Qualitative Exploration and Categorization of the Phenomenon of Active Audience Participation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (RHPS), a film by Richard O'Brien, is probably the longest-running release in the history of moving picture with regular screenings (The Official Fan Site) since its release in 1975. Apart from that, also the screenings itself have a notorious tradition as most of them involve what is called by their fans audience participation. That means that the spectators are expected to actively involve in the story of the film by for example dressing up like one of the characters and calling responses to the screen and by that breaking with the traditional conventions of cinema etiquettes.
Till now, research mainly investigated active audience participation as part of the so- called Rocky Horror cult but it was hardly ever studied as a phenomenon of its own taking into account theories about reception process, emotion theory and tension, a gap which this paper tries to fill. After all, active audience participation is not limited to The Rocky Horror Picture Show but can also be found in a few other films and this research can therefore also give implications for the perception and reception of films like The Room (2003) or Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) which screenings also involve active audience participation.
The goal of this research is therefore to historically, theoretically, analytically and empirically explore and categorize the phenomenon of active audience participation in the case of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Specifically, it will test the hypothesis that especially for fans the screenings become a form of an event where the film itself is of secondary importance and show that active audience participation has to be considered as being part of a wider tension concept.
In particular, the research will focus on three main research questions on which the structure of this paper is based. After explaining the theoretical framework which includes definitions for the used terms and then the methodology, the first question, when, how and why the active audience participation in The Rocky Horror Picture Show evolved, will be answered. Thereafter, the function and importance of this active audience participation for the fans will be analysed. Thirdly, it will be examined to what extent active audience participation influences the perception and experience of first-time viewers of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. At the end, a short summary, general conclusions and a short discussion with suggestions for further research will be given.
Theatre etiquettes of the 21st century ask the spectator amongst others to arrive in time, be quiet - meaning that any unnecessary noises like mobile phones, eating, giving comments and talks should be avoided - and to stay seated during the performance (Williams). In some special performances, in participation theatre, these restrictions may be eased and the fourth wall between the audience and the performers is broken down. As it is defined by Davis and Behm performance theatre is “the presentation of specially written, adapted or devised drama with an established story line constructed to involve limited and structured opportunities for active involvement by all or part of the audience” (qtd. in Buchanan). For example in the musical Tom n' Tina's Wedding the whole audience takes over the role of the wedding party guests and in the musical Drood, the audience is asked to vote how they want the story to end. Participation in these kind of settings is therefore defined as “taking part in the play: Dancing, playing a scene with the performers, engaging fellow spectators in conversation as part of the play, removing or exchanging clothing, or any of the many other kinds of physical involvement possible. Both inclusion and participation go far beyond 'empathy' and 'involvement with the mind and feelings” (Schechner 73). In participation theatre, this special form of participation is stimulated by the performer(s).
However, this form of active audience participation1 can also be found for a few film screenings, the prime example being The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)2, the film adaptation of the stage rock musical The Rocky Horror Show from 1973 which is, as already mentioned, still shown over 35 years after its release date in cinemas all over the world. During screenings of this film, audience members are expected to dress up, use props (rice, water pistols, party hats, etc.), dance and loudly comment on the events (call backs). Many screenings furthermore involve a shadow cast, meaning that a group of mostly amateur actors will mimic the actions in the film in front of the actual screen. Usually the shadow cast would before the start of film identify the so-called virgins, people who have never been to a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show before, with a red V on their forehead and engage them in a kind of pre-show ritual involving various games and tricks which vary from cinema and shadow cast (“RHPS FAQ”, “Participation”).
Because of these preparations the reception process as it is defined by Schoenmakers (Performance Theory 2) starts long before the film begins. It is however the question in how far viewers are already informed about active audience participation when they watch The Rocky Horror Picture Show for the first time and if it can increase the excitement of first- time viewers as well as for the fans of the film itself. Excitement here is defined following the definition of the Oxford Dictionarie s as “a feeling of great enthusiasm and eagerness” (“Excitement”)
1 To lighten the reading, the text will from here on always refer to “audience participation” (leaving out the “active”) and following the definition by Schechner or more specifically the way it is happening during a screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. It however should not be confused with different definitions of “audience” or “audience participation” which might include clapping, coughing, laughing etc. in their concept.
2 Other examples for film screenings with audience participation are The Room (2003), Pink Flamingos (1972), Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001) and Die Feuerzangenbowle (1944).
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