I was a teenage Frank N Furter.
As it got closer to 7pm on Saturday night, we'd start to slowly get ready. By summer 1992, we'd been doing this every weekend for 5 years. Our suitcases were already re-packed after the previous week's show. Costumes that needed mending had been mended. We didn't wash our costumes every week. We probably should have. About once a month we'd look them over to see if they needed new sequins, if our fishnets were too laddered to wear, if make-up needed replenishing. Getting ready on a Saturday night meant putting on our make-up before hopping on a bus from Archway to Leicester Square.
I had my make-up down to a routine. First, white greasepaint on my face. It wore it whiter than I would today, but that is because our cast had a kind of cartoon look. We went for screen accuracy, but with a caricature edge. Just a bit bigger and more exaggerated than reality.
Next the eyebrows. Vertical line on the inside edge of my eyebrow with black eyeliner, then an arched sweep across the top. Fill that in. Then I combined some black and white greasepaint to make a light grey which I used to fill in from my eyebrow to my eye lashes. Then black greasepaint to thicken up the eyebrows, a semi-circle on each eyelid and the insides of each nostril in order to make them look bigger. Back to the black liquid eyeliner to make a line under each eye, separated from my lower lashes by a few millimetres in order to open up the eyes a bit. Still with the black liquid liner, I'd line my lips, changing the shape of my mouth - top lip a bit thinner at the edges, bottom lip bigger- with little wings on the edges of my mouth in order to give me a mouth that was a bit more like his. Then onto the Carmine Vermillion greasepaint stick. I used this on the sides of nose and as blusher. I mixed a bit of it with some black and used that to paint slight bags under my eyes, smile lines between my nose and my mouth and the indentations around his mouth. And then the lipstick. A dark reddypinkyplum made from a mixture of greasepaint and whatever the most recent lipstick I could find that was close to his.
This is what I looked like when I arrived around 10pm every Saturday night.
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I played Frank N. Furter in London’s Rocky Horror Picture Show shadowcast and it was my life.
We'd only started performing at the Prince Charles Cinema off Leicester Square in summer 1991. Before then we were on Baker Street. The Screen On Baker Street held only about 100 people and a couple months after we started performing, it was sold out every week. When we first moved to the Prince Charles Cinema, which held about 400 people, we would get dressed in our costumes right away and head out to Leicester Square to hand out leaflets.
The Prince Charles Cinema had tempted us away from Baker Street by agreeing that we wouldn't have to buy tickets to the film each week in order to perform. From February 1987 until August 1991, the whole cast bought a ticket every weekend. Our first performance was in May 1987. I say 'performance'. It was just three of us who got up and did a few scenes. I didn't even really know what I was doing. I'd got a costume together in a week made up of things I'd found in Camden Market that were good enough. The top hat was a black one that I'd covered in gold glitter. It was a rubbish costume, but no one cared then. I’d rented the VHS and learned basic moves.
By the time we'd moved onto The Prince Charles Cinema, we were a very slick outfit with a full cast, stage hands and a spotlight operator. At Baker Street ‘spotlight operator’ meant 'holding a torch and shining it at the person singing', as it does for a lot of casts. The Prince Charles agreed to let us use their actual spotlight on the balcony. They'd also agreed to let us store our props there during the week. At Baker Street we had to carry our whole show with us on the bus. It didn't take a lot of discussion between the cast to decide to move to the Prince Charles.
By this time, we'd become fairly well-known within Rocky Horror fandom. One time in about 1991, we attended the West End stage show as a cast. We'd booked our tickets in a block in the stalls at the front. I don't remember if we all dressed up (it's very unlikely I did because I only ever dressed in my costume when I was performing) but it turned out we were so well known that we didn't need to be in our costumes for fans to recognise us; as we got to our seats, the audience started clapping and cheering for us. During the show, when Antony Head got to the line from which our name originated "...and what charming underclothes you both have...", he changed it to "... and what delightful lingerie you both have..." He looked at us, raised his eyebrow and the audience went wild.
