Lingerie-clad ushers and dancers, called Transylvanians, greet the guests at the Averitt Center for the Arts on a cool October evening. It is 2017, the last year Megan Bowen and her husband, Charlie, will play the roles of Magenta and Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Statesboro production of “Rocky Horror Picture Show.”
She is the master of ceremonies for the Virgin Sacrifice, where lipstick-marked newcomers compete in games – putting condoms on cucumbers using only their mouths, or spelling their names with their rear ends. She is the director, a seasoned Rocky Horror veteran. She wears a curly red wig and a maid’s costume. She is at home.
The evolution of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was as follows: born as a stage musical by Richard O’Brien in 1973, it was reincarnated into a 1975 film by Jim Sharman, according to The Atlantic. Although the film initially flopped, a New York theater began showing the film at weekly midnight screenings, which spread to other theaters throughout the United States. The Atlantic says audience members began shouting ad-libbed lines during the movie, a phenomenon which led to performing shadow casts – in which fans of the film act out the scenes on a stage beneath the screen.
It is a story of sexual awakening. A squeaky-clean engaged couple, Janet and Brad, get lost and end up at the castle of Dr. Frank N. Furter, an alien wearing high heels, fishnets, garters, a pearl necklace and lingerie, who introduces himself as a “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania.” Over the course of the film, Frank seduces both Janet and Brad, Frank creates a bodybuilding man named Rocky, Janet and Rocky have sex for the first time and several characters make out in a swimming pool.
In Statesboro in 2008, Megan Bowen saw the show for the first time. In 2009, she joined the cast, and she has been a member of the Rocky Horror community ever since.
I met Bowen at the Starbucks coffee shop on the Georgia Southern University Statesboro campus. It was the end of her work day as an academic adviser for writing, English, literature, philosophy and gender studies majors. She ordered an iced coffee.
Bowen is a Statesboro native who attended Statesboro High School and graduated from Georgia Southern University. She met and married her husband in Statesboro, found work in Statesboro and is raising her elementary school-aged son, Jack, and her 18-year-old stepson, Xander, in Statesboro.
“It’s still not the city I would choose to settle down in for the rest of my life, but it’s probably where I am, realistically, with all my personal life stuff, which is okay. But if I didn’t have Rocky, I just don’t know how I’d be okay being here,” Bowen said.
Megan played Magenta after starting out in the show as a Transylvanian. Photo courtesy of Megan Bowen.
I asked her what it was like growing up in the Statesboro. She described it in one word: hard.
“My family is very conservative … All of the stereotypes you can think about southern conservative families are probably true about mine,” Bowen said. “I grew up in church four or five times a week. That was what we did. My mom, for a while, tried to ban movies that weren’t rated G, which legitimately means that you can’t watch Disney movies. Like, G? Okay. And I was like 14 when this happened, so I wasn’t even a small child.”
Today, Bowen sports a tattoo of Ariel from Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” on one of her arms. On the other, she has a Superman tattoo.
“I knew that I didn’t like a lot of the things that happened in the church. I certainly didn’t like a lot of the people, because going to church doesn’t make you a nice person,” Bowen said.
She said she felt that the adults in the religious community judged her from an early age, which contributed to her resentment of the church.
“My family didn’t start going to church until I was five, so as far as the rest people in the church was concerned, I wasn’t good enough, because I had spent some time not in the church. It’s a real thing.”
She was then homeschooled for fifth, sixth and seventh grade, limiting her social options to the friends she could make at church.
At 13, Bowen realized she was bisexual.
“All of the feelings I had about being in the church and the lessons in youth group about how to speak to sinners, like the gays. How to convert them and tell them their lives were horribly sinful, essentially,” Bowen said. “Sitting through youth groups and sermons actively preaching against homosexuality was pretty damaging, I would say. Not a great feeling to grow up in.”
She said that at 15, she stopped going to church, which made her feel better. She figured out that she was not a Christian, and grappled with her realization that she was an atheist.
At Georgia Southern, she was a history major. She found her support systems through the Rocky Horror community and a swing dancing club, both of which her husband joined along with her.
Today, most of her family ignores her involvement with Rocky Horror, despite her status as a veteran cast member and director of the show.
“Most of my family pretends I don’t do it. My pictures from Rocky, the fact that I do Rocky, is all over my Facebook,” Bowen said. “My parents gave me a really judgmental tongue-lashing, essentially, a long time ago when I first started getting involved, essentially telling me they never want to hear me talk about it again. Ten years later, they still pretend I don’t do it, even though I run it.”
