In anti-drag Texas, ‘The Rocky Horror Show’ is now a political act

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DALLAS — “Three songs in, and Texas hasn’t shut us down yet!”

The audience howled and clapped and hooted with delight at the ad-lib by David Lugo, playing the pricelessly smarmy Narrator in “The Rocky Horror Show,” a 50-year-old musical that suddenly has the knickers of Texas politicians in a twist. See, “Rocky Horror” features — yes, horrors! — male actors in wigs and sparkly eye shadow and body-hugging female garb (and looking really good doing it).

In Texas, a man or woman in drag, or an actor wearing nothing at all, has become a potential subject of criminal prosecution. Senate Bill 12, which was signed into law in June by Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, makes it a crime to present a “sexually oriented” performance to anyone under 18.

Which is how the Dallas Theater Center’s revival of “The Rocky Horror Show,” a mainstream, Broadway-tested hit and longtime cult movie sensation as “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” has been transformed into something more than mere pop entertainment. It has become a symbol of freedom, a focal point in a broad effort by authorities in red states to demonize drag and regulate artistic expression.

To a theater lover, it is all a bit surreal, sort of a real-life version of “The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” the 1978 musical comedy about the hypocrisy surrounding an effort to shutter a beloved house of ill repute. Except there is nothing funny about the implications of S.B. 12, which seeks to regulate any performance that “appeals to the prurient interest in sex.” Critics point out it was written so broadly that unintended targets such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders could be subject to its restrictions for wearing suggestively skimpy costumes.

As the law makes its way through the courts, a chilling effect is already apparent, according to local arts leaders and owners of some entertainment venues.

In Dallas, leaders of Theatre Three, founded in 1961, originally decided to prohibit anyone under 18 from attending their first show of the season, “Lizzie: The Musical,” because of worries about how vaguely S.B. 12 defined sexual content. S.B. 12 describes “sexually oriented performance” as “a performer who is nude” or “a male performer exhibiting as a female, or a female performer exhibiting as a male, who uses clothing, makeup, or other similar physical markers and who sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience.” (Codifying lip-syncing as potentially criminal adds to the surreality.)

Christie Vela, associate artistic director at Theatre Three, said the company did not want to face the expense of being dragged into court, even though the world premiere musical, about alleged ax murderer Lizzie Borden, had no drag performer or content of a graphic sexual nature. It was because, Vela said, “there are allusions in the story to a romantic relationship between two women.” Artistic director Jeffrey Schmidt added, “S.B. 12 is so vague. I just did not want to be the one to test the waters.” After the recent ruling, the theater, whose season includes “Deathtrap,” “The Seagull” and “Pirates of Penzance,” opted to relax the ban on juvenile attendees.

Still, there is a sense the political well has been poisoned, in a state where the ideological divisions are intense and often regional.

To Liz Mikel, none of this makes sense. A veteran actress who just finished the national tour of “1776,” cast entirely with female, trans and nonbinary actors, she plays the nosy Dr. Scott in “The Rocky Horror Show” in the 440-seat Kalita Humphreys Theater.

“Artists are being penalized for being artists, for bringing art to the community,” Mikel said. “I want to cry now.” Sitting in the theater lobby, her castmates Lee Walter and Zachary Willis, both of whom portray gender-fluid characters, concurred. Walter, a Dallas star who plays Dr. Frank-N-Furter, lamented the loss of some entertainment jobs when promoters canceled drag brunches because of worries about prosecution.

The Dallas Theater Center had previously staged “The Rocky Horror Show” in 2014, when no Texas lawmaker was in a public tizzy over drag. At that time, the company hosted Dallas middle and high school students, as part of the its decades-old, award-winning Project Discovery education program. This year, company officials said, the Dallas school district declined to send students.

What has really changed, aside from the fact that the state has weighed in? Jennifer Altabef, a lawyer and chair of the Dallas Theater Center board, said she has friends “on all ends” of the political spectrum and that she respects differing points of view. “I do understand that everyone wants to protect their children from things they think are harmful, and what people think is harmful is different, and it will always be that way.” She added, “But we have constitutional protections that cannot be abridged. And you know, that is where it has to stop. I mean, what a child sees should be in the purview of the parents and the parenting relationship, and not in the state relationship.”

On a recent weekday night, the kind of raucous crowd that has been attending “Rocky Horror” for years, people in their 20s and their 60s, some in fright wigs or cosplaying the musical’s zany characters, filed into the Kalita Humphreys Theater, designed by eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright. While they could attend, I did not notice anyone under 18 at the show, which is directed by Blake Hackler and choreographed by Kelsey Milbourn and runs until Oct. 29.

The young woman in her 20s seated next to me laughed and caterwauled as other audience members participated in the traditional “Rocky Horror” routine, shouting catchphrases and sarcastic commentary back at the actors. It was this young woman’s first experience of the musical, she said. At intermission, I asked if she was aware of the controversy swirling in the theater community and whether it was in any way spoiling her fun. “Yeah, the drag ban,” she said. “And no, not tonight!”

Emotional_Series7814,

“sexually oriented performance” as… “a male performer exhibiting as a female, or a female performer exhibiting as a male, who uses clothing, makeup, or other similar physical markers and who sings, lip syncs, dances, or otherwise performs before an audience.”

Critics point out [the law] was written so broadly that unintended targets such as the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders could be subject to its restrictions for wearing suggestively skimpy costumes.

So speaking of unintended targets… non-professional musical theatre has a shortage of interested men, even moreso when it’s musical theatre put on by a high school or a younger age group. The way I usually see things done is that once you run out of men to cast in male roles, you offer the remaining ones to women if their vocal range can handle it, and sometimes even if they can’t—their parts would just be moved up an octave. (You usually wouldn’t look into changing the character’s gender to match that of the actor, because the show rights usually say something about not being allowed to do that.) This never came across as something subversive or trying to make a statement about gender, just as “we have to fill the role with someone”. Now with this law, the countless middle school girls who get offered minor male roles because maybe 5 boys tried out for the show are legally said to be putting on a “sexually oriented performance”. After all, it’s a female performer exhibiting as a male, using clothing and makeup and singing and dancing and acting before an audience. But somehow I doubt the middle schooler wearing a too-big suit and saying their three lines a little too loudly is meant to inspire sexual desire in the audience.

Although, I think if the lawmakers were aware of this practice for amateur theatre, they’d probably want it killed too, no matter how nonsubversive it is, because it’s a person stepping out of their assigned gender role. Nevermind that an actor’s job is to portray someone they are not.

BoxerDevil,

Now the only place I will watch rocky horror picture show is in Texas

HubertManne,
HubertManne avatar

I remember thinking about rocky horror when these bills came out. Clowns.

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