By the time, we'd started at the Prince Charles, we'd performed around 200 shows. We'd updated our costumes several times, got better wigs, made better props. Our pre-show performances had got more elaborate. Robins Cinema, the company that owned the Prince Charles, wanted to take us on a tour of their cinemas around the country. They'd agreed to pay the cost of a minibus hire and we would drive to each venue. We wouldn't make enough money to pay for the whole cast to stay over night anywhere so depending on where the venue was we'd either drive straight back to London (Devizes) or stay overnight in the cinema and drive back the next morning (Durham). It wasn't at all glamorous, but it was all I wanted to do.
The first time I'd heard of The Rocky Horror Picture Show was when I watched the film Fame when I was 12. The scene at the 8th Street Playhouse is only a few minutes long, but I was hooked. I didn't know what it was or the name of the film, but I needed to find it. All I knew about it was what I'd seen in Fame. I had no idea what it was about. And then it started playing in the local rep cinema and…
Tim Curry as Frank N Furter throwing off his cape was a kind of religious experience for me.
From that moment on, I dedicated myself entirely to the film. I wanted to know everything about the film and the actors. I wanted to own everything related to it- whether it was an official poster magazine or something that simply had a pair of lips on it. I played the soundtrack album endlessly, I played the audience participation album endlessly. I copied them both onto cassette and listened to them on my Walkman. Over and over and over again. But what I really wanted to do was to get up on stage and perform.
The first time I performed in May 1987, I was Columbia. There was already a Magenta, who was my favourite character, so I did what needed to be done. After performing as Columbia for maybe 10 times, we needed a Frank N Furter. I decided to step into the role. It required a huge time investment. Not only did I need to make 5 different costumes, but I had the biggest role in the show to learn.
I'd got a copy of the film on VHS, so I was able to practice. We started off only performing a few of the songs and built up over the course of several weeks to perform the whole film. I continued to rehearse for the whole 5 years I performed the role. My aim was to be ‘perfect’, to have people want to watch me rather than the film, to have people wonder who that hot guy was playing Frank.
Rocky Horror was more than ‘a film’ for me. It was more than ‘putting on a show’. It was ‘an identity’. It was ‘my family’. It was 'my community'. It was 'my lifestyle'. It was 'Me'. It gave me a grounding in creativity. I learned how to sew, make props, write, perform, direct... It taught me about the importance of preparation and discipline and practice. It was my apprenticeship, my scholarship, my university… my everything.
By mid-1992, I was experiencing the toxic side that is present in a lot of (all??) fandoms and was being bullied by a few fellow cast members. I made the difficult decision to leave the cast – the cast that I’d founded- and wasn’t sure where I would go or what I would or could do next. Then I saw an advert for an open audition for a tv presenter job. I decided to do it. There were nearly 1000 people that turned up. I got the job. It was 100% down to Rocky Horror. I’d introduced the film and run the pre-show for a few years and that gave me a confidence that I wouldn’t have found elsewhere. Dealing with a big rowdy crowd will do that. Talking on camera for a few minutes was easy – it wasn’t going to heckle you.
For a couple years, I’d play Sweet Transvestite over and over in my headphones on my way to auditions. As any Frank knows, the moment you first turn around and then later throw off the cape, the confidence you have is beyond anything you’ve experienced before. It’s like Neo at the end of The Matrix, in that moment you are totally and completely in control of the universe. It was a very useful tool for me to use before auditions…
After I left my cast, I had nothing to do with the fandom until 2015 when I attended the 40th Anniversary Convention in New York City. Though I didn't know any of the new fans, I was still so embedded within the fandom that my first night there I had dinner with two of the film’s cast members and drinks with another one the next night. When I was a 17 year old insane Rocky Horror fan, my neighbour was Patricia Quinn. I was, indeed, lucky.
