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Twice every month, on a late Saturday night—or early Sunday morning—while most people are crawling into bed or sleeping soundly, you’ll find a completely different scene at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. The Sonic Transducers, a large crew and shadow cast, take to the theater’s stage, where they act out the Rocky Horror Picture Show every second weekend of the month.
The 1975 musical is a cult comedy horror classic known for its gender-bending characters and sexual fluidity alongside hilarious and musical outbursts. The outrageous nature of the film helped grow its devoted following; audience members soon developed a close camaraderie as they attended screening after screening. Midnight showings of the film became popular a year later in cities such as L.A. and Austin, Texas. According to the Rocky Horror Picture Show Book by Bill Henkin, audience participation first began in Los Angeles only a year after the film’s debut, when a woman shouted a joke during one such event. Since then, audiences have been making hilarious callbacks during showings while dedicated actors perform in front of the big screen. These performers make up what insiders refer to as shadow casts.
For those unfamiliar with the idea of a shadow cast, Leandra Lynn, the host of D.C.’s show and Rocky Horror historian, explains that it’s functionally “people performing in front of a screen at a theater, and they’re pantomiming.” The movie plays too, but the real stars are the engaging, uproarious actors acting out every scene.
Casts like these are found all over the world. The theatrical performances continue to remain a popular cultural hallmark, challenging traditional perceptions of gender and inviting audiences into the weird and wild world of Dr. Frank-N-Furter.
The members of Sonic Transducers, D.C.’s shadow cast named after a fictitious device in the film, are nothing if not committed; some have been part of the show for more than 10 years, performing their roles twice a month at the midnight showings.
Locally, it’s not just the cast that offers an unending love of Rocky Horror, but the many repeat visitors—the show wouldn’t be the same without the audience. “It’s very participatory,” Vivian Sheehan, an actor who joined the cast in 2021, says. “We love any and all audience participation.”
Some go to the event just to try it out, but for many, it’s a place to reunite with friends and build relationships that can be difficult to form in a bustling city where subcultures of the queer and trans communities can be harder to find. According to Kelly Hanson, an actor in the cast since 2007, there’s a big overlap between those who participate in Rocky Horror and the D.C. drag community. Many in the cast say they’ve also come together for a love of acting that lets anyone be anyone—you’ll frequently see characters in drag or playing multiple roles. Lastly, of course, the cast is largely made up of a nocturnal crowd who thrive in late-night environments.
Needless to say, a diverse group of people make up the cast, crew, and audience. Lynn describes those on stage and in the seats as “a bunch of people who come from different walks of life and have different experiences.” They see a variety of ages too, from teens to older adults and everyone in between.
Lynn, who also hosts the Rocky Horror Minute podcast with Hanson, is described by the cast and crew as the “fearless leader” of the group. She supports the actors with their roles and helps the crew organize the logistical components of the long-running pantomime. She’s been a member of the local shadow cast since 2009 but has loved Rocky for much longer than that.
“From a young age, I would watch the movie on VHS at home on Halloween,” Lynn, who grew up in Fairfax, tells City Paper. “When I turned 15, I finally got to see it live and I was hooked. For the first time in my life, I had found a place where I was myself and celebrated for who that was.” In 2004, when she was 17, Lynn joined Fairfax’s shadow cast.
In 2009, when Lynn moved to D.C. proper, she happened to come across a flyer for the city’s Rocky Horror production. “As soon as I sat down and watched the show, I was like, ‘Oh, I definitely have to be part of this,’” she says. Well-seasoned from her time performing in Fairfax, Lynn was ready to take the leap and become part of D.C.’s lineup.
In the world of shadow casts, you’ll frequently find actors taking on multiple roles to fit the show’s needs. According to Mike Luciw, an actor and novelist who joined Sonic Transducers in early 2022, each month Lynn sends out an email to see who is available, allowing actors or crew to opt out if needed. This system helps keep people involved even if they hit a busy season in life and also lets actors experience different roles.
Having a flexible cast was especially important after the pandemic, as D.C. Rocky Horror experienced a time of transition. When the show was finally able to have an audience again in September 2021, many of the cast members had disbursed. Luciw’s heard stories of the remaining team using “a dressed-up broomstick with a hat” or other props to serve as a stand-in for actors. But once Sonic Transducers were regularly performing live again, new members quickly decided to get involved after watching the performances and feeling the magnetic pull of Rocky’s it’s audience. Luciw is now happy to report their cast numbers have recovered and they once again have a vibrant team. They boast a rotating cast and crew of 25. (Lynn always makes it clear at events that those who are interested in joining should reach out after a show or over email.)
Some of the cast participate because they love Rocky Horror, while others join in for the love of theater and acting. Sheehan has always been into musical theater and was drawn to Rocky Horror because it’s “low-stakes performing” for a judgment-free crowd and colleagues.
