Furter, and president Jordan is playing Janet. The group is gearing up for the big night now, rehearsing once or twice each week for about a month before their upcoming performance. Props and costumes have accumulated over the course of time — Dr. Scott’s wheelchair is a recent acquisition, as is Riff Raff’s laser gun. 

Collaboration is key to the whole process. Members recognize Rocky Horror at U.Va. as a special organization in which they feel connected to and accepted by their peers, as described by Millard.

“I've made a lot of friends through Rocky, which is awesome,” Millard said. “I feel like we definitely prioritize making sure people feel comfortable in their own skin and making sure it's an environment that's accessible for everyone, so I think it's such a lovely community to be a part of.”

Since their inception, Rocky Horror groups have represented safe spaces, especially for queer fans. For Jibz Brence — fourth-year College student props master, costumer, makeup artist and this year’s Columbia — this is part of the appeal. 

“I think Rocky is a great way to be in touch with the queer community at U.Va., and just experience queer joy, which is so important in today's culture,” Brence said. “I also think it's great to start a conversation about healthy sexuality and being in touch with your body, consent, empowerment, stuff like that … we're doing this act of anarchy with our bodies, and we're showing, you know, we're here and we're queer, and we're happy about it.”

“The Rocky Horror Picture Show” is provocative, and that is the point. Brad and Janet find Frank N. Furter’s antics both offensive and titillating. He is unflinchingly, overtly queer and fans relate to his freeing urge to “give [himself] over to absolute pleasure.” 

Still, Jordan noted a societal evolution in the ethics of sexuality since the ‘70s which affects her organization’s approach to some of the movie’s sensitive scenes. Rocky Horror at U.Va. aims to be an accepting environment, and members reflect on the role of provocation in creating said environment on an ongoing basis. 

Natalie Parra, second-year College student and diversity, equity and inclusion chair, described the group’s recently implemented mandatory safety training, which involves outlining procedures related to consent and the organization’s zero-tolerance policy for violations of safety standards. She is playing Riff Raff this year.

“We recognize that Rocky is a place where things might push boundaries, but pushing boundaries is okay when people consent and are informed on what boundaries are being pushed,” Parra said. “When people sign up for roles, they're told, hey, these are the parts that might be a little uncomfortable…we can fully modify it.”

The organization’s evolving approach to the movie indicates its ongoing relevance 50 years after its release. As mentioned earlier, Rocky Horror at U.Va. productions can often be found in Newcomb Theatre, so though they are open to the public, they tend to bring in a lot of students. This changed in Oct. 2022, when the group seized an opportunity to perform at the Paramount, opening the show up to members of the Charlottesville community. An older couple won a pre-show costume contest as Riff Raff and Magenta in repurposed silver sun reflectors — their ingenuity inspired Libby Vanty, promotion chair and third-year College student, to recreate their alien outfits for the organization’s use. College students are clearly not alone in their continued care for Rocky Horror. 

“I remember I was on the phone with my nana one time, and it was two years after I joined Rocky Horror, and I was like, I'm finally ready to admit what I spend my Tuesdays and Wednesdays doing,” Vanty said. “She was like, oh my god, they still do that? I remember that!”

Links to earlier generations of fans represent a massive part of the show’s prevailing power. Members of Rocky Horror at U.Va. validate the role of the movie’s past even as they push their organization into the future. 

“Queer and trans people have always existed, and they're gonna continue to exist, and I think [Rocky Horror] … shows a great moment in our community from a past time in which it wasn't nearly as accepted as it is today,” Millard said. “I think paying homage to that and trying to keep that alive is what's really important about Rocky.”

See Rocky Horror at U.Va. in the Newcomb Theatre for $5 Nov. 17.