My fandom runs deeper than just ‘liking the film a lot’ and my connection to other RHPS fans is based on far more than just ‘liking the film a lot’. If I see someone online mentioning that they like Rocky Horror and know that they haven’t dedicated their entire being to it, I just think ‘amateur’.
Several years ago, I was out with Richard O’Brien (yea, I know) and he said ‘I just don’t understand why people shadowcast.’ I started to tell him and he stopped me, ‘Let’s do this on camera sometime.’ He wanted it to be recorded so that others could hear it… Then Covid happened… and I’ve still not explained it to him.
I don’t even know if I’ve properly explained it to myself.
I love cosplay. There is a deep and profound joy to be had making screen accurate costumes. I cannot for the life of me understand where the pleasure can come from by just buying a full costume from a shop and wearing it. Bliss comes from studying the costume in photos and screengrabs, finding others online who have made or are interested in making that costume, tracking down the correct fabrics, making accessories, finding patterns you can hack (after first learning how to sew), studying photos and screenshots to work out if that’s a pleat or just a wrinkle and, if it is a pleat, working out how to alter your pattern to get it in, learning how to work with plastic, wire, papier mache, learning how to design fabrics in order to get them printed, learning how to cut, dye, alter, make wigs, and shoes, omigod, shoes… Cosplay is a deeply creative hobby that forces you to learn a lot of different skills… (My costume-making blog is here…)
Shadowcasting, however, goes beyond ‘cosplaying’ to a sometimes bonkers degree. It’s not just wearing a costume, it is wearing a character. You step into a fantasy world and into the body of someone who lives in that world. You aren’t just dressing up as that character, you become that character. When I was shadowcasting, I wasn’t trying to perform a character like Tim Curry did, I was trying to BE Frank N Furter. Shadowcasters don’t just get up on stage in front of the film and do whatever they want – dance around and be ‘crazy’ on stage while a film is showing, any idiot can do that. Instead, they learn all the moves their character does and performs them as perfectly in time to the film as they can to give the impression that the character has stepped out of the screen.
Shadowcasting takes a long time to get right. Once I had all of Frank’s larger moves down, I progressed on to perfecting the smaller moves, then facial expressions, eye movements, lip curls… A shadowcast performance for me isn’t just ‘knowing all the words to the songs really well’ or ‘knowing the script off by heart’ or ‘knowing the dance pretty well’… it is BEING that character in that moment, word by word, move by move, thought by thought… It is not just looking down at exactly the same moment that a character looks down, it is knowing why that character looks down. What are they looking at? What made them do that? What thoughts are going through their head? What, dare I say it, is their motivation? And then it is embodying all of that, having it soak right down into the marrow of your bones so that you can perform it as smoothly and as perfectly timed as possible without ever having to think about the timing… week after week.
But all of that is about the technique of shadowcasting. It doesn’t really answer Richard’s question about why shadowcasting appeals to some of us within the Rocky Horror fandom.
For me, there’s always been something deeply interesting about the idea that the boundary between fantasy and reality can be porous. Not simply that we can travel to a fantasyland- like Dorothy travelling to Oz- but that fictional characters can enter our world- like in The Purple Rose of Cairo- and bring some magic to our ordinary lives. To me, shadowcasting is about breaking down the boundary between our normal reality and the ‘insane insanity’ of the fantasy world where a murderous, cannibalistic, transvestite alien is the sexiest man there’s ever been. I want to take that world into the cinema in order for the audience to not just Dream It, but Be It. I want to make it more than just a film. I want to make it real. I want to be Frank, right there in front of them. For me shadowcasting is about being a conduit between the audience in reality and the other world beyond the screen. For me ‘accuracy’- in the costume, make-up, performance – is about making the boundary between those worlds disappear. My aim is to be so accurate that Frank is both up there AND right here in front of you. Is it real? It is fantasy? It’s both. It's neither. It’s something else. It’s shadowcasting…
Yea… I care a lot about shadowcasting.