“You get to perform very consistently,” says Sheehan. “The audience is always excited and in a great mood.” From City Paper’s experience participating in the audience during one of the March 2023 performances, this is certainly true. The audience was eager to use props and laughed at the nonstop jokes.
The Sonic Transducers provide a great viewing opportunity for those who love Rocky Horror, but the monthly show is also great for those who just want to have a good time. As Hanson explains, “Not everyone loves the movie, but everyone loves the live show.” Even if cheesy science fiction musicals aren’t your cup of tea, nearly everyone enjoys the wild jokes and audience involvement—like Sonic Transducers’ famous underwear run—that make the live show a one-of-a-kind experience.
Audience participation happens most frequently through callbacks, which are jokes timed for specific moments in the film. “Some callbacks have been around forever, and sometimes they are brand new,” Sheehan says. “Especially in D.C., people love to have political callbacks.”
All participation is optional, so for newcomers who may not be familiar with them, it’s OK to just sit back and enjoy. D.C. Rocky Horror works hard to make sure the audience feels welcome by explaining early on how the show works: Audience members can expect to say the callbacks they know, or simply watch, which is exactly what City Paper did as a newcomer. It was impossible to feel left out, and as the show went on, it became easier to participate in callbacks and follow along with others for prop use. While initially a bit nervous, it was easy to get comfortable with the audience.
Lynn, too, knows the show may be controversial to those who don’t enjoy sexual jokes or swearing, but keeping it safe and enjoyable for the queer community—and all audience members—is the cast’s utmost priority. “It’s about making sure I listen to people,” Lynn says. “We keep abreast of cultural changes. Not surprisingly, Rocky has changed drastically since I first started. We’re all substantially more aware of how to be a safe space to a wider variety of people.”
Some phrases in the movie, namely “Sweet Transvestite,” a term considered offensive today, isn’t said by the cast. They don’t change the lyrics or make a direct announcement, but they do remind the audience at the beginning of the show that this is meant to be a fun experience; absolutely nothing derogatory to the queer community is acceptable. And the crowd, at least the night City Paper attended, respected those boundaries.
Lynn says they “tread lightly” whenever needed, making sure their callbacks are free from derogatory or offensive remarks. Lynn makes it clear before every show, saying: “We aren’t interested in contributing to hate speech.” Anyone using transphobic, homophobic, or other offensive language will be not-so-politely asked to leave.
On the night of the show, cast members come out to the concession area and offer to write a “V” on anyone who is attending for the first time. First-timers at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, are considered “virgins” and have the option to participate in “the virgin games,” which are as outrageous as they are fun. The games take place in the theater before the screening starts, when newcomers are invited up to the stage to play various games, such as throwing a hoop over an inflatable penis or make sexual noises. (City Paper played along and had a blast.)
Audience members also have the option to purchase prop bags filled with goodies that align with certain scenes, including a newspaper and a birthday hat, and allow for easy participation. Each night, Lynn goes over audience expectations, such as staying out of the aisles, the importance of throwing items backward instead of forward, and making sure everyone’s ready for provocative, lewd, and hilarious jokes.
After that, Luciw explains, “Rocky is whatever you want it to be. If you want to be singled out, you can be, but if you want to lie low and sit back and enjoy the show, you can do that too.”
Hanson adds, “Our cast in particular is really big on consent … everything you do will be voluntary and we are very respectful.”
D.C. Rocky Horror is meant for everyone. With parents’ permission, teenagers wishing to attend are also allowed in. “I let [parents] know that our show is definitely rated R,” Lynn explains. “But we are not going to do anything that is illegal. Most of what we do won’t even make teenagers blush.”
Once people see the show, many quickly fall in love with the whole production. It only took one watch for Luciw to realize it was something he wanted to be part of; he loved the vibrancy and positivity while everyone let loose. And, it seems, most of the production members, at least the ones City Paper spoke with, have no plans to stop. Even when life gets busy, they are inspired to keep going for the love of Rocky Horror and theater. Of course, it’s not just about the movie; the group who once were strangers on stage together have become family.
“This is a safe place for so many people,” explains Lynn. “I’m really passionate about making sure that there is always someplace where people who don’t really belong anywhere else have a place to go. That was always Rocky for me.”
After the show, the cast can frequently be spotted at a restaurant near E Street Cinema, where they’ll laugh over the best jokes of the night and reminisce over their many performances together. Then they’ll say their goodbyes until next month when it’s time to do the Time Warp again.
The Sonic Transducers, D.C.’s only Rocky Horror Picture Show shadow cast, perform on the second Friday and Saturday of every month at 11:55 p.m. at Landmark’s E Street Cinema. dcrockyhorror.com. $13.