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Arts & Culture

Doing The Time Warp With 'The Rocky Horror Show'

Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Sean Murray) creates a man (Dan Hansen) in Cygnet Theatre's "The Rocky Horror Show."
Cygnet Theatre
Dr. Frank-N-Furter (Sean Murray) creates a man (Dan Hansen) in Cygnet Theatre's "The Rocky Horror Show."

Cygnet Theatre stages new production of cult classic

Sean Murray On Returning To 'The Rocky Horror Show'
GUESTS: Sean Murray, "The Rocky Horror Show" director/actor Beth Accomando, KPBS arts reporter
Listening To 'The Rocky Horror Show'
KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando takes a listen to the sound design of Cygnet Theater's "The Rocky Horror Show."

LEDE: The Rocky Horror Show has been extended at Cygnet Theater through May 7. KPBS arts reporter Beth Accomando goes behind the scenes and beyond the fishnets and corsets to appreciate something you cannot see on stage.   Tim Curry made Dr. Frank-N-Furter the most famous alien to ever to land on planet earth in fishnets and a corset … CLIP I’m a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania. But before Curry brought the mad extraterrestrial scientist to life in the 1975 film The Rocky Horror Picture Show, the character lived onstage says Sean Murray. SEAN MURRAY: I’ve always been intrigued by the original production which was in 1973 it was put into a 64 seat theater for a three week run. CLIP So who has seen the Rocky Horror Picture Show… well this is not it. SEAN MURRAY: When we first approached how are we going to approach the show my first image to everybody was it’s like we’re in somebody’s garage. That’s the direction Murray gave to his design team as they tackled a new production of The Rocky Horror Show at Cygnet Theater. CLIP Time Warp music It’s a bit of a time warp for Murray who played Frank-N-Furter in a 1991 San Diego Rep production. Murray not only slips back into the corset and heels to play Frank again but he’s also directing the Cygnet production. At the design showcase, Murray introduced the audience to his creative team that included sound designer Chris Luessmann. CHRIS LUESSSMANN: We get to play with all the tropes of different concepts of B movies and utilizing sound effects to a much higher degree than even the movie does in this production certainly. Luessmann was excited by the challenges the stage show presented, including a creation scene in which Frank-N-Furter brings a creature to life… CLIP Throw open the switch… CHRIS LUESSSMANN: These are examples of some of the sound effects that play underneath Frank’s lab and we went back to the original Frankenstein film… Hundreds of thunder cues because it takes a lot of electricity to birth Rocky… . CLIP It’s alive… The lab sounds, combined with a delightfully cheesy set design, immediately place us in the sci-fi genre we know and love. For Luessmann, who got his MFA at UCSD, sound is a great tool to set the scene for an audience. CHRIS LUESSMANN: Sound is so emotionally stimulating. I can put you into a specific frame of mind and specific place just by using sound effects. Take an early scene where our 1950s style characters Brad and Janet are in their car approaching Frank-N-Furter’s castle. CHRIS: We have a cue in the show, a few of the radio speeches of presidents past where we go in sort of a time warp from 1953 to 63 to 74… CLIP radio tuning into to speech… Sound design can also provide humorous punctuation. CHRIS: They’re knocking on the door to Frankenstein’s castle and they ring the doorbell so it sounds like there’s a lot of locks that the butler has to open to open the door. CLIP lock SFX Plus Luessmann had the challenge of bringing the rock songs to life and making the show feel like a live concert by returning the show to its roots and having actors pass around a handheld mike to sing into. CLIP My, my, my, I’m a wild and untamed thing… So when you come to see the new Rocky Horror Show production at Cygnet, make sure you also appreciate how to sounds. Beth Accomando, KPBS News. TAG: The Rocky Horror Show runs through May 7 at Cygnet Theater in Old Town. You can see Beth’s Evening Edition story at K-P-B-S-dot-O-R-G-backslash-cinema-junkie.

Companion viewing

"Phantom of the Paradise" (1974)

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show" (1975)

"Shock Treatment" (1981)

More than two decades ago Sean Murray put on a corset and fishnets to play Dr. Frank-N-Furter at the San Diego Rep. Now he directs a new production of "The Rocky Horror Show" at Cygnet Theatre.

Time is fleeting, and it seems like only yesterday "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" was introducing us to the Time Warp and to Tim Curry as a sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania. The film created a cult following in the 1970s that’s persisted until today, with fans performing shadow casts at film screenings (check Landmark's Ken Cinema and La Paloma Theater). The film’s sexually liberating message appealed to the young Sean Murray.

