The Dallas Theater Center opens The Rocky Horror Show Friday night after a week of previews. I spoke with the show’s director, Dallas Theater Center’s associate artistic director, Joel Ferrell, awhile ago for the September issue of the magazine about what makes the fourth-wall-smashing musical—which was a stage play before it became the cult hit movie—still relevant today. This is an edited cut of our conversation about a show that should have gotten stuck in its time—but has warped again and again to remain relevant for generations.
FrontRow: Why do Rocky Horror, when the film version is so ingrained?
Joel Ferrell: It’s the one show you don’t have to encourage people to participate because that’s how they know it. That’s the only way they know it. … The other thing, on a more serious note, and I guess it would be ridiculous to ever say ‘serious note’ with Rocky Horror, but I actually think that it was the first thing that I ever saw that really asked a lot of people to stop thinking about gender identity as all or nothing.
FrontRow: And why now? And why you, to direct it?
JF: Kevin and I talked extensively about whether it was still relevant, other than just the joy of doing the show. I said that I find all the time in the world that gender identity is still this very unnerving topic. To the majority of people in the world. And certainly in this part of the world, and certainly in a world that is moving back to very conservative thinking, where we seem to be driven right now to get back into categories and boxes, that can clearly be defined as being bad, right, wrong. But you have to be 100 percent something, whatever that is. So we’ve happily reached the point where an altogether gay character, whatever that means, or an altogether straight character, is very easy, because people think they know what those categories are. I think the excitement about doing Rocky Horror in this day in age is that we’re going to work to confuse you on gender identity as much and in as many ways as we possibly can. Because to me that is the thing that’s still actually extraordinarily relevant about it.
That’s the sort of fun paradox for me, because the show disarms everyone. And that was always the brilliance of the show, that it’s completely disarming but it also outs all of us, to see where our comfort zone is. And I feel I can all but promise that it will still challenge our audiences in some pretty fun ways.
FR: And it’ll be performed in the Wyly, the main performance space?
JF: Yes. It’s in arena, which is really not usually what we do, but to me that’s the configuration that drives the most interaction and sort of traps everyone. Performers and audience. And you also said why you.
JF: I don’t really have any particularly brilliant answer except that I, as a gay male who’s now 55, I feel like I have had a really fascinating journey from being really unnerved—truly, even as a kid, as I started to recognize my sexuality, probably because of my sexuality—by gender identity. Part of the joy for me is having to sort of own up to how difficult that was. On a completely personal note, it took me until I was 35-40 years old to be entirely comfortable with both the feminine and the masculine of me. I could probably wear a beaded gown on some days and jeans and t-shirt on other days. All of that feels great and it feels okay, but it took a long, long, long walk, to actually be like, ‘This is totally cool. And in fact, I like this about me’ as opposed to something like, ‘Is this something I should worry about?’ So I think there are more people who recognize for more reasons, and in more configurations that we often recognize, who are on a journey to figure out how to just be authentic. That’s really hard. We spend so much time sort of leading people into categories.
FR: Are there any real differences between the stage script and the movie version?
JF: There are songs that are not in the movie that are in the show that often surprise people. I would say about 80 percent of it is pretty spot on what you know is coming. And people know every lyric. But the great thing, for us, is that there’s some built-in surprises.
FR: And there will be props.
JF: Totally. I fully expect for it to just be a bit of a free for all. It really is sort of all bets are off. Because again you’re talking about live performers, not a movie screen. So the fun of the show being in arena is that once stuff gets thrown and/or squirted, it’s just sort of there. We’ve had very funny conversions already with the scenic and prop department about how can we address it in a really funny way if we get to the point where we literally can’t function with the shit on the stage. And it’s gonna happen. How do we want to be prepared for that in a way that’s actually funny for the audience? And part of it is, we’ll probably throw some of the shit right back at ‘em.
So you know, I look forward to it because we’re always trying to push new boundaries and get an audience to not sort of lean back in their chair and think of it as going to see a movie.
JF: It’s always a challenge. And to come across a piece of theater has this whole sort of wild construct around it, that everybody’s interaction with it is different. Now I crack up when people in their 60s are like, ‘Hey, that’s my generation, I’m going to be there on opening night, dressed up.’ And I’m like, ‘You’re 60!’ Because that’s actually the age group who first experienced it. It’s not just for the young. People have this extraordinary history with it.
FR: Do you remember the first time you saw it?
JF: I was in college, at the University of Texas. This would have been ’77—one of the first crazy fun outings once I got to know some of my dormmates was to go see a midnight Rocky Horror at the little crappy movie house that showed it every weekend. I was not a fully developed adult with regard to identity in many ways and it was both really fun and sort of unnerving. So part of my memory was pretending to feel at ease with it all. Now I look back at that, it really tickles me.
FR: Do you have an idea of what this will look like?
JF: We always start with a conversation about the themes and the poetry of the piece, the sort of existential takeaway which sounds funny, when you’re talking about, you know. Rocky Horror was born, way back in its day, in sort of like a tiny basement, it was like sort of debauched, everything was probably done on a buck and quarter. And so it’s interesting, when you’re suddenly talking about trying to put the show into a very large, very muscular, very 21st century space…it’s like, well, you don’t want to lose some of the joy of that tawdriness. I mean, that’s part of what makes drag so fascinating, is that a drag queen can make something fabulous out of the dollar store.
FR: And there’s a band.
JF: We are putting the band center stage. [Ed. Note: Foe Destroyer, the Austin act that impressed everyone with DTC’s production of Fly By Night, has since been announced.] They are literally the sort of nuclear energy center, as I keep calling it. And I don’t want to give away too many surprises, but we have some wacky tricks up our sleeve.
FR: You mentioned having to find a cast that was comfortable with the interplay with the audience.
JF: [laughs] Yes. Part of what’s really thrilling for me is that knowing I have a cast that’s really capable of that. Julie Johnson, who is playing Magenta, she is one of the most brilliant responsive improv actresses I’ve ever know. It’s a gift. And there are great actors who would be completely thrown that the rhythm of things would be completely different every night. I went about putting this cast together really intentionally. For the actors, you run the risk of it being like Planet of the Apes, you know, the audience may just take over. I think the audience really wants to know that these people who are inhabiting these characters can’t be thrown. You can send curveballs their way, but they will win the day. … We will completely stick to the script, no rewriting…the show will be delivered as it is written. But then you’ve gotta know, of course, if someone decides to jump up on the stage and start humping your leg, you can’t pretend it’s not happening. Right? So you gotta roll with it.
FR: Anything else to add?
JF: Oh lord, put a quarter in me and I’ll just keep talking. We’ve started out the season many times with big, muscular shows, pieces of Shakespeare, but this sort of unique for us. Because we have not started the season with a musical, and we haven’t started the season with something that carries this much expectation. I think the final thing to say is that we are all goofy excited because we don’t know exactly what the response will be, but we know, based on what we’re hearing, that people are like, ‘Oh good! Let’s start the ball out with some crazy.’ The first night, I plan to roam around in the lobby to see what shows up. … The experience doesn’t start at the downbeat. It really starts at the moment you decide to get your Rocky Horror on. So we’re expecting some fun. We’re expecting a shit ton of fun.