Pandemic Theatre: Musicals and Bootleg Recordings
ELLA HESTER

I realized I might be handling the pandemic poorly when I got into the habit of listening to bootleg audio clips of the 1974 London production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show every night when I went to sleep. The movie has always been a source of comfort for me and I know it forwards and backwards. But I got bored with listening to the soundtrack or rewatching the movie as my default coping mechanism for a pandemic that is reaching beyond a year. Zoom theatre productions of shows new and old have been plentiful, but I was wanting for something more intimate. The campy, cabaret-tone of Rocky Horror, with or without the audience met that mark. I could close my eyes, listen to the live recordings, and watch the movie play in my head.

Science Fiction Double Feature 1973 Original London Cast | Source: TPCProduction/YouTube

The experience of going to see Rocky Horror, whether on stage or in a movie theater, blurs the line between the audience and performer. The audience shows up in costume, and is given props and lines to throw and yell at the screen. What I wouldn’t give to scream “SLUT” at Janet in a dark basement full of strangers in their underwear. I haven’t done it in years, but I feel the need to review the material so I’ll be prepared for the role once the world opens up again. I’m not sure I’ll know how to swipe my MetroCard to get back to the office, but I’ll be ready for that midnight showing.

It is holy, then, to be in a room with others and feel the pressure to take in performances at the same time, in the same way.

I don’t think the urge for revival comes from a place of nostalgia, beyond the fact that I’m fantasizing about productions that happened when we were not in a pandemic. I think it comes from a place of comfort borne from the stability and consistency of a show that I know through and through. As I listen to recordings of the 1974 production, I listen for the same phrasing I heard Tim Curry use in the movie when he waits to say “tension” in “Sweet Transvestite.” When I first saw that scene, I got a thrill from the performance; now I get it from the timing of phrases I can predict. The only thing that could top the experience of seeing that song performed for the first time would be seeing it performed, in that London production, in person. I’ve always wanted to travel back in time to see it. But now, a year into the pandemic, there’s an added lust, not because it would be hot if Tim Curry could spit on me, but because it would mean that I’d be breathing the same air as him in the emotionally controlled, removed dynamic that exists between audience and actor.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) – Sweet Transvestite Scene (3/5) | Movieclips | Source: © Movieclips/YouTube

It’s easy to characterize the role I’m preparing for as audience participation, when it’s really voyeurism, a voyeurism I can control. The fantasy of the people and the movements connected to the breathing and singing I hear in the recordings is all mine. As listeners, we have ownership over the movie in our heads. There is no one to relinquish control to. When we sit on our couches and watch a show from beginning to end, it is impossible to give ourselves over to complete attention to the screen at home like we do at the stage or in movie theaters. Even if you turn off your phone and the lights, the stakes are lower because there are no actors to pay respect to, or fellow audience members to behave in front of.

It is holy, then, to be in a room with others and feel the pressure to take in performances at the same time, in the same way. After all, the playwright is writing for some monolithic “audience” as they impart a moral or aim to get a laugh from everyone in a particular moment. We’re all being collectively emotionally manipulated in real time, together. And doesn’t it feel good to be a part of something?


Perhaps this is why I moved on from Rocky Horror to Godspell. Godspell, in both stage productions and the film, blurs the line between audience and performer through other means. With the exception of Jesus, the players’ names are interchangeable between productions because every parable they tell or song they sing does not need to be sung in character. They are singing a song book, not a story. It is not significant to an overarching plot whether the actors sing the songs to each other or to the audience. And when a player isn’t speaking or participating in a scene or song, they sit back and watch, and become one with the audience.

Original Godspell Cast on The Today Show | Source: Peggy Gordon/YouTube

It’s one thing to prepare for the role of being an audience member. It’s another to watch and feel kinship with actors performing as followers who are there to be preached to. I’m not longing to go to church and learn the Good News. In addition to the fact that such a gathering would literally be illegal, it might be too emotionally intense for a pandemic-brained person. Instead, I want to watch from the shadows as actors go to church and have that experience for me.

The players in Godspell act as a Greek chorus that we, the audience, can project onto and feel a kinship with. They easily build a bridge between themselves and the audience at the beginning of the show by conveying the sense that they are a group of strangers who have found and accepted one another, like kids on a playground who pick a leader to follow around in a game of imagination. Similarly in Rocky Horror, the Greek chorus creates a party-like atmosphere as literal party goers at the gothic mansion, complete with noisemakers to react to what’s happening in front of them, and us.

