Why die-hard ‘Rocky Horror Picture Show’ fans fear for its future amid drag bans

Cast members of

“Shadowcasts” performing at screenings of The rocky horror movie across the country are concerned about the future of their shows in light of anti-drag laws. (Illustration by Aisha Yousaf for Yahoo. Photo: Getty Images)

Is it drag or is it theatre? This is a question for those who perform in tandem with showings of the classic THE Rocky horror movie show they’re wondering after an onslaught of “anti-drag” laws engulfs their states, making them feel like they’re in a time warp. And not in a good way.

Widely known for its genre cast that encourages audience participation, THE Rocky horror film show “Shadowcasts” – actors who perform the film on stage as it is projected onto a screen behind them, propelled by the audience who shout “call back” from their seats during the show – have been a staple of work within the community of musical theater for over 40 years.

In light of recent legislation, however, some are raising concerns about how these decisions will impact her young fans, many of whom have found solace within the Rocky horror Community.

“It was a queer safe space long before many had access to safe spaces, and it continues to play that role,” Rachael Mahan, cast leader of Little Morals, a shadow cast based in Nashville, Tennessee, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It provides an outlet to be your whole self without judgment. For me and many other cast members, it was also a great entry point into the world of theater and performance art.”

Mahan’s cast is one of many affected by a new Tennessee law, passed in March, which bans drag performances in public spaces where minors may be present. Similar bills have been introduced in at least 14 other states, including Arizona, Oklahoma and Florida, many of which are expected to be signed in the coming weeks.

Specifically, Tennessee law bars “adult stand-up comedy” from taking place on “public property,” such as libraries, or any “private property without age restrictions where a minor may be present,” such as restaurants and theaters. Its language is vague by design: the word “drag” is never mentioned, for example, and it appeals only to entertainers who appeal to what is called “prurient interest”. It also does not state whether drag theater is considered an “adult cabaret show,” although it is does clarify that “male and female impersonators” fall into that category. Venues that host such entertainment in the presence of minors are subject to loss of liquor license, by law, while individual offenders can be subject to a hefty fine and possible jail time (up to six years for subsequent offences).

Unsurprisingly, the legislative wave is leaving people like Rebekah Wallace, lead producer of Satanic Mechanics, a shadow cast based in Knoxville, Tennessee, in a state of uncertainty.

“Everything is kind of in limbo and we don’t really know how it’s going to end up affecting us,” Wallace tells Yahoo Entertainment, pointing to a number of popular shows with “male and female impersonators” that conservatives don’t seem concerned about – Hairspray, Kinky Boots, Matilda, Rent, La Cage Aux Folles, Hedwig and the Angry Inch AND Peter Pan, to name a few.

Despite the legality, Mahan, Wallace and others don’t let go of their “safe spaces” without a fight.

“What Constitutes Theater and What Is Drag?” Wallace says. “Until they can clearly define it for us, we’re just going ahead and pressing normally. If that means we get into trouble and have to lead by example, that’s a risk we’re willing to take not just as queer people, but as allies, because that’s what a good alliance is all about.

‘A rite of passage’

Since the late 1970s, when the first shadowcast appeared in Los Angeles, theater fans have found community through a shared admiration for the 1975 film starring Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter, a ” sweet transvestite” and sexually charged alien from another planet whose main goal is to create the perfect man in the form of Rocky Horror. When “Frank” meets demure newlyweds Brad and Janet (Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon), he challenges them to break free from their comfort zones — including social constructs around sex and gender roles — to reclaim their individuality on their own terms ( and with a little help from Meatloaf).

The film may be an acquired taste for some, and it wasn’t exactly a box office hit upon its release. But over the course of several decades, it has grown into a cult following, finding new life as hundreds of shadows began popping up in cities across the nation, attracting thousands of young minds who simply want to express themselves.

1975: Actors Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon in a scene from the film

Actors Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick and Susan Sarandon in a scene from the 1975s The Rocky Horror Movie, directed by Jim Sharman. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Jason Vervlied, co-director of Creatures of the Night, a shadow cast based in Palm Beach County, Fla., where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently unleashed a crusade of anti-LGBTQ state laws, says the Rocky horror the community brought him out of his shell when he was a shy young boy.

