Montreal’s Famous Rocky Horror Picture Show Ball Canceled After Cast Members Allege They Are Exploited
It’s a staple of Montreal’s Halloween celebrations, but this year the city’s beloved Rocky Horror Picture Show Ball is canceled — and it’s not because of COVID-19.
The show will not continue, due to what is described as the exploitation of « free labor of LGBTQ2S+ people », after many cast members learned that the show’s longtime producer was earning the money thanks to the event, while the actors donated their time.
« We thought the show was something it wasn’t, » said decade-long cast member Zev Miller.
A cast meeting held in September 2021 raised further concerns and ultimately led to the 2022 show’s cancellation.
Now, some former cast members are calling for a boycott of other Ball events under current management.
A cult classic revisited
It exploded at the box office in 1975 but has since achieved cult classic status: The Rocky Horror Picture Show is a musical.
Add a cast in front of the screen and the crowd dressed in costumes, shouting and throwing toasts and you have the Rocky Horror Picture Show Ball (not to be confused with the theatrical production at MainLine Theatre.)
Montreal’s annual event draws large crowds on several nights around Halloween and has been described as one of the biggest balls in North America.
But after decades of performances, things came to a head last year, when cast members realized that Philippe Spurrell, the show’s longtime producer, was making money off the show.
Spurrell, who has been the producer since 1998, declined to give an interview but sent a statement that did not address the salary issue.
However, in an email sent to the cast last year, obtained by CBC, Spurrell defended himself, saying he never hid that he « earned part of my life from the event. » , noting that he assumed the information had been shared internally over the years.
He would not disclose the profits he made from the show.
« Let me assure you that after calculating my time and financial reward, my ‘hourly wage’ equals what an average construction worker earns, » he wrote to the cast.
In his statement to CBC, Spurrell said this year’s cancellation was due to a number of reasons, including « a discord between some shadow cast members and the shadow cast wanting a structure of more democratic management with less hierarchy ».
Queer actors felt taken advantage of
For Miller, who joined the show ten years ago, that was unacceptable. As a non-binary trans person – who uses the pronoun they – Miller said Rocky offered them a prominent place and they were led to believe the show wasn’t making a profit.
« Rocky being this queer platform or place for queer exploration, as a 17-year-old queer kid, it was a really appealing place, » Miller said.
« That he can make me a salary is beyond unbelievable. It’s incredibly abusive. »
Another longtime cast member Stephanie Dragonas agrees.
« Most of the cast felt like it was a community theater troupe that had barely broken even, » Dragonas said.
« It was particularly insulting because we rehearsed and performed for free, took days off to participate, paid for our own costumes, had to beg for tips for our acting night, weren’t insured or compensated for injuries. and we were constantly being told that things couldn’t be paid off by the show because the budget was super tight. »
The show’s most recent director, Erin Fagen, concedes there were issues with both the organization of the event and the transparency surrounding it.
« I think there have always been major cracks in the foundation that our show was built on, » she said.
« We kept putting bandages on those cracks to mount a production. »
Last year the decision was made not to hold a show in 2022 and to work on fixing those cracks.
Spurrell wrote to the cast announcing that he would be leaving the production after helping to continue securing the film’s broadcast rights.
Many cast members said it was a step in the right direction.
In the end though, Spurrell will stick around.
« I actually believe that Phil is going to move forward with us, » Fagen said, noting that it’s about continuing to get the rights to play the movies.
She hopes the event can be back next year, under more transparent and clear management.
It’s not good enough for some who were previously in the cast.
“This show will continue to pour profits into the pockets of this man who has deceptively exploited gay, trans and artists of color for over a decade,” Miller said.