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INTERVIEW: Ilana Ransom Topelitz on Sharpening Rocky Horror‘s Bite (Park Square Theatre)

Director-choreographer Ilana Ransom Topelitz on the set of Park Square Theatre’s upcoming production of The Rocky Horror Show. Photo by Rachel Wandrei.

Of all the people that you might expect to love The Rocky Horror Show, Princess Diana of Wales was probably not at the top of the list. But it turns out that Princess Di was quite the fan, to the point of requesting a backstage meeting with star Tim Curry when the original London production of this 1973 musical was called up for a Royal Command Performance. Curry’s mother, he noted with some glee, finally felt that he had made it as an actor.

It’s been forty-five years since this musical by Richard O’Brien first took London by stage. Part send-up and part tribute to a bygone period of B movies, the show made waves for its trangressiveness and prominent incorporation of elements from LGBT subculture. The London production ran for seven years and spawned a whole host of satellite productions around the world, as well as the screen adaptation The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Now, with Halloween approaching, Park Square Theatre prepares to formally open the curtain on its own production of The Rocky Horror Show. Director-choreographer Ilana Ransom Topelitz spoke with the Arts Reader’s Basil Considine about how to give this now-classic show an edge in the woke 21st century.

Director, choreographer, dramatic coach. Ilana Ransom Toeplitz.

You’re a native of Pittsburgh, PA. Where is home for you these days?

My closet is in New York City.

In the context of this show, do you mean all the things that you keep repressed, or your clothes?

(laughs) I mean my clothes.

How much quality time do you spend with or near that closet?

This past year, I spent more time outside of New York than in – two-fifths in, three-fifths out. I try to find a subletter whenever I can; I have a roommate, and since none of us got into this for the money, we try and offset the costs. She’s in marketing and the biggest theatre nerd. (I don’t Google, I just ask Ally.)

You offer a number of scene/song/monologue coaching services. Do you find that you work very differently with actors in these 1:1s versus how you work with actors when rehearsing for a show?

For sure. Coachings are usually with the intent of booking one specific job. With a production, it’s “How does this monologue inform where my character is at this point in time, what is their decision, and how does that affect the people around them?” There are more questions you have to ask and more storytelling when you’re directing for a production.

Your resumé shows you working all sorts of places – the Berkshires, New York, national tours… How did you end up coming to St. Paul for The Rocky Horror Show?

I have had the biggest crush on your town for so long. I’ve always wanted to be a regional director-choreographer, and Minneapolis-St. Paul has been on the top of the list because it has a strong appreciation for new work and an amazing scene, and I know Flordelino Lagundino [Park Square’s Artistic Director] from The Director’s Project in New York. When he was named artistic director, I was honored that he asked me to direct and choreograph.

Ilana Ransom Toeplitz at work. Photo by Rachel Wandrei.

How did that come to pass?

It started off 16 months ago: we talked on the phone, he told me about what he wanted to achieve in that season, and we came up with a list of 15-20 musicals, which we then narrowed down to 10. Then Flordelino narrowed it down to three, and Rocky Horror was the final winner.

Have you directed this show before?

This is my first time directing and choreographing Rocky Horror together, but I choreographed it back in high school or college. It’s really interesting looking at it through adult eyes (I use the term “adult” loosely, but directing this production has made me feel like an adult.)

Do you think this show is still very edgy?

Ooh, yes – but for different reasons. We ask ourselves what made this edgy in the 1970s, and what makes it edgy now. What made you uncomfortable and curious in 1974, and what makes you in 2019? What do you find sexy? How much of that is linked to gender? What’s sexy when you take gender out of it?

Do you recall when and how you first experienced Rocky?

Do I ever! In high school – I’m sure this will shock you – I was a theatre nerd. One of my cool upperclassmen friends showed me the video and said, “Just so you know, this is about sex.” I never got the sex talk, so for years I assumed that Rocky Horror showed what adults did for sex.

How did that work out for you?

I figured it out. Summer camp helped.

What are some of the challenges with approaching this show, which is not only iconic but Tim Curry iconic?

There are three big ones. First, it’s just iconic – a lot of people come and want to see the movie on stage, which is not what we do. I mostly do new musicals, so I try to approach most shows like new musicals, but with Rocky Horror there are some things that people feel they need to see, and I need to honor that. So: How do I honor that Tim Curry-fishnet-and-heels look without doing a copy-paste from the movie? How do we put our own spin on iconic moments?

Second, when the show opened 46 years ago, it was one of the first openly gay community things. While we as a community have evolved, the script hasn’t changed, and the show is really unfriendly to the trans community in 2019. As the director, I can’t change those words, but I can change how we approach this. I’m describing this production as a woke love letter to Rocky Horror from 2019.

The third is consent. Our awareness of what’s appropriate and what constitutes consent has changed in 46 years, and we decided that we would talk bout what this means in 2019 to address these things in the material. I think we can have new conversations, and that’s perpetuated by the casting.

The spotlight finds Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. Photo by Rachel Wandrei.

Contrarily, are there any scenes that you approached with a particular excitement?

Totally, including “How the fuck am I going to do this?” and “I know exactly how I’m going to do this!”

I was really nervous about approaching the opening scene of Act II [when Frank-N-Furter seduces both Brad and Janet under disguise], since that’s the most problematic from the POV of consent – but I was really exciting to work with an intimacy consultant, and to work with people with sensitivity. So consent became a big part of our conversations as we created this show. Then “The Floor Show” – a production number that has 6 parts of it, with Frank-N-Furter’s wildest fantasy, where they star in their own show-within-a-show – and the opening.

What do you have next?

After I wrap up this show, I’m doing some traveling. I love trains, so I’m taking a scenic train ride to and from Seattle. Then I’m going to New York to direct the reading of a new musical at the York Theatre, and then I’m working through Drew Gasparini. He’s a phenomenal composer in New York, with whom I just directed and choreographed the world premiere/workshop of his song cycle. Then I’m going back to Miami to do the same thing that I did last year: to direct this cool, 1-night only show at the Adrian Art Center with two world-class classical pianist and an amazing DJ. We make these mashups, I create a story, and fold in dancers. My aesthetic is usually over-the-top splashy musical comedy, but it’s really nice to flex some other artistic muscles. And it’s not too bad that it’s in Miami in the winter.

The Rocky Horror Show is currently in previews at Park Square Theatre in St. Paul, MN. The show formally opens on Friday, October 4 and runs through November 2.

Basil Considine