The Quest | The Free Press of Reed College

Cool Thesis of the Week: Tristan Nieto

Tristan Nieto ’12 is updating a tradition-heavy cult ritual.

Fans of The Rocky Horror Picture Show are well acquainted with the film’s cult rituals. When fans get together to watch the 1975 B-movie, the screenshow is accompanied by a cast of actors in front of the the movie, who shadow the movements of the actors with precision.

Not so in Tristan Nieto’s version. Tristan, of San Pedro, California, is reinventing the Rocky Horror tradition. For his Literature-Theater thesis, which he is working on with professors Pancho Savery and Peter Kasander, Tristan is directing a production, which he calls Rocky Horror No-Picture Show, which will do away with the film component of the Rocky Horror tradition in order, he says, to free up the actors. The play – advertised with the tagline “A Different Kind of Thesis” – will run on Oct. 5 at 7:15 PM and again at 10:00, and Oct. 6 at 7:15.

The movie started as a play, in the punk-rock neighborhood of King’s Road in London, in the 1970′s. A newly engaged, straight-edge couple, Brad and Janet, take a road trip, but get stuck with a flat tire, and they meet a group of transexual aliens called Transylvanians—or as Tristan calls them, “glam-rock aliens.” The travellers go with the aliens to their convention, where they are sexually initiated by Dr. Frank-N-Furter, who poses to each of the two fiancees as the other. The play travelled around America and was later released as a film to little success, but when it became a midnight movie, it gained a cult following. Audience members developed “callbacks,” or lines they would shout at specified times during the film.

The traditions grew naturally out of the way people connected with the film, Tristan says. “It’s such a bad movie in and of itself, and it’s so strange,” he says, that the natural consequence was to take it even further. Eventually, a woman named Dori Hartley, who, Tristan says, had been brutally abused and raped, attached to the character of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. “The power and dominance that Frank had in the movie, she very badly wanted,” Tristan says. Hartley started attending screenings of the film dressed as Frank, and before long, another Rocky Horror tradition had caught on—a “shadow cast” would regularly dress up as the characters in the film, and re-enact the movie as it happened in front of the screen. As with many cult phenomena, fans found a home in Rocky Horror, says Tristan. “This is the one place that you can go dressed in fishnets and skimpy underwear and makeup no matter what gender you are and be totally included in the ritual.”

Tristan Nieto wants to “inspire people to take the stage as a performer instead of a shadow.”

However, says Tristan, it can happen that rituals are taken too far. “It’s become kind of hackneyed now,” he says. “Screen accuracy” – the desire for the shadow cast to perfectly mimic the actions of the onscreen cast – “is a huge thing.” When Tristan performed in a shadow cast, he says, “it really bugged me that I was so limited.”

So in his production, he’s doing away with the limitations. The play starts like a normal production of Rocky Horror, movie on screen and all, but then cuts out before it gets under way. “I thought cutting the screen or having it black out under the auspices of sabotage would allow the performers to do their own thing,” he says. He hopes this will “inspire people to take the stage as a performer instead of a shadow,” and “reinvigorate” the show. This production, he says, will update a familiar form with “social archetypes relevant to the current generation,” like, for example – spoiler alert! – Dr. Who.

“It really ends up becoming more about the actors who are doing the show than about the plot of the film,” he says. This freedom, he says, is in better tune with the spirit of the movie, as well as the present day.

“It’s not 1975 anymore,” he says. “It’s 2012.”


Each week, The Quest profiles the thesis of one senior whose work is worth sharing with the Reed community. The purpose of this column is to increase awareness among Reedies of the work being done in various academic fields and to make disparate forms of scholarship accessible and understandable to all. Do you have or know of a thesis that compels attention? Just want to see your face in the Quest? Email with “Cool Thesis” in the subject line.

Leave a Reply