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“Rocky Horror” encourages lacy, red-lipped self-expression

UNC student Jenna Gartland gazes towards ensemble cast members in her role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, during a dress rehearsal for The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Varsity Theater.

At the Saturday midnight showing of cult classic “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in the Varsity Theatre, a crowd of UNC students outfitted in fishnets, lingerie and bold, red lips were full of antici…

“Say it! Say it! Say it!” they yelled at the movie screen.


For the weekend leading up to Halloween, on-campus theater troupe UNC Pauper Players enlisted a shadow cast of student actors dressed in lingerie to mimic the cult classic and engage with the audience while the movie played.

“The Rocky Horror Show” premiered at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London in 1973, paying homage to science fiction movies in a camp, sexually-charged and comedic musical.

Midnight showings of the film adaptation, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” have remained in theaters across the world since its debut in 1975, making it the longest-running theatrical release in film history. Audiences in Chapel Hill started participating in “Rocky Horror” in 1978.

The plot follows fiancés Brad and Janet, who get stranded at a mysterious castle on a rainy night. The castle’s residents, which include Magenta, Riff Raff and Columbia, are led by doctor Frank-N-Furter. They all hail from the planet Transexual in the Transylvania galaxy. 

Russel Herrington and Julia Finke pose together in front of ensemble cast members in their roles as Brad and Janet in The Rocky Horror Picture Show on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, during a dress rehearsal in the Varsity Theater.

During the film, Frank-N-Furter unveils his most recent experiment: the blond and chiseled Rocky Horror, dressed in a small, gold speedo. 

Madi Ugan, a senior psychology and dramatic art major at UNC, has been a co-director of the troupe’s “Rocky Horror” show for three years. This year, they are co-directing with sophomore Elikya Mwanda.

Ugan said they keep returning to directing the show because of the opportunity it provides for the cast, most of which identify as LGBTQ+, to form community.

“I love creating that space for people, with the vehicle being ‘Rocky Horror,’” they said.

Isabella Patterson, a senior biology and dramatic art major at UNC, has also been a part of the show for three years.

This year, she played Magenta in half of the shadow cast performances. Through their performance, Patterson said the show makes them feel like they are displaying their own personality rather than playing a character.

“It's so different between different shows, between different people, because it's about the individual,” she said. 

UNC student Isabella Patterson smiles widely in her role as Magenta on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, during a dress rehearsal for The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Varsity Theater.

Before the Friday night show, actors crowded around a vanity on the second floor of the Varsity, sharing makeup, stories and compliments.

In one corner, sophomore Hadley Hayes layered foundation over her eyebrows to emulate her character Columbia's arched, red brows. She often turned to Jenna Gartland, who played the role of Columbia last year and is Frank-N-Furter this year, for advice. 

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The role of Columbia is colorful and energetic, but has an emotional depth. Hayes said that Columbia’s role reminds her of her own experience with bipolar disorder and mania. 

Hayes wore the same outfit that Gartland wore the year before: a tube top and shorts made of glimmering rainbow sequins. This year, Hayes said she added a gold sequined hat, recycled from an old dance costume.

Matthew Wood, who played Dr. Scott, wore a sheer shirt and stilettos during the show. He said he wouldn’t have been able to make such a daring acting choice a year ago.

Wood has not participated in theater since high school, and “Rocky Horror” was his last chance to rejoin the acting community in school before graduating in December.

“I’m pretty confident in who I am, and so it’s just giving me another outlet to express it with a community that I’ve longed to be a part of for a long time,” he said.

Ugan said that the production team has been very intentional about cultivating a consent-driven acting experience. They organized intimacy training and made sure to have the cast establish their physical boundaries before each performance, which often entails physical and intimate interactions with each other. 

UNC student Jenna Gartland gazes towards the audience while surrounded by ensemble cast members in her role as Dr. Frank-N-Furter on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2023, during a dress rehearsal for The Rocky Horror Picture Show at Varsity Theater.

This year, Ugan also curated a list of resources for navigating identity and confronting LGBTQ+ substance abuse for the cast.

“If I can just convince at least one person to stop or lessen their usage to put more years on their life, with joy and loving themselves in their identity, then I will have done what I set out to do,” they said.

Because of the emphasis on consent, Patterson feels like they have ownership of their own body while they are on stage, something that they have not always felt in other theatrical performances.

"I'm so comfortable with the vulnerability and the intimacy because I'm in control of it," they said. "And I love that, that I get to be hot on stage on my own terms."


@dthlifestyle |

Eliza Benbow

Eliza Benbow is the 2023-24 lifestyle editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as summer university editor. Eliza is a junior pursuing a double major in journalism and media and creative writing, with a minor in Hispanic studies.