“I was involved for the first time Rocky horror when I was 16, in the mid-90s,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment. “It was one of the first places I felt comfortable.” It is also where he met his wife Tanya, who now co-directs, produces and stars in the show.

Tanya was also introduced to the show as a young teenager and tells Yahoo Entertainment that the scene at the theater “hasn’t changed much” since then. Until recently, children and adolescents were among the most active members of the public, with some “as young as six months old,” she notes. But lately, “theater owners have become concerned about the political landscape in Florida,” so they’ve begun restricting minors from attending performances, even though the state’s anti-drag bill has yet to be signed.

“It was a different kind of audience,” she says of a recent April performance with no youth in the theater, including cast members who could no longer perform because they were not of legal age. And while the couple say they understand the theater owners’ decision to ban R-rated, they’re still concerned about the message it sends.

“We have always seen Rocky horror as a place where the freaks and the weird can go and be with other weird and weird,” Jason says. “We can just be whoever we are and explore that weird side of you, but now it’s starting to feel like it’s a scary place to go. “

“Cold, Wet and Just Scared”

“High school students use our cast as a safe and familiar area to be themselves because they don’t feel like they fit in with anyone else,” Amanda Levine, cast director of Faithful Handyman, a Fort Lauderdale-based shadow cast , Florida, tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Rocky it has been drawn into all politics, and has caused confusion and fear to many people.”

“I’ve never considered it inappropriate for kids, and our cast doesn’t behave inappropriately on stage,” she notes. “We’ve had parents bring their kids in as a rite of passage: ‘You’re old enough now to handle weirdness, so there you have it.’ Rocky it’s about stepping outside the norm and experiencing life and the things that are out there.”

Cade Cummins, owner and operator of Masters Affair, a Lexington, Ky.-based shadowcast and one of the nation’s highest-grossing shadowcasters, says he’s gone so far as to speak with a pro-bono attorney to understand the language of the proposition of her state’s anti-drag law, which she failed to pass in the House.

“We had to investigate before we put ourselves at risk,” he tells Yahoo Entertainment, though talking to lawyers didn’t help much given the vagueness of the bill’s language. “We were in discussions with the theater management: ‘What does ‘drag performance’ mean to us? Does it mean girls wearing men’s clothes and boys wearing girls’ clothes in one part, or not?'”

While the Kentucky Theater in downtown Lexington, which hosts the Masters Affair, has a strict “18+” policy, even for behind-the-scenes visitors, Cummins is aware of the power his cast has over the youth of the area, noting that monthly performances often sell out, resulting in nearly 1,400 people filling seats at the theatre.

“Rocky isn’t just for a group,” he says. “I have a lot of friends on all sides of the spectrum, and it’s funny because it doesn’t matter which side of the spectrum they’re on. When they come to see the show, they walk away pleasantly surprised.”

Whatever happens next, Wallace says the most important thing is to approach the issue with knowledge and perspective, and most importantly, a willingness to call it what it is.

“Many performance artists end up being victims of these laws, but they actually aim to target trans people for the long term,” she explains, pointing to the growing number of anti-trans bills that have flooded the courts (over 500 this year to today). “If they make it a very gray area, it’s easy for them to target trans people and say, ‘Look, they’re violating this law.'”

Looking ahead, Wallace implores theater fans to “keep their heads up” and “never forget” the kids who could lose “the only safe road they know” if lawmakers continue their crusade.

“There are a lot of people who have trouble making friends,” she says. “Rocky he showed them how to go out and be exactly who you want to be and live life without fear. This is what Frank-N-Furter instills in all of us, and this is also the journey that Brad and Janet are on.”

Wallace continues, “We see so many people come on the show like Brad and Janet. They’re ‘cold and wet and just scared’ and leave their version of Frank-N-Furter. And to create that happiness and security, allow someone to blossom, it’s a phenomenal transformation to see someone have.”

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