"My young impressionable teenage self that went to the Strand Theatre and saw 'Rocky Horror' was moved very much by that message as a young kid in high school. And high school is all about trying to figure out where you fit in, and this movie experience gave me permission to not care and just be who you are and not try to fit in with all the gangs or cliques or whatever," Murray said.

Cygnet's "Rocky Horror Show"

Murray played Dr. Frank-N-Futter in the San Diego Repertory Theatre’s production of "The Rocky Horror Show" in 1991.

"It was one of the most fun things I had ever done on stage. The interaction with the audience was fun. The show was fun. It’s over the top, and every ounce of ham in my body is indulged, which is great," Murray said.

Now, Murray is reaching for the boa again for a production he’s directing at Cygnet Theatre. But if you've seen the movie, don't expect the theater experience to be the same.

"It will be completely different, completely different," Murray adamantly said. "The film is full of pregnant pauses that were just aching to be filled with people yelling. On stage, that’s not the case. This play moves like a train. It’s a rock concert combined with a bad sci-fi take off. You yell something, the movie stays the same. So every week you can yell something different and the movie never changes for 40 years, but on stage we can not only hear you but we will fight back."

Sean Murray (center) as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1991 San Diego Repertory Theatre production of "The Rocky Horror Show."
San Diego Repertory Theatre
Sean Murray (center) as Dr. Frank-N-Furter in the 1991 San Diego Repertory Theatre production of "The Rocky Horror Show."

Cygnet acknowledges that "Rocky Horror" is a participatory show and even offers a kit with props, including a tiny boa, newspaper and flashlight, plus instructions on how and when to use them. But it also has firm rules about not throwing any items at the actors or on to the stage. If the audience gets out of hand, though, Murray and his cast will not hesitate to put people in their place.

"The energy of the audience feeds the show. And it is very much the audience is a character in the show — a bit of an unruly character that you can never predict so it’s a bit like riding a bucking bronco. But the more people can get into it and the more they can relax and enjoy it without feeling like they have to run the show, the more fun they’ll have," Murray explained.

He also wants to return the play to its more humble theatrical origins that began in a 64-seat theater.

"I’ve always been intrigued by the original production, which was in 1973. It was put into a 64-seat theater for a three week run," Murray said. "The excitement of the original production in that little tiny space with a rock band, and the nine performers playing the characters — something about that energy, face to face with that audience felt to me like performing a play in your dad’s garage. And that there’s a garage band, cheap, low-budget element to the show that I think is essential to the spirit of the show."

What’s also essential is the iconic character of Frank-N-Furter.

"We want to honor the icon of the show, the icon of Frank-N-Furter, so you start with what people expect."

Like the corset, fishnets, and makeup.

"Then you try to look at how you can evolve that icon into your own statement while still honoring the original idea behind it," Murray said.

So he's done away with the Joan Crawford hair that Tim Curry made famous and goes instead for a bleached blonde look that's a little more like Annie Lennox. Murray said his production is all about how glam rock killed the malt shop rock of the 1950s. That means Frank-N-Furter uses his androgynous sexuality as a challenge to the sexually repressed Brad and Janet and to the audience.

"I love doing 'Sweet Transvestite' because it’s so in the audience’s face and it’s so confrontational," Murray said. "Frank has to be so completely unapologetic that if you don’t go along with it go home because there’s no stopping him. So there’s a fun liberating kind of thing about that. There’s something about playing Frank now that this is — strange to say about Frank-N-Furter — but I feel like there’s more of him then there was than just the fishnets."

When it comes time for Frank-N-Furter to do the floor show and he sings, "Don't Dream It, Be It," the play leaves the sci-fi satire behind for a moment of sincerity.

"Ultimately, the play becomes about if you don’t really try to live up to who you are, if you always try to be what other people want you to be, you’re always going to be chasing something and you’re never going to be happy. And so if you want to be something, be that thing. Don’t dream it. Be it!" Murray said. "And so I feel like when I get to that point in the play I have these great lyrics where I get to try and convey that message, and I try to convey it in as little a campy manner as possible. I let that be for me the moment when Frank-N-Furter is the most sincere, and most open and pleading with the audience. Don’t miss the message of this musical."

It's a message that's been connecting with audiences for more than 40 years.

"The Rocky Horror Show" has just been extended through May 7 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town. And "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" movie still runs on select weekends with a shadow cast at the Ken Cinema and La Paloma.