A few members of the Rocky Horror cast and crew met at Bowen’s house for a makeup meeting. She and Charlie prepared spaghetti and garlic bread while the Rocky Horror guests chatted in the living room. Their youngest son watched “Ultimate Beastmaster” on the TV. Their living room was lined with shelves of books, DVDs and Funko Pop figures.
The Rocky Horror makeup crew, a group of young women with both new and experienced members, regarded me with caution. I was a stranger intruding on sacred grounds – someone who entered a safe space with a notebook and pen. Still, they offered me a seat in the living room.
After dinner, they met at the dining table to talk spreadsheets and makeup plans. Bowen assigned jobs, discussed budget limitations and hairstyles. She asked the group for their opinions on each decision they made.
Bowen told me at Starbucks the day before the makeup meeting that she took on her job as an academic advisor and her role as director of Rocky Horror for a common reason: she enjoys being a mentor.
At the dining table, once the makeup plans were set, the group decompressed. They talked about school and relationships. Bowen told stories of her own and offered solace when the conversation veered into harrowing tales of ex-boyfriends. She seemed to play the role of a wise older sister in the group, making jokes and providing advice in the same breath.
One cast member at the meeting was Cate Shewchuk, who joined the show during her first year at Georgia Southern in 2011. She said that when Bowen became the director of the show, the Rocky Horror community changed.
“That’s when it really became more inclusive. Because before, it was just, we did the show to do the show,” Shewchuk said. “But when she took over, that’s when it became a community and a safe space and everything, and that’s when we really focused on that aspect of it. She’s definitely made it what it is today.”
Megan Bowen (left) and Cate Shewchuck (right) became friends through Statesboro’s Rocky Horror production. Photo courtesy of Megan Bowen.
Shewchuk has played the characters Janet and Columbia twice, and she will play Riff Raff for the second time this year. She has also been the stage manager and managed props. She said her parents met while they were cast in a live Rocky show, so the film and show have been part of her life since birth.
Today, she lives with the Bowens, a situation that was meant to be temporary when she moved in about four years ago after graduating with her bachelor’s degree in mathematics and thus losing her roommates. She said her friendship with Bowen began at a restaurant called El Sombrero, also known as El Som. Although she has been close friends with Bowen for several years, she said she initially felt intimidated by her.
“Everybody who meets Megan is intimidated by her. The first time I met her, I didn’t talk to her for like a year after that show, because I was intimidated by her. She comes off as very powerful. But then, once you get past that, she just cares,” Shewchuk said. “She cares about making everyone feel okay, so after a year of not talking to her, we went and got El Som one day, and we have celebrated that day every year since then. Every September 18th, we go and get El Som, because we just became best friends.”
I asked Charlie Bowen about Megan’s reputation for being, as Cate said, intimidating. We met in his office in the temporary Georgia Southern Public Safety offices in the Facilities Services Building, where he works as an investigator and training coordinator. He had no door to his office – only a colorful string curtain. He laughed.
“She’s not scary to me. She doesn’t scare me. But I do hear from other people that they can be intimidated by her sometimes, and I think that’s just because of the role she has as head organizer and director. And she knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to tell you who she is, and she’s not going to be pushed around. She has a very dominant personality,” Charlie said.
Charlie Bowen, center, played Dr. Frank N. Furter for several years. Photo courtesy of Megan Bowen.
Charlie and Megan met in 2005 while Charlie managed the Blockbuster store in Statesboro.
“[Megan] was a customer, and she would come in all the time and talk to me, and I noticed that she was coming in and not renting anything. She was coming in to talk to me,” Charlie said. “And I was like, could this be a clue? So, I eventually asked her out—”
“You didn’t know what a clue was,” a police officer in an adjacent office shouted.
“Shut up,” Charlie said, laughing. “And we started dating from there.”
Charlie starred as Dr. Frank N. Furter in the Statesboro production of Rocky Horror from 2010 to 2017. He said that while he does not connect with most aspects of the character, he enjoys being the center of attention. This year, he will play the Criminologist, a somewhat less prominent role in the show.
“I like being the center of attention. I like being the star. It’s gonna be different this year, not being the star, but I’m still in the cast, so we’ll see how I do it,” Charlie said.
