By Billy Arrowsmith
It was great when it all began. This year’s annual shadowcast production of The Rocky
Horror Picture Show was interrupted by campus security attempting to shut down the performance. The event was held by Purchase’s Rocky Horror Shadowcast Club in the Campus Center South (also known as CCS or South Side) on Friday Oct. 29 at midnight. Students gathered to watch the cast fully decked out in costumes doing a choreographed lip-sync performance along to a screening of the 1975 cult classic film. Festivities also included a pre-show raffle, a rousing game similar to “Pin the Tail on the Donkey” called “Stick the Dick,” a PowerPoint presentation on fetishes, a costume contest won by a “Dionysus” and a “Sexy Guy Fieri,” and talk-back jokes at the screen from experienced audience members.
The University Police Department (UPD) interrupted the event with around five minutes left in the performance. The door was held open allowing bright light to shine through, making it impossible to see the projection. A Community Service Officer (CSO) shined his flashlight in people’s eyes while telling everyone that they needed to leave.
In a surreal moment of life imitating art, this mirrored the final sequence of the film in which Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s work is shut down by his alien Transylvanian superiors. Richard O’Brien’s character Riff Raff emerges through a bright light at the back of the theater on screen, walking down the aisle pointing his laser and singing: “Frank-N-Furter, it’s all over. Your mission is a failure. Your lifestyle is too extreme.” The CSO chimed in, “Go home! Show’s over!” He also turned the lights on and attempted to shut off the projector. Several students protested that this was a campus-sanctioned event, and one loud voice flatly told him, “Go away.” Someone turned the lights back off. Idle members of the Rocky Horror club quickly beelined to the back of the room, to figure out what they assumed was a misunderstanding. Other students formed a wall of bodies in the back row to shield the projection from outside light, allowing the performance to conclude as intended.
There is confusion about what rules, if any, were broken here. The CSO, who identified his last name as (Ivens) Saint-Vil, called for assistance. A police officer, Gregory Candela, also arrived on the scene. Dixie O’Connell, a junior theater and performance major, is not affiliated with the Rocky Horror club but does work in the CCS and attended the event. She argued with Saint-Vil, who claimed the event was not sanctioned and that the building had to be closed at midnight for COVID-19 safety compliance.
O’Connell says “I work here alone and I can't lock this door ‘til one in the morning, so I know that what they're saying is a lie.” Tempers seemed to flare quickly. “They were just really hostile, and he got really mad at me” says O’Connell. The Phoenix reporter heard Saint-Vil, speaking at O’Connell, say “That smart mouth over there needs to learn to mind her own business.” Saint-Vil declined to comment further or answer questions as he was leaving the building, stating that UPD could be contacted for information in the morning.
UPD Chief Dayton Tucker attributes the incident to a miscommunication in the software used to reserve rooms on campus. “According to the RoomBook application the event was supposed to be finished at 11:30 p.m.” Tucker says “I haven’t spoken to him personally” but the CSO “thought that this might have been an unauthorized event that had set up.” Anna Fofana, co-director of the show, says that RoomBook gives an error message if you try to directly reserve spaces through midnight because it gets the dates confused. “The way I did it is that I booked it from 4 p.m. to 11:30 p.m. and RoomBook has a certain section where it says add additional hour time. I put three more hours, so by the end we would have it from 4 p.m. to 2:30 a.m. the next day technically. That's what I had done and it got approved.”
There does not seem to be any indication in the RoomBook service about mandatory hours when buildings must be shut down. Peter Sprague, production manager for the campus theater program, is responsible for approving RoomBook reservations in theater spaces.
“If that's a new policy per COVID compliance, it's news to me, hasn't been communicated out to me,” Sprague said. “Which, you know, is not shocking because there doesn't seem to be a particularly cohesive messaging around building security for the pandemic.”
Mike Kopas, director of Facilities, said he does not have information on policies about building hours as they are set by the UPD. He adds that while “building hours were adjusted during COVID” at this point “there's no reason for COVID to affect building hours.”
Chief Tucker also said that there is no blanket mandatory closing time for buildings due to the pandemic. “We work out the building hours with the building managers,” he said, noting that those hours are prone to fluctuate if the buildings are needed for special events. At the time of publication, Chief Tucker has said he would reply with a list of building hours when he is able to find it, but has not yet written back.
Even before the pandemic, UPD and Rocky Horror apparently had a rocky history. Sprague jokingly refers to this week’s incident as part of “a fine tradition of disturbing Rocky Horror.”
Alumna Stephanie Louise Opper, Class of 2016, said “This has been going on for years.” Opper was involved with the Rocky Horror club from its inception in 2013 until her graduating year, when she portrayed Riff Raff.
"It didn't matter,” she said. “We always did everything by the book. We booked South Side, we got the approval, always. It didn't matter, UPD would come in." Alumni Trent Raven, Class of 2019, recalled “They tried to shut down one of my last shows while at Purchase. Luckily, we had just ended before they burst in, and after speaking with them they allowed us to clean up at least.” He also remembers “they gave us hard times about unlocking the door” for rehearsals, and would “flat out tell me I was lying about booking the space.”
This was already a difficult semester for Rocky Horror co-directors Anna Fofana and Deb Kogan. Kogan, a senior and playwriting/screenwriting major, also played Dr. Frank-N-Furter this year. Fofana, a junior majoring in theater/performance and journalism, doubled as a member of the Transylvanian ensemble. The pandemic created a number of challenges. New directors are usually able to shadow previous directors before they pass down the mantle. The year of remote learning made gaining this prior experience impossible. There were also COVID-19 compliance issues to consider.
“It's a lip sync show and getting masks, like clear masks with windows, was a big one” Kogan says. A popular interactive moment involving a cake shaped like a dick had to be excised. The pandemic also limited their options for fundraiser activities. The two co-directors could often be seen on campus operating outdoor bake sales with treats including “boob cupcakes.”
“We don't receive any funding from the school,” Kogan noted. “None at all.”
The actual interruption in the last five minutes of the show happened during what Kogan described as a moment of personal triumph for her. Onstage she remembers thinking, “I did it. I did Rocky Horror. I pulled it off. I brought it back from the dead from COVID. We did it. Everyone did it.” That is when the CSO entered the room and began making noise. In the moment, she remembered her biggest concern being, “I didn’t want the audience to get in trouble.” The relationship between students and campus security has already felt strained recently with the ongoing protests.
Fofana, who approached CSO Saint-Vil to deescalate the situation, said she felt it could have been handled differently. “If we only had five minutes left, then there was no need for the guy to be disrespectful,” she said. The CSO does not seem to have tried speaking with anyone before attempting to shut the performance down by force. Kogan did say however that “Officer Candela was very calm about the whole thing and calmed me down a lot.” “Things were very civilized. There was no argument, there was no major confrontation.” Fofana agreed: “He was being really polite about it.” The directors said they were simply told that in the future they need to send UPD an email for late events like this, and the cast was allowed time to clean up. Kogan added, “The officer mentioned that he too liked Rocky Horror.”
Despite these setbacks, Kogan and Fofana both reflected fondly on doing the show as a great and fun experience.
“People enjoyed it, that’s what it’s really about, I’m happy about that” Fofana said.
Kogan was amazed by the audience forming a human wall to block the light. “I'm honored that people would stick up for us, to stick up for the show so it could continue. I want to make sure the audience knows how immensely thankful I am. It was the most wonderful feeling of community and, like, I know the recording won't pick it up but I'm shaking my hands with how cool this is. I certainly didn't expect it.”