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The pandemic can’t kill ‘Rocky Horror’

Social distancing cancels the late-night event that’s the ultimate in audience participation. But devotees find ways to do the time warp again.

The Teseracte Players performed "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" on Zoom.Screenshots courtesy of the Teseracte Players of Boston

Once every month, until isolation became a staple of 2020, 53-year-old Bruce Watts drove an hour and a half from his home in Litchfield, Conn., to reach South Hadley, Mass., by midnight. He came this distance to sit in a dark theater, shout profanities, and throw toast, as a member of the audience for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” “I’m not a football fan,” Watts says. “But, boy, I love ‘Rocky.’”

For devotees like Watts, “Rocky Horror” is at once an outlet and a source of community. It is a setting, moreover, that relies on human contact among strangers in a crowded room. At every performance, while the 1975 cult classic musical movie screens, a “shadow cast” synchronously acts out every scene and the audience hollers “call-back” lines and reacts to cues.

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Its sudden absence in this pandemic is a profound loss for fans like Watts. “Rocky” is everything intangible that people are aching to have back: the energy from live interactions, the ability to step outside ourselves; community and communal spaces. It’s one of those missing routines that is not necessary while we wait out this time yet feels critical: something to do not just to survive but to feel alive.

For many regulars, the idea of putting “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” on hold until the end of the pandemic was untenable; its importance demanded an online adaptation. Others were not so sure: Could a virtual version ever mimic such an intrinsically physical experience?

When daily life turned into an unending Zoomscape, director Sylvia Peterson of the Come Again Players — the show Watts attends — instantly recognized the barriers to taking “Rocky Horror” shows remote: How could characters make out across separate Zoom boxes? Between copyright infringement and racy scenes, could they screen the movie without it getting taken down mid-show? What about the costumes locked in their theater — and what about the theater itself, which felt to them like home?

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And, critically: So much of the show relies on energy building in a physical space, the adrenaline rush of a live performance with an interactive audience.

Peterson cares deeply about her cast and audience. She knows “Rocky Horror” shows create a judgment-free zone and a vital space for people to “be a different version” of themselves — whether that means donning corsets and makeup, unleashing a raunchy sense of humor, or stepping into a more confident persona. Still, Peterson was skeptical of taking the show online. “How would we keep the parts that make ‘Rocky Horror’ what it is?” she wondered. Ultimately, the Come Again Players decided to wait out the pandemic.

Tori Sviokla had the same trepidation. Her first priority was the well-being of her Boston-area cast, the Teseracte Players. When the idea of a Zoom “Rocky Horror” show arose, it didn’t sound fun; it struck her as more like sitting around in front of a webcam. But her cast wanted to do it. As creative director, it was Sviokla’s job to pull it off.

She tapped the cast’s tech director, who decided the troupe would perform on Zoom and stream their show on the video game platform Twitch. They inventoried who had costume pieces at home. They traded out stage blocking for exaggerated facial expressions. “I basically just told everybody to treat it like it’s a regular show, and to just have fun with it,” Sviokla said. “And I think that was the best thing that we could have done.”

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When their first remote show went live in May, Sviokla had gone two months without “Rocky.” Right before her big Zoom stage entrance, playing Tim Curry’s vampy, haunted Dr. Frank N. Furter, she even felt the usual butterflies: The energy was still there. “It went so much better than I could have hoped for,” she said.

In Providence, a “Rocky” cast called RKO Army faced a similar crossroads but with a singular advantage that allowed the group to sidestep Zoom: Seven cast members lived together in an enormous house down the block from a church. (A church and a mansion are the film’s two settings.) Says Gregory Lane, a “lifelong loner” until he found family in the RKO Army cast, “We had just the right pieces in place to do something that had never been done before.”

The seven cast members split the show’s 11 characters among themselves, sharing some roles and reattributing lines, and prerecorded the show in one take for viewers anywhere to watch from their homes. Their “Stay-At-Home Show” aired in benefits for a food drive, raising over $6,500.

Like the campy “Rocky Horror” film itself, the show RKO Army broadcast hovered between not quite believable and not meant to be believed; it was meant, as “Rocky” shows always are, to be experienced. A chat box was open for audience participation. But instead of filling entirely with call-backs, it acted more as a message board of longing. Viewers exclaimed how much they missed one another, breaking the unspoken barrier that usually proscribes genuine outbursts.

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RKO Army cast member Ray Zombie reflected that sharing a show with a global audience was a “blessing” but was lacking when compared with an in-person crowd. Likewise, Watts desperately misses “Rocky” performances and says that the remote shows he attended were “not really the same.” He adds, “My wife gets angry if I throw things in the house.”

Matt Foy, an associate professor of communication at Upper Iowa University who researches audience participation, points out that in the age of Netflix, there is an assumption that there’s no longer a need for a live audience. People are more comfortable at home, where they don’t have to put up with annoying strangers or high theater prices. Yet these shows tell a different story. They suggest that “it still means something to be with other people,” he says.

This became evident to RKO Army’s cast director Roy Rossi at a recent drive-in “Rocky” show as he scanned the crowd. A decades-long fan, Rossi has seen the “Rocky” community through rough times — cast members in the ’80s often risked violence and harassment to perform — but it was clear, from the outdoor audience’s body language, that isolation can hit harder than projectiles. “You could almost see the hunger out there,” he says. “Online can only go so far.”

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While the pandemic has fostered innovation in this prolifically creative community, it has also engendered acute loss. Communal experiences are not food or shelter, but there is a core of sustenance amid the kinetic energy: the kind of homecoming that can lead someone to make a long, dark drive across state lines, to fishnets and open arms.

For his part, Watts is waiting to get back into the midnight theater. “If they say I have to wear a mask, sure, I’ll wear a mask,” he says. “I’ll probably draw a big set of lips on the mask.”

Margaret Redmond Whitehead is a writer based in Western Mass. Follow her on Twitter @margredwhite.