October 30, 2009, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian
Grant Olson is about to put his whole livelihood on the line this weekend, and he can’t stop giggling.
Sitting in the balcony of Missoula’s Wilma Theatre, the boyish artistic director of Montana Actors’ Theatre cracks up as he talks about watching his cast of actors take the stage last Sunday night for an impromptu performance at a local strip club. He finds it hilarious that his crew had to tear down its elaborate set just two days before tonight’s opening performance of “The Rocky Horror Show,” so that a rock concert could take place on the same stage (“You would think they’d want to perform on our set,” he muses). He stutters with laughter even as he talks about investing more than $20,000 in a musical theater production that could make or break his young company in a matter of just two nights.
“If we do well on this show, the rest of the season we won’t be having to ask every two months for donations,” he says. “If we don’t do well” – he laughs – “it won’t be very good for us.”
The fate of professional theater in Missoula is teetering on six-inch platform shoes. Friday and Saturday, Montana Actors’ Theatre presents Richard O’Brien’s cult classic rock musical, “The Rocky Horror Show,” in four performances – at 8 p.m. and midnight both nights.
It’s a breathlessly compact run – and the biggest production to date – for the small Havre-based company, which typically presents small-cast plays at the Crystal Theatre in Missoula and on the MSU-Northern campus in Havre.
“We’re more used to doing things in a theater that’s the size of just the proscenium at the Wilma,” said Olson. “This show is really Montana Actors’ Theatre’s coming-out party in Missoula, because we’re going to sit in one house more people than we could have sat in all of our season last year. People will really be able to see what we’re all about.”
He laughs yet again.
“I guess it had better be good.”
With so much riding on the production, Olson’s constant mirth may seem bizarre. But this is “The Rocky Horror Show” he’s talking about. In the world of theater, it’s the musical that defines “bizarre.”
Written in 1973, “The Rocky Horror Show” follows the adventures of Brad and Janet, a young pair of lovers who happen upon a mysterious castle occupied by an oddball assortment of characters led by Dr. Frank N. Furter, a self-described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.” The sex-crazed mad scientist manages to seduce both Brad and Janet – and then force them to dance in an orgiastic production number – before revealing that he is, in fact, a space alien. The lovers are eventually saved by Frank’s hunchbacked assistant Riff Raff.
As plots go, it’s as thin as they come. But in a way, that was the point.
By setting racy burlesque and hokey sci-fi to a rock-n-roll backbeat, “The Rocky Horror Show” defined the theatrical genre of campy musicals, leading not only to a long and successful initial run in London and on Broadway, but also to a filmed version, entitled “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” That film stands today as the longest-running theatrical release of all time, with some cinemas still showing it more than three decades after its initial release.
“It’s a show that pushes every boundary still – and it’s more than 30 years old,” said Olson. “It’s something that has become a part of the collective consciousness, which you can’t say about many musicals or plays. And of course, there’s the whole interactive element.”
Indeed, “The Rocky Horror Show” is as renowned for its elements of audience interaction as for its stage action. Over the years, audiences have evolved a complex choreography that involves squirt guns, toilet paper, and other props, as well as call-out responses to the actors.
Michelle Edwards, Olson’s assistant director for the production, said that she’s looking forward to seeing what Missoula audiences will do at this weekend’s performances.
“We’ve been so conditioned to sit and be quiet in the theatre,” she said. “We’re hoping people talk back; and we’re planning to talk back to them if they do – which is something you don’t get with the movie version. That’s what live theater is about. In that sense, ‘Rocky Horror’ really breaks down some of the walls that people have about live theatre.”
That’s a big part of why Olson and his small company decided to take a gamble on “The Rocky Horror Show.”
“Part of the beauty of the whole ‘Rocky Horror’ cult is that the play is about taking outsiders and bringing them into the fold,” said Olson. “It’s a welcoming thing. And that’s what we really hope to do for the company – to welcome people into what we’re doing, show people the quality of our productions, and show them that there’s a real emerging theater industry in this town. Hopefully, once they come for this one, they’ll come back for our other shows. It’s a gamble, but I think if people come, they’ll definitely enjoy it.”
As the hour approaches for Friday night’s opening, the gamble already looks like it might pay off.
“We put the tickets on sale at midnight on Oct. 1, and the first ticket sold at 12:01 a.m.,” said Olson. “There hasn’t been a single day since then when someone didn’t buy tickets online.
“I think hopefully doing this at the Wilma on Halloween, the stars have aligned for it.”