A Conversation with Madeleine Bertschy, Director of Georgetown's Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) is a one-of-a-kind cult-classic movie. Widely regarded as a confusing, terrible film (and really, it is), Rocky Horror gained a cult following early after its release, manifesting in shadow cast-audience participation screenings of the movie. Audience members come in costumes, armed with props, and shout obscene callbacks at the screen. New viewers (or virgins as they will be dubbed with a lipstick V on their foreheads) can expect a super-virgin competition, stripping, and an array of dildos. Rocky Horror has become an iconic event for queer communities for generations. Georgetown’s production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show has been a campus tradition since the first showing in 2018. The show is supported and funded by Georgetown PRIDE, the LGBTQ+ club on campus. The Rocky Horror Picture Show will take place on December third and fifth in Lohrfink Auditorium at 8 pm.
This year’s director, Madeleine Bertschy, is a senior in the MSB studying marketing. Previously, she starred as Janet (2019) and Colombia (2018) on the Georgetown Stage.
You have been a part of Rocky Horror since the beginning. What is it that draws you to the show?
It's a tradition in my family on your 16th birthday, you go to Rocky Horror. My parents did it for my older sister and then when my twin sister and I turned 16, we also went. It's just like...my dad is a French Catholic, and somehow this show is okay. He grew up with it. He saw it when he was in his 20s, and this is kind of the weird liberal thing that is totally fine.
And I think that's what's so cool to me is that Rocky’s always been out of the norm variance, you know, it seems to fall between the cracks of opinions and attracts people from every walk of life. It's like either you get it or you don't and everything about your beliefs outside of the sphere doesn't seem to have an impact on that and I love it. It's just if you get it, you get it, and everybody around you bonds about understanding what the freedom of it is.
How is Rocky Horror different from a traditional play for those who don't know?
Okay, so, first off, it's a shadow cast. So the biggest change is probably the fact that there's an actual movie playing in the background. And then you have the cast of actors acting out the movie on the stage in front of the movie playing behind them. So it's a predetermined script, and not only a script, it's also a predetermined way of moving and dancing and speaking because you're not inventing anything new, you're just mimicking what already exists. And then also you're not actually verbalizing anything. All of the verbal additions are extra to the existing dialogue. So it's all lip-syncing when it comes to the dialogue and the songs in the movie itself. So in those kinds of ways, it really differs from a traditional theater experience.
For all of us involved in the show we've seen how dedicated you are as a director. You truly are like the life---itself--- of the show.
Oh yeah of course. You've choreographed the entire show, and given something like 20 hours a week to the show. Truly this may be the most thought-out shadow-cast showing of Rocky in history. What made you want to make the show so intricate?
Each year we faced a whole slew of different issues doing the show. The first year we thought there would be 100 people max and then that sold out in minutes and we were like, oh my goodness. So two days before the show, we had to change the whole space. And then the second year, we were like how do you make the experience bigger now that it's a little more well known. And then this year was COVID. Again, different sort of slew of problems.
I think my biggest realization was that I wanted a cast that has a lot of ensemble characters. I really wanted it not to be about the main cast. For the main cast, it's a lot of standing in corners and nodding and then Janet faints a lot. And Colombia screams. If you want the whole room to feel the energy that is being portrayed by four different tiny faces on the stage, you have this amazing, toolkit at your disposal, the ensemble cast is there to bring the spirit all the way from the front of the room to the back.
I also actively believe it's so much more engaging if the whole room is present. Going to see it at Georgetown is amazing because of the environment. The audience are all cast members; they just didn’t know it until the show. The whole room is yelling and I think it's the kind of experience that's super on par with the college experience. It’s kind of weird and out there and out of the box and slightly sexual.
Rocky has many rituals and traditions, and one of the most interesting aspects of our show is that we are adding our own elements to the famed show, like you mentioned. What are some of your favorite Rocky Traditions and what ways are you excited about making the Georgetown show unique?