He said that he is an extravert and feels energized after a Rocky show, but that Megan is more introverted and feels drained after shows.
“She’s more of an introvert, generally, but I definitely think that running Rocky Horror and being the organizer and the director has given her more confidence and made her more extraverted, but she really has to put in effort to be an extravert,” Charlie said. “It doesn’t come naturally to her, and it really drains her. She’s very tired and worn out after having to be the extravert Megan, because it’s just not natural to her.”
During our meeting at Starbucks, I asked Megan Bowen about what drew her to the role of Magenta, the Transylvanian castle maid whose brother is the hunchbacked servant Riff Raff. She explained that the role suited her better than, for example, the innocent Janet.
“I’m not the ingenue. It’s just not who I am. I’m sure I could pull it off if I really worked at it, but it’s not my natural gift. My natural gift is to be the weirdo in the background making stank face. That’s my niche, the weird friend. That’s who Magenta was in the show,” Bowen said.
Megan Bowen playing Magenta in “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.” Photo courtesy of Megan Bowen.
She said that while Magenta is the character she can play most naturally, her favorite character is Riff Raff, an opinion she shares with her friend Shewchuk.
“You barely scratch the surface of who [Riff Raff] is until the very end. You get little hints of he’s a little weird. You see a little explosion of energy in Time Warp, so you get a glimmer of how weird he is, but man, he really steals the show in the end,” Bowen said.
Bowen said that Rocky Horror is her favorite time of the year. She said seeing people downtown dressed in their underwear to come “get weird” at the show is “a nice reminder that Statesboro is a lot of things, and it’s not just conservative.”
Statesboro, Georgia. Population: 31,419. Incorporated in 1803 with a population of less than 25. County seat of Bulloch County. Located deep within the region informally called the Bible Belt. Home to 99 churches or places of worship, according to a Bulloch County worship directory.
Not all reactions to Statesboro’s Rocky Horror Picture Show are positive. Bowen said the show has received criticism in the “Soundoff” section of The Statesboro Herald, where readers can submit their opinions. She also said the cast has been harassed while advertising for the show in costume on the Georgia Southern campus.
“Some people think it’s great, and sometimes we’re at the Rotunda right across from the really angry people throwing, like, Bibles and stuff and yelling about how everybody’s a prostitute and going to hell,” Bowen said.
Bowen said the cast has had the police called on them before. She said, “Because it’s inappropriate. On a Sunday, in Statesboro? Inappropriate, not everyone wants to see that, that kind of stuff.”
In his office, Charlie Bowen talked about the role of Rocky Horror in a town like Statesboro.
“Especially in a conservative southern town like this, I think it provides a safe get-together for some of the minority communities to come together and really feel safe and welcome and have a good time. A lot of the events around Statesboro aren’t really geared toward them,” Charlie said.
Charlie said the show is a way to bring the “less conservative” people together, and that he has met many of his close friends because of the show.
“It’s kind of like that little secret that nobody talks about except with other Rocky people,” Charlie said. “When we do tell other people about it, it’s like a litmus test – are they gonna be okay with this, or are they gonna be offended?”
Megan Bowen credits the Georgia Southern University community and the Averitt Center for the Arts for creating an environment where Rocky Horror can happen.
“I think the only reason we get to have it is because the college exists, number one. We would not have Rocky Horror if it hadn’t started on campus, because before it was at the Averitt, it was on campus. And then, obviously it would not exist without the Averitt Center, and I often wonder, how did we luck out to get an arts center that’s willing to support us?” Bowen said.
In the weeks leading up to the annual production, the Bowens open their home and wallets to make the show happen. They host meetings in their house and contribute some of their own money to the budget.
“Our house becomes consumed with Rocky Horror,” Charlie Bowen said. “Right now, my living room just keeps collecting Rocky Horror stuff as we buy more stuff every year and have to get it prepared. I don’t want to think about how much money we actually spent out of our own pockets for this show every year. Megan refuses to tell me, and I’m fine with it.”
Shewchuk said the community built around the show functions as an accepting safe space for its members, some of whom belong to minority groups, like LGBTQIA: a group Shewchuk said is still frowned upon by many in the South.
Megan Bowen said, “There are people here who feel not-at-home most of the year, and who come to Rocky Horror, and it’s a night to feel like yeah, I’m not the only one. It’s really special and important to me that I get to be a part of that.”