‘ROCKY HORROR show’ The making of a musical



Take it from a veteran director: Musical theater is not for the faint of heart.

Putting together the community theater musical sometimes feels more like planning the D-Day invasion than creating art. In the midst of coordinating the activities of 15-50 people, triaging set and costume and lighting crises, struggling to meet budget ceilings and publicity deadlines, a director may wonder just what the heck he got himself into. However daunting the obstacles, though, the payoff is equally huge. When everyone is exhausted and frustrated, it’s the promise of an audience’s applause that keeps us going – the chance to excite and move people in a shared moment in time. A chance to make ’em laugh, make ’em cry – to give ’em the ole razzle-dazzle!

My current project, “The Rocky Horror Show” at Salem Community Theatre, is the classic rock musical about a naive couple who stumble upon an alien mad scientist’s mansion on the evening he’s creating his “perfect man.”

Months before rehearsals start, the work already has begun. First comes concepting: What is the director’s vision of the material? Some shows can be radically re-interpreted – with others, you risk an audience’s wrath by changing what is beloved. With a cult hit such as “Rocky Horror,” there will be die-hard fans and “virgins” alike. The director asks himself, “How can I add original flourishes while maintaining the intent of the creators?”

The director then communicates his vision to his creative team. The musical director teaches the music to the cast, rehearses the musicians and conducts them during performances. The choreographer stages the dance numbers. Lighting, costume, sound and set designers also contribute their talents. The stage manager is the glue that holds rehearsals and performances together.

With “Rocky Horror,” make-up design is also important – the lead character Frank-n-Furter is a “sweet transvestite,” so he has to look like the most beautiful man in drag possible!

For an art form, the amount of paperwork a musical can generate is staggering. Scene breakdowns, rehearsal schedules, costume and lighting plots ... the lists go on and on. Directors are as much administrators as they are artists.

It’s been said that casting is 80 percent of creating a great show. With so many theaters in this area, the competition for talent is intense.

A good director gets the word out about auditions far in advance, trying to generate as much interest as possible. Often you have to call people, cajole and seduce, and turn over every rock in town to find the perfect person for each role. The energy expended in this part of the process will pay huge dividends later. And there are special talent needs as well: In “Rocky Horror,” one character has to tap dance. Rocky, the Frankenstein-like creation, requires an actor with an impressive physique.

Rehearsing large numbers of performers is challenging. These are volunteers, and they have busy lives. Creating a schedule is often like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. There are plenty of last-minute obstacles – sick kids, work crises and traffic jams can derail a well-planned rehearsal. Being well-organized but adaptable is the secret to maintaining sanity as a director.

Musicals rehearse longer than straight plays – often up to eight weeks. Once the performers have the music and choreography under their belts, we move on to staging. In the theater, this is called “blocking.” In smaller pieces, a director can collaborate with actors to organically develop the blocking. In bigger musicals, however, the director often has to come in with everything worked out. My director’s script looks like an NFL playbook, the dialogue covered in arrows, colored lines and cryptic theatre-speak such as “cross down-stage left.”

Communicating your vision to each performer requires an understanding of how their individual process works – some actors begin with internal character motivations, others with exterior physicalization. Ultimately, they must all arrive at the same place – a performance that is believable within the heightened, strangely artificial world of the musical. One of my greatest joys as a director is helping actors to really act songs instead of just singing them – after all, they’re monologues set to music.

“The Rocky Horror Show” has tons of comedy and camp. It’s wacky, dirty, sexy and irreverent. Beneath that, however, its message is still powerful: Don’t be afraid of who you really are inside – regardless of sexual orientation or society’s demands. “Don’t dream it – be it” is its mantra, and it’s as relevant today as it was when it premiered in the ’70s.

In directing these young performers, many of whom are still in the process of defining who they are and finding their place in the world, I see these ideas resonate, and I know they will resonate with the audience as well.

Hollywood throws millions of dollars at productions, but with community theater, the budget is usually in the hundreds. Finding ways to provide great production values with limited funds takes equal amounts creativity and elbow grease.

The amount of labor that goes into building sets and finding and creating costumes and props is astonishing. It is where the word “community” comes into community theater, and the collaboration it can evoke is inspiring. Getting everything done often comes down to the wire – most actors can tell you stories of being in front of an audience with the paint still drying on the set behind them.

But it’s the collaboration that make theater such a unique, magical art form. When audiences see “The Rocky Horror Show” starting Friday, they will see the culmination of months of hard work by so many people – a thing born of sacrifice, pain, fun, frustration and joy. It’s out-and-out fun and a great Halloween time, but like all theater, it’s also a way for us to collectively explore the human experience.

Michael Dempsey has directed many local favorites, including “Jesus Christ Superstar” at SCT, “Curtains” at the Youngstown Playhouse and “I Am My Own Wife” at the Oakland Center for the Arts.