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Grin and Bare It 

Nudity on local stages re-examined

Wednesday, May 9 2001
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Onstage nudity has become so pervasive in L.A. theater that it can become a bore unless used in some fresh and original way. Writer Scott Miller, in his ”gay-male nudie comedy“ Head Games (currently playing at Hollywood‘s Lillian Theater) seeks to reopen the discussion of exploitation and titillation by framing his play as an extended debate about stage nudity, complete with full-frontal visual aids.

Head Games, inspired by Miller’s experience producing David Dillon‘s international 1992 gay hit Party in St. Louis, is knowingly exploitative with its extensive and titillating male nudity. Indeed, Miller embraces the notion of theater as strip club while commenting on the phenomenon -- and trying to turn a financial profit at the same time. Miller’s view may be more honest than that of directors and writers who inject five seconds of pointless nudity merely to use it as a selling point. As for any criticism the play may garner, Miller says, ”Nobody could say anything against nudity that my characters don‘t already say.“ But in his debate, Miller poses ”art“ and nudity as mutually exclusive opposites -- an assumption worth challenging.

We don’t know if the ancient Greeks employed nudity in their tragedies, but they certainly celebrated it in sculpture and civic life, and simulated it in their comedies. During the Renaissance, there was an enthusiastic cult of the nude in the visual arts but no evidence nudity was used in theater. The first clearly verifiable nude scene appears in Ben Jonson‘s 1614 play Bartholomew Fair: a fairgoer, robbed of his clothes, steals a roasting pan to hide his nakedness, only to have it snatched away by its angry owner.

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In the last 50 years, nudity has been utilized in every possible way, from the mercenary to the exalted. Nudity, like sex itself, is more medium than message: It can mean almost anything, serving as a metaphor for innocence or decadence.

Dillon, who has dealt with nudity as a writer, actor and director, suddenly found himself an instant spokesman for it with the phenomenal success of Party (currently in production at San Diego’s Quentin Crisp Theater), with its long male nude scene. As a practicing nudist, he regards nudity matter-of-factly, but feels that duration is an important factor. ”Brief flashes of nudity titillate,“ he explains. ”But when it goes on longer, shock value is dispelled, and a new climate of openness is created in which touchy issues can be dealt with frankly.“ (His claim is supported by plays like David Storey‘s 1971 The Changing Room, in which a young John Lithgow played a 15-minute nude scene as a vulnerable, helpless, injured athlete.)

Any attempt to compare the use of nudity in gay and straight theater provokes controversy. Nudity is built into much of the gay-male lifestyle, which evolved in tandem with the so-called sexual revolution. Most -- but not all -- straight theater people are less eager to exploit nudity so blatantly. Lesbians, too, seem less focused on the naked body. As Rosemary Stevens, editor of the gay-lesbian newsletter The Pink Sheet, suggests, some lesbians even resent it when lesbian productions exploit nudity. In any case, gay-male theater has led the way in making the use of nudity almost routine.

Dillon justifies this truth by claiming that the straight press fails to perceive the real importance of nudity in gay life, and misreads gay theatrical intentions: ”[The straight press doesn’t] realize that gay people spend their entire lives as audiences for the heterosexual experience, and we don‘t whine about it. We are bombarded with graphic images of straight sex in film, TV and cable, yet [straight people] condescend [to] gay theater for doing the same.“ (Feminists also challenge the sexism of movies and television, where love scenes routinely feature nude women while the men remain discreetly covered.)

Frederique Michel, artistic director of Santa Monica’s City Garage, is almost messianic in her belief that nudity is an intrinsically valuable stage tool.

Director Abby Epstein, who used nudity boldly and sensitively in Mike Leigh‘s play Ecstasy, at the Odyssey Theater in 1998, decries excessive, casual, insensitive and exploitative use of nudity, yet she says, ”Some of the most exciting scenes I’ve ever seen in the theater have been scenes involving nudity -- for instance, the powerful last scene in Steppenwolf Theater Company‘s production of The Grapes of Wrath. But if you’re going to use nudity, it has to be earned.“

Epstein also emphasizes that the effectiveness of stage nudity depends heavily on the size of the theater, and the proximity of the audience. Close encounters with naked actors may distract or frighten some audiences.

But among actors, attitudes toward nudity vary wildly -- from fear of exploitation, to finding it fun, liberating and creatively rewarding. Among the cast of Head Games, some of whom have worked naked before, none could recall serious exploitation by directors and producers, but all said they had felt exploited by predatory audiences or stage-door Johnnies.

Indeed, no matter how pure the motives of a director or writer, a prurient audience can undermine them. Brad Mays staged a production of Euripides‘ The Bacchae at the Complex in 1997 that featured a chorus of 20 women, all naked in one extended sequence. He strove in every way to make the work sacred and reverent. But Weekly theater reviewer Paul B. Cohen reported that when he saw the show, the front row was full of lechers fighting for seats. Yet Lorenda Starfelt, the producer and also a member of the cast, feels the use of all kinds of bodies is of primary importance.

”I was 40 pounds overweight and terrified at the thought of appearing naked in public. But Brad wanted a broad range of body types, and I agreed. It turned out to be a wonderful experience. Women in the audience responded [to the fact] that I was able to accept myself and be myself onstage. Our objective was to present women as they see themselves, not as men see them. Women are starved for [such] images. Nudity became part and parcel of that . . . It’s not prurient unless it‘s made prurient.“

Head Games director Brian Paul Mendoza shared an experience that underlines the ambiguity of the exploitation issue. As a young actor-director he was asked by a playwright to join in a series of experiments to facilitate the working out of a play. The experiments involved nudity, and some were videotaped. At the time, he regarded it as serious work, and only later began to wonder, and still wonders, if he had been exploited.

Nowadays actors are more conscious of the dangers, and the Actors’ Equity Association has enacted strict nudity stipulations that producers, directors and casting people must follow: In auditions, there shall be no nudity until final callbacks, and an Equity stage manager shall be present at all auditions and rehearsals involving nudity. Then, beyond auditions: no photography of nude scenes without written authorization from actors, no release of those photos without written permission and no mingling with the audience while naked, etc. The trade paper Backstage West publishes its own casting rules and informally polices the local audition scene.

Dillon feels that writers and directors, too, are exploited by producers and promoters who want to make a fast buck by casting porn stars, or using sensational advertising promoting ”full-frontal nudity.“

Derek Charles Livingston, artistic director of the Celebration Theater, takes a more pragmatic line: ”Theater is an economic entity as well as an artistic one. And actors, writers and directors may have to accept a certain amount of exploitation by directors, producers and press people in order to be able to do the work they want to do.“

Those who favor nudity in their work insist that, though onstage nudity may sometimes be used transgressively, working with it is a far cry from the erotic fun and games some laymen imagine. The naked human body is too vulnerable, and too charged with sexuality and symbolism, to be taken lightly.

Nudity, like any other element of theater, can be used well or badly, or even perniciously. If it‘s used boldly, creatively and sensitively, it can make us think and feel, as well as look. Otherwise it will prove merely meretricious, sleazy or boring.

Sensitive directors and writers soon realize that if they are to deal with nudity at all, they must find ways to neutralize and de-eroticize both the body and the workplace. They know that if they are to do their work, they must earn the trust of their actors, and that any hint of prurience might violate that trust. They must deal tactfully and carefully with all the moral, aesthetic and ego issues that may arise, and with the difficulties that accompany emotional as well as physical exposure.

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