20th-Century Greek Chorus (Source: Library of Congress/Flickr)
20th-century Rendition of Greek Chorus | Source: Library of Congress/Flickr

We can identify with the Greek chorus because they embody an organic-feeling, child-like mindset of pure reactivity. But also, what’s to say that we, an audience full of strangers, aren’t interchangeable or equal to the strangers on stage and can’t participate as well? I don’t mean this in the sense of a theatre-kid mouthing every line from their seat. Instead, we’re projecting the role of fellow audience members onto the actors, making them do double duty in the performativity of their emotions (in character or not) and the fact that they are flesh and blood human beings, like us. And they’re watching, too.

This only works if you suspend your disbelief beyond the show to the idea that you, as a person sitting on your couch twelve months into a pandemic, are equal to an audience member sitting in the same room as the actor. The audience never touches the performers, yet they are a part of the show. Their reactions, silent or not, are part of a call and response with the actors. It is an interaction of minds and emotions which, pandemic or not, doesn’t require physical interaction or verbal acknowledgement at all. Audio recordings enable the fantasy, part of which is the idea that the only reason I can’t directly interact with the actors is because that’s not my role as an audience member, not because I’m not allowed to leave my house. I’m listening for the audience as much as I’m listening for the actors because, when they laugh or shriek, they are standing in for me. And, to a disconnected audience from a far, the recorded audience might as well be performers, too.

It’s one thing to prepare for the role of being an audience member. It’s another to watch and feel kinship with actors performing as followers who are there to be preached to.

Further into my pandemic obsession with Rocky Horror and Godspell, I found myself looking for recordings of specific productions, with specific people. I want to see Eugene Levy in that Toronto production of Godspell. I want to see the staging of Rocky at the Roxy. I want these things that are just out of reach. If I listen to the recording one more time, maybe I’ll figure out which way Tim Curry was facing when he said that line, or if it was a wink or hip swivel that made that person in the audience gasp. I’m replicating the lack of physical interaction in real life by creating circumstances in which physicality is just out of reach in my choices of entertainment.

Real life feeling just out of reach for us in lockdown could be another facet to the voyeurism of the Godspell movie, in that we watch the players interact with the city. They are present in an outside world we, the audience, are removed from both within the story and in real life. This dreamscape-like journey of self discovery in an empty New York City mirrors the sense of isolation and introspection we’ve all experienced this year. The players are in their own playspace to workout the parables and find meaning.

Godspell Movie Trailer | Source: PatchesAndFacePaint/YouTube

At the end of the Godspell movie, Jesus doesn’t get resurrected. But as the sun rises, the city does. The morning rush hits and other people fill the streets alongside the players as they go into the new day, refreshed with their new sense of themselves and their world. Will our normal lives be resurrected in the same way, once lockdowns lift?

Embracement of old campy shows and the distance that comes with being part of an audience is, I think, a negotiation of the emotional release we can allow ourselves to feel right now. We need and crave the release that theatre affords us but we are too shell shocked to deal with deeper themes of trauma that exist in more serious shows. It would be futile, anyway; we can’t fully explore trauma we are still going through. That’s not to say that I don’t watch trauma and violence play out in the two shows I’ve been fixated on. Frank doesn’t understand the pain he’s caused till he suffers the consequences. Jesus does suffer (according to the Bible as a sacrifice for our sins, unclear what he dies for in Godspell other than betrayal) and he dies. But these forms of loss and suffering are made meaningful by their presentation within their respective narratives. And the losses we’ve experienced, characteristic of a pandemic, have been a slow burn rather than violent and dramatic events of crucifixion and/or resurrection in Godspell and Rocky Horror that lend themselves to more effective catharsis.

We still need an emotional release, even if it isn’t the full, scorched earth one we would actually need to process our current losses and pains. We need just a quick dispersal of steam so that the kettle, which will keep boiling as trauma after trauma builds up, doesn’t explode. We’re in a marathon here, not a sprint, and the campiness of these particular musicals and the fantasies they allow for is keeping me content and at bay.

We’re all being collectively emotionally manipulated in real time, together. And doesn’t it feel good to be a part of something?


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