Last Saturday, in the PAC’s Reisinger Auditorium, Sarah Lawrence kicked off Sleaze Week early with this semester’s shadowcast production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In its day, the 1975 B-list sci-fi horror movie/musical parody broke ground with its celebration of sexuality in all its forms—and on this campus, it still does.
But several weeks into the rehearsal process, the Rocky Horror team’s performance was in jeopardy when they ran into an unprecedented budget issue. SAS, Student Activities Subcommittee, who provides funding for a number of campus events, including SLC traditions such as Rocky, informed club heads in early March that they had run out of funds for spring semester. Without funding, the cast and crew found themselves unable to pay for the rights to perform the show.
Rachel Raiola (‘18), assistant director, explained, “Basically what happened was that SAS sent out that email right before spring break saying that they had...run out of funding for that semester, and we knew there was a chance that they would receive more funding in the future but we didn’t want to take the risk of waiting around. Our show date [was] April 15th, and I think that was four weeks away at that point—we just didn’t think it would be smart to take a risk and wait, so we ended up crowdfunding the show on our own.”
She added, however, “We want to emphasize that we only did this because we thought it was an emergency situation, and that in the future we would love to rely entirely on Student Senate and student funding.”
Director Rachel Barkowitz (‘18) agreed. “This was only something that we did because we felt as though we had to, we felt as though we didn’t have another option.”
The crowdfunding process was a huge success. “$600 was the goal, and we raised it in 16 hours from 16 people or something ridiculous like that,” Barkowitz said. “It’s just an incredible feeling to know that we have that amount of support, and it was an unfortunate situation to be in, but I guess we were feeling a little stuck and wanted to make sure the show would go on—no matter what was going to happen.”
The Rocky team was able to put on the show as planned.
The performance, which goes up every semester, exists somewhere between the boundaries of film and stage. Each student actor, fully costumed and in character, lip-synchs in front of the movie while copying their onscreen character’s movements in real time.
“The thing about directing Rocky is that it’s all laid out for you, in the film and from previous productions...so it’s mostly just a matter of learning the movie and learning how to translate it onto an actual stage and teaching the actors,” Raiola said. “So we’re in a unique position because our actors are...doing a lot of acting based on something, but we still do a lot of [character] work and when somebody is struggling to understand the motivation behind an action in a scene, we [as directors] like to fill in the gaps.”
“There are definitely moments in this film in which there are subtle connections between characters that you won’t necessarily get when you’re watching the movie, or acting in the show for the first time,” Barkowitz added. “But it’s something that as a director you’re aware of and you can tell people who might be newer to the...process of being in Rocky Horror as a way to help them create the character.”
According to Barkowitz, the SLC Rocky directors have a duty to uphold when instructing student actors on how to capture the nuances of iconic movie characters. As a worldwide cult classic, Rocky Horror is already steeped in a great deal of traditions. For example, showings include “callbacks,” where audience members yell during performances.
“There are certain traditions that it’s our job to carry on,” Raiola said. “‘Cause there are people...who’ve been doing this for years and years, and people who come back every year to see this show—for some ungodly reason,” she laughed.
“I think one of the most important things about Rocky for me is upholding the tradition of having it in the first place,” Barkowitz added. “We’re lucky that we’ve got kids that want to come back...and do the show again and again. One of the questions that we ask on our audition forms is ‘Would you be interested in directing Rocky in the future?’ and it’s kind of nice to know that the tradition is upheld by the people that are so dedicated to it from the get-go.”
Both Barkowitz and Raiola are longtime Rocky veterans themselves. Raiola has played several main cast roles, including “hero” Brad Majors, “heroine” Janet Weiss, and not-so-“domestic” Magenta. Barkowitz, on the opposite end, has performed in the ensemble enough times to know each group scene by heart. This deep understanding of the various character roles allows for a masterful collaboration when the two are placed together in the director’s chairs.
“The two of us balance each other out,” Barkowitz explained. “When there’s more ensemble-heavy dance number kind of stuff, I take the lead, and when it’s more cut-and-copy scene stuff, Rachel [Raiola] takes the lead.”
Although tradition is all well and good, the show also a evolves and modernizes with each new production.
“Every year, we update it, and there are certain scenes that we change, and we add dance numbers and funny pop culture references and we try to make it timely,” Barkowitz said. “Last semester we threw a High School Musical dance in there in the middle of the show.” This semester’s performance included a lip-synced duet of the Jonas Brothers’ “Burnin’ Up” and a riveting interpretation of the Harlem Shake.
With all the rockiness of this season’s Rocky Horror show, no one knows exactly what the future of SLC Rocky will hold, but based on the overwhelmingly positive response from both crowdfunders and audience members, this tradition that many value. When asked about the cultural relevance of the film, in particular to Sarah Lawrence student life, Barkowitz and Raiola had a number of things to say.
“I think that it speaks to the timeless manner of the film, that this is something we continue to do,” Barkowitz said. “Perhaps the representation has changed, and perhaps it is not as PC of a film or as radical...as it was in 1975, but I think that the tradition, if nothing else, is the reason why it continues.”
“If you like horror musicals, or science fiction, or camp, this is the perfect movie for you,” Raiola said. “I think that’s part of the reason people come back year after year, it’s because they just enjoy this shitty, weird movie so much. It’s a place where you get to hang out with your other weird friends and make weird art together.”
“It’s enigmatic, for lack of a better word,” Barkowitz concluded. “[But] it’s definitely an immersive experience for everyone involved.”
Peck Trachsel ('20)
*Correction: The article previously said SLAC was responsible for student activities funding, but that responsibility belongs to SAS.