The past two decades haven’t been like a time warp for Jeff Wells, even though he’s going into his 20th year playing the same role: Dr. Frank-N-Furter in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Since he first played the character 20 years ago at Fort Worth’s Casa Mañana Theatre, the actor has found the experience of performing for Rocky Horror fans just as freeing, whether it’s for first-time viewers or for lifelong fans.
Wells first saw Rocky Horror when he was 15 years old.
“The first time that I saw that movie, and experienced the ‘shadow cast’ experience in the movie theater, I found a bunch of people that didn’t care what anyone thought,” Wells says. “As a teenager who was constantly terrified of being embarrassed, I thought that was incredibly liberating.”
The term “shadow cast” refers to a tradition started at Rocky Horror showings (usually quite late at night) of actors performing the scenes live as the film is screened on the background.
When it came time to audition for Rocky Horror the first time, Wells was living in New York City. He had previously performed at Casa Mañana in shows such as Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. At the time, he wasn’t able to make the Rocky Horror audition in person, but as he happened to be in town, he performed a couple of songs for the show’s director, Joel Ferrell.
“I was like, ’I know you’re doing this, let me sing some of the songs for you,’” Wells recalls telling Ferrell. “And I got the pianist, and we sat there and I just sang through the show for him, and just showed him a little bit of what I would sound like if I played this role. That was my audition, and I was lucky enough to get it.”
While he’s played the self-proclaimed “Sweet Transvestite” for 20 years, Wells has performed in Rocky Horror at only three venues: Casa Mañana, OhLook Performing Arts Center in Grapevine and the Majestic Theatre in Dallas. This year, he will perform at a Lyric Stage production at the Majestic Oct. 27–30.
Since the show first arrived in theaters in 1975, Rocky Horror has remained a cult classic. It tells the story of a couple (originally played by Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) whose car breaks down in Denton, Ohio, near a castle that’s holding a convention and is filled with strangers in costumes. Frank-N-Furter, who was originally played by Tim Curry, is the castle’s leading monarch, confidently wreaking havoc while wearing leather and fishnet stockings.
“Playing Frank-N-Furter is the equivalent of playing David Bowie. Everyone makes it about some sort of sexuality thing, and that’s not what this guy is to me.” – Jeff Wells
Fans often arrive at performances and film screenings in costumes, reciting ad-libs as the actors and singers perform their musical numbers.
“It’s not just about people that know it and love it and are part of that cult following,” Wells says, “but it’s the people that have never seen it or experienced before. That’s the exciting stuff. I’m just super excited for a whole generation of people that maybe aren’t 100% familiar with exactly what it’s about, to come into a live experience and witness it live and, hopefully, make some more converts.”
One of Wells’ favorite musical numbers to perform is Frank-N-Furter’s “Charles Atlas Song,” which is sung primarily by his character, allowing him to shine in Frank-N-Furter’s androgynous glory. He also enjoys performing “Time Warp,” as he gets to perform with the entire cast.
Over the course of the past 20 years, Frank-N-Furter has become part of Wells’ heart. He shares that he has learned one of the most important life lessons playing the character.
“Don’t be afraid to really explore who you are,” Wells says. “Playing Frank-N-Furter is the equivalent of playing David Bowie. Everyone makes it about some sort of sexuality thing, and that’s not what this guy is to me. That’s what he does, that’s what the script says, but for me to play it, it’s not about that. It’s far more liberating and deep-rooted in something, and that’s why it means so much to me. It’s about being secure who you are, and not being afraid to let the world know it.”