One of the most fun traditions I mean, it's a classic, is the sort of virgin sacrifice at the start. I think that's such a fun way to introduce people to the show who have no idea what they just signed up for. Very clearly from the get-go before the show even begins you’re either are onboard or this is not going to be your cup of tea but it's not hiding. And then the second year we did it at Georgetown we introduced more than one Lips character. Traditionally it's always a strip scene during the opening number with one person and we’ve made it a whole group of people. I think is so cool to not have just one person filling a room. I think it adds to the experience.
One thing Rocky is really above all else is gay. Lewd and promiscuous and very gay. In your view and experience, why do you think Rocky has become such a cultural relic for the queer community?
Someone asked me this the other day. They watched the show and was like I don't get it. How is this positive gay forwardness? The main character Frank who has sex irrelevant of gender, is a murdering alien. Doesn't that make it terrible that this main character who is like supposed to be representing the gay community is a terrible human being/not even human?! And for me, I never thought about it that way. For me the reason it has the height that it does, the reason it stuck around for so long, is not the fact that it portrayed characters that had a fluid notion of sexuality, but more that there were these characters that had that as a part of their personality, and it was never addressed.
There is a song in the show about everything. Like I'm getting horny, let me sing about it. Like I walk into a room let me make up a song that has absolutely no relevance to anything. And at any point, there could have been a song after Frank and Brad have sex where Brad goes, “What am I feeling? I just had sex with a man like how do I feel about this? Is this normal?” But they don't, at no point is that questioning or that strangeness added on as an outside layer. No one ever stops and goes wow, it's weird that you had sex with both men and women. Everyone's just like, should we have sex? Yes or No. It has absolutely nothing to do with gender. So for me, that's the reason that I think it's stuck around.
Also, the essence of Rocky is really audience participation. So when we make it more gay with our callbacks, and have a pride flag in the show, then it becomes that, inclusive community where we're like making the show our own.
100%. And it also allows for each age group who does the show to display that to whatever extent they want.
This show has not been without its difficulties. Performing during the pandemic looks different than in years past. Unfortunately, we had to cancel our original show dates on the day of the show because of the covid outbreak on campus. How has the change affected you and the show?
In terms of how it's affected the show, it's definitely made it slightly more complicated because we pushed the dates which I think was the right choice in terms of the COVID outbreak on campus and public health department, and making sure everyone was comfortable. You can't do the show unless people are comfortable; it just loses everything that it stands for. It does present a couple of complications with a change of location. We are doing the show in two different locations, Lorhfink and the ICC so it requires a little bit of reblocking.
Then from my end, I mean, it's interesting because I've been watching like 30 people, really work their butts off for the last month. For a play, you work to a point where you want to be able to show it to someone; there is a validation of actually being able to fulfill the performance. So I'm disappointed for everyone that they weren't able to have that when we were planning to. I think you also mentally prepare yourself for putting yourself in a vulnerable position in front of a lot of people and it's hard to be all mentally prepared and then not have the show happen.
It's a testament to the power of this show and the friendships you make because if people are willing to sign on for something that's supposed to be four weeks and actually give it nine weeks of their time, that's huge.
Daisy said something funny about how Janet had like, left her body, was exhumed out of her and she doesn’t know how she is going to get her back. Kind of like Janet is a demon.
Haha I think that’s kind of true.
For our first round of ticket sales, the Friday show sold out in 3 minutes so clearly Rocky is a campus favorite. What do you think the legacy of Rocky Horror is at Georgetown?
I don't actually know if it's been around long enough to build a legacy yet, or I don't know if legacy is the right word. Right now, I think it's starting to have a reputation, and I hope that in years to come, it will build on that reputation to have a legacy. Rocky Horror is such a hit-or-miss show. You understand why it's made and kind of give up a sense of reason and logic and you let yourself be a part of this wild ride. Or you don't. And that's totally fine.
But it's got enough of a sort of secret hype, that people understand this is not something you can explain very easily. But if you commit to it and you just commit to that being your evening it's a really fun ride,
I think it is a side of the Georgetown community that we don't display a lot just because we’re a Jesuit university. It's odd to have such a public display of people who don't quite fit the norm to be presented. And I think people look for that. I think there's something very relieving in watching other people do crazy things because you're like, I'm not alone.
Audrey Ledford is the Commentary co-editor and a sophomore in the SFS studying Culture and Politics. She played Magenta in Rocky Horror.