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Getting Undressed for the Theater 

The art and politics of nudity onstage

Wednesday, Sep 2 1998
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Never have there been so many naked male bodies on Los Angeles stages; in addition to singing, dancing and acting, performers in homo theatrical fare are more often than not required to do the full monty. Gay visibility? You bet your ass.

Does the increase in exposed buttocks and bollocks placate AIDS anxiety? Is it a kind of political affirmation, or just an old-fashioned ploy to fill houses?

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This is the hot topic among gay theater artists and audiences - and one that Robert Schrock, artistic director of L.A.'s gay- and lesbian-identified Celebration Theater, wishes would go away. "It's a nonissue," he says. "If being naked helps define our culture, so what?"

Naked Boys Singing!, currently selling out at Schrock's theater, combines music and nudity in "a gratuitous musical," jokes playwright Tom Jacobson, who also serves as Celebration's literary manager. "When making reservations, some Celebration patrons ask us if there's nudity. It's one of the things gay men have come to expect in plays about themselves." (Jacobson wrote Cyberqueer, one of Celebration's biggest hits - in no, um, small part because of the flesh factor.)

"To write a serious play about gay life today is a tough sell unless there's entertainment value," says Jim Talbot, chairman of GLAAD's Los Angeles Theater Nominations Committee. "Nudity in gay plays is reminiscent of burlesque's function. Burlesque was for people who didn't want to just see a strip show. It gave them a bit of a story to assuage their guilt."

Talbot remarks how the bawdy environment encourages playwrights to compromise themselves. The central character in David Dillon's Party - a celibate priest who was neither alcoholic nor suicidal, and who embraced gay life - was "revolutionary," Talbot notes. "If Dillon had concentrated on that character and kept nudity in the background, he could have written a classic."

Only slightly more than a quarter of a century ago, the American theater began routinely to feature nudity on its stages, whether in the interests of high art (the Living Theater), musical theater (Hair, Let My People Come) or commercial schlock (Oh, Calcutta!). Reflecting the sexual revolution that was playing out on the streets, the naked body, in addition to being a vessel for expressing emotions, took on a certain dramatic cachet. Whether or not stripping down was intrinsic to the material, nakedness was intended to elicit a response: shock, titillation, arousal, emotional connection, all of the above. And to sell tickets.

In the early '70s, as gay liberation exploded, nudity in the nascent gay theater was inevitable. While The Boys in the Band kept their clothes on in 1968, the boys in subsequent gay plays began displaying more than their high-strung emotions.

I made my Los Angeles theatrical debut, appearing au naturel in Tom Eyen's The Dirtiest Show in Town, at the Ivar Theater in 1972. Eyen's sketch material, although considered bold in its day, was inherently sweet, celebrating all manifestations of sexuality while decrying the evils of war and pollution. While no one believed onstage nakedness would change the world, there was an innocence in our attempt to Say Something while slipping out of the clothes that bound us.

"Appearing naked in a gay play is a powerful public declaration," Jacobson says. "Gay theater has always proudly flouted conventional morality, often with nudity. Farther down the road, as gay issues are less and less of a big deal, the nudity won't mean as much to gay audiences."

Jimmy Shaw, who recently appeared naked in Dan Gerrity and Jeremy Lawrence's Melody Jones, is "flattered" by being objectified. "I'm not comfortable on a nude beach or taking a shower in public," he says, "but nudity is acceptable if you feel excited about what you're portraying to the audience. I played a character in denial about his sexuality. When he finally connects with another man, he's naked. The imagery is packed." So were the houses - in part because of Shaw's pulchritude, depicted in the advertising.

"I do think it feels empowering to walk up to a ticket window and say, 'Yes, one for Dicks on Parade,' and walk into the theater," acknowledges gay theatergoer Leland Bard. "It can feel like a special little opportunity to make an openly gay choice."

Gratuitous or not gratuitous: That is the question. When is nakedness justified? When it's "a metaphor for a character's vulnerability," Jacobson feels. In Tony Kushner's Angels in America, the character of Prior appearing naked in the clinic examining room is "a concise lesson in nudity," says Bard. "In 10 seconds of nudity, his vulnerability, physical weakness, the appearance of his K.S. lesions, his objectification as a patient in the medical routine are all told succinctly."

Jacobson cites what he considers an exploitative example: "In Blade to the Heat at the Taper, there was no reason for a shower scene except to get the subscribers steamy. The characters could have had that conversation anywhere, but it was staged in the shower because the actor had a spectacular body."

But director Ron Link justifies the nudity as "sensual and beautiful to look at. It's always justified if it's about beauty."

The same motifs were uncovered at West Hollywood's Globe Theater in the recent Strip! Bare-ly Legal. Masterminded by Madame Dish (also known as Steven J. McCarthy), the show not only contained nudity, but proclaimed its intention to

"celebrate nudity." Dish elucidates: "The actors performed nude, and the audience had the opportunity to experience that same sensation as a total environmental piece by shedding their clothes and inhibitions in the amateur strip. For too many years, gay theater was only about AIDS, and certainly AIDS still is the most important issue facing our community. However, many of us forgot how to have fun. We have finally started to have fun again."

"The plethora of naked plays hit just after the 'second wave' of AIDS plays," explains Jacobson. "I think the audience was in the mood to be cheered up, and reminded that there were still beautiful bodies in the world and somebody was still having sex."

David Roman, author of Acts of Intervention, a book chronicling theatrical representations of AIDS, says, "Two different impulses for representing gay male nudity in light of AIDS emerged in the late 1980s: nudity to demystify the effects of AIDS and nudity as a re-politicization of gay sexuality."

The first onslaught of AIDS plays (As Is, The Normal Heart) often "suppressed explicit gay sexuality, including nudity," according to Roman, "to accommodate a wider audience."

The work of Robert Chesley (Night Sweat, Jerker), performed in the mid-'80s, defied what the playwright often decried as "prudishness." His characters were defiantly sexual and dramatically naked. Yet, like most gay theater, Chesley's work was marginalized, largely because of its unapologetic stance. (Chesley's Stray Dog Story is currently playing at the St. Genesius Theater.)

Many performance artists stirred similar responses. The NEA furor over Tim Miller's work, much of it AIDS-focused, was surely fueled by his determination to appear naked onstage. Ron Athey, publicly HIV-positive, not only appears onstage nude, but some performances incorporate his infected blood. According to Roman, this is where gay theater and AIDS activism meld: "These artists, like Kushner's play and Chesley's work, refuse to comply with the deeply rooted cultural anxieties about queer bodies."

Even though the proliferation of nudity seems to be a response to AIDS, particularly in light comedies featuring a bevy of musclebound hunks (Ronnie Larsen's Making Porn, for example), AIDS inevitably remains the recurring backdrop for most gay playwrights.

While Angels in America reached a crossover audience, most gay theater containing nudity, whether depicting AIDS or not, is sequestered in smaller venues. Although playwright Terrence McNally would cringe at the queer-theater label, the commercial and artistic success of his Love! Valour! Compassion! provided a blueprint for aspiring gay playwrights: Fire Island, nudity and AIDS.

Not surprisingly, economics is the loudest answer to most of the artistic and ethical quandaries about nudity onstage. "In 1998, the gay community is often imagined as a gay market and not necessarily as a community invested in progressive social change," reflects Roman. "The politics of liberation that characterized early gay organizing has been eclipsed by the politics of consumerism."

In other words, nudity sells, and the size of the audience does matter. If there is a message to be delivered in gay theater as we enter the new century, one can be almost certain the messenger will be giving a balls-out performance.

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