Milwaukee's 30+ Years of Shadowcasting 'The Rocky Horror Picture Show'
If you happen to be walking by Milwaukee’s Oriental Theatre around midnight (the second Saturday of every month), you may see scantily-clad people wrapped around the lobby waiting with anticipation for a unique - yet somehow ubiquitous - experience.
They’re waiting to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The cult classic is now the longest running film in history, and features a cast of well-known actors, like Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon, and Barry Bostwick, at the beginning of their careers.
The film itself is a mildly nonsensical musical about transvestite aliens, sex, betrayal, and ultimately, the folly of man. But the crowds at the Oriental aren't just waiting to see a movie, they're waiting to join a shadowcast performance - an interactive experience most-closely associated with The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
"The film is rolling and you’re acting along with the film. You re-create all the costumes, the makeup, the hair - everything. Every single movement. And then we take the theater and make it like, a live, interactive experience for you. So there’s no live singing, there’s no live talking - it’s a lot of lip-syncing," says Annaleigh Vytlacil, who plays Dr. Frankenfurter in the shadowcast at the Oriental and is also the casting director for Sensual Daydreams, which organizes the shadowcast.
Groups like Sensual Daydreams exist in cities around the world, and they lead the audience in a variety of "callouts" - a collection of now dogmatic practices associated with the film.
"When it came out in 1975 it was mostly a flop and it just did incredibly poorly at the box office."
Still, the practice of shadowcasting remains a cultural phenomenon linked almost exclusively to The Rocky Horror Picture Show. So how did this all get started? To figure that out, we have to go back to when Rocky first premiered in theaters.
"When it came out in 1975 it was mostly a flop and it just did incredibly poorly at the box office. It was re-cast then as a midnight movie in late ‘75, by the Waverly Theater in New York City, Greenwich Village and that’s where it began its kind of development as a cult film," says Jeffrey Weinstock, author of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, part of the Cultographies series.
"The way that the story goes is that there was this small group of people who would watch the film, who would go to see it routinely. And then as a way to entertain themselves, began to shout things back to the screen."
He explains that after the Waverly started its midnight screenings, other theaters followed suit. And these midnight movies brought out a community spirit in audiences. While it’s hard to definitively say when or why people started shouting back at the screen, there is a prevailing theory.
Weinstock says, "The way that the story goes is that there was this small group of people who would watch the film, who would go to see it routinely. And then as a way to entertain themselves, began to shout things back to the screen - really to the benefit of other people who were in the theater as well."
He continues, "Then this snowballed - so other people would begin to join into the fun and things got shouted back and forth. And people who saw the film in New York City carried this to other places."
The shouting (now part of the collection of "callouts") eventually turned to people acting out the movie in front of the screen and like the shouting, shadowcasting was carried to other places like Milwaukee.
The Oriental Theatre first started screening the film in 1978 and it hasn’t stopped. The theater’s first shadowcast was formed in the early '80s, which is when Lyn Kream was first introduced to the film.
"Rocky really drew those kids that didn’t have a place - the misfits, you know the weirdos in their school or in their family. And I think that it’s still that for some people, I think that Rocky is a place that people come. It’s a safe space," says Kream, who plays Columbia in the Sensual Daydreams cast.
Kream says she first started performing at the Oriental 30 years ago with the original shadowcast. Since then, it’s become a family affair - her daughter Marissa plays Rocky. As actors in the cast, they’re responsible for leading the audience in these semi-scripted callouts which include both shouting and actions that mirror specific parts of the film.
Weinstock explains, "There’s a wedding scene, and in the wedding people throw rice. And so people come to the performance with rice that they can throw. There’s a scene that takes place in a rainstorm where the main characters are trying to shelter themselves from the rain so people come with squirt guns. You shoot the squirt gun in the air and that’s the rain, and you bring a newspaper to kind of protect your head. At the same time.
"There’s a song that’s There’s a Light Over at the Frankenstein Place and so people - where it was permitted - would come in with lighters and would hold their lighters up in the air at that point," Weinstock says.
Beyond the callouts, there are also raunchy games played before the screening and people new to the shadowcast experience - known as “virgins” - are often led through a barrage of obstacles and challenges.
Sitting in on one of these performances the audiences are loud, vivacious, and engaged - if not a little bit inebriated. But the intoxicants and squirt guns aren’t what attracted Annaleigh Vytlacil and Lyn Kream to the shadowcast experience. For them it has always been about the community.
"I think what’s beautiful about Rocky is that even though it is a different cast of characters and it’s a different group - Rocky doesn’t change, Rocky always stays the same and the love for Rocky and the passion for what we do has transcended those thirty years," says Kream.
"I think what's beautiful about Rocky is that... Rocky doesn't change, Rocky always stays the same and the love for Rocky and the passion for what we do has transcended those thirty years."
Vytlacil, who describes herself as "a big girl," says that performing in the shadowcast was liberating and she credits The Rocky Horror Picture Show experience with inspiring body confidence.
"It was a huge thing to be able to get on stage and feel empowered - and then people come up to you after, and be like ‘Oh my God, you made me feel so good about myself. And that’s part of the reason, cause' I love that, and I love inspiring people. Rocky… I just love Rocky," says Vytlacil, laughing.
So whether you take a jump to the left, or just a step to the right - they say there’s always a place for you at this late night… double feature… picture show.