Monday, June 29, 2009

On Nudity

Recent projects have gotten me meditating on nudity and its place in live theater.
First off, my gut instinct is that if you are using nudity onstage to be sexy you are cruising for disappointment. Our collective conscious has been hammered by so many fetishized images of allure and beauty, images that are so prepared, flesh that is so qualified that most folks who are willing to disrobe will never be able to illicit the same degree of passionate attraction that airbrushed celebrity sculpted into fashionable perfection can. The truth of the matter is that 99.9% of the time your eyes' truest desire regardless of fashion or youth just doesn't hold up under the gleam of a fluorescent or a 1000 watt follow spot. That is why someone invented lingerie. So nudity onstage for mere titillation... is not the best option. Honestly, if titillation is your goal, you'd do better to turn out all the lights and let the actors breath heavy in the dark.

So why use nudity? Or even implied nudity in a scene? In my opinion, the reason to use is purely as a storytelling device. Luridness, partial nudity, staged intimacy... all of these representations must serve story. And it must also serve the story that the telling is trying to convey, not as how the spectator would rather prefer.

Sometimes, it is not nudity that offends or generates consternation/provocation, it is the narrative the accompanies nudity. For example, a nude actor inhabits the empty space in a staged parable about the garden of eden... how does that compare to a fully clothed actor who plays out the representation of a rape murder scene. What if nudity never happens, but heavy petting occurs between the characters... then again how people feel about such portrayal is perceived as exploitative completely based on the resolution of the protagonist.

We each have our own set rules for why or when, nudity, sensuality, etc are relevant or acceptable on stage. What are yours.

What are some instances general or specific where nudity (actual or implied) became an issue for you or your collaborators during a workshop, rehearsal, etc.? What are your rules when it comes to nudity, touching, sensuality, etc onstage?


Don Hall said...

Anyone who finds nudity (or the context for nudity) in live theater to be either inappropriate or offensive is an idiot.

Is the nudity a part of the story? Then get nekked and leave your value judgments for the audience.

Christ - I've been exposed to onstage nudity (not to mention growing up in the era of Skinimax) so much that, unless the context of the story strives for me to be offended, it better be some hot ass nudity to get a reaction.

Case in point - saw a RBP show not too long ago that featured Paul Rekk's peen flopping around throughout, Dennis Newport's baby smooth ass on a bucket, and Erin Orr fully nude and braying like a donkey. All of it could be seen as exploitative but only if you were a friggin' prude.

I say bring it on. The more nekked, the better.

Barry Rowell said...

It's funny that you have this topic because Catherine and I were saying the other day that it's actually been a while since we've seen nudity in a downtown production here in NYC. Broadway and Off Broadway is another story: I've seen at least a half-dozen plays this season alone where an actor dropped trou. Is it because the more experimental playwrights and directors—the ones whose work I find most interesting—are less interested in exploring sexuality or sensuality at the moment? I'm not sure.

My general feeling about nudity is that nine times out of ten, it takes me out of the play: I'm thinking about the actor and not the character more often than not. There are notable exceptions—I'm thinking especially of the Philadelphia company, Pig Iron Theater, who did an adaptation of "Measure for Measure" set in a morgue in which the Duke was a coroner and the dead bodies (all nude) were his puppet/actors in the play. Even when the actors put on "costumes", they never covered any "naughty parts". It was more than a little disconcerting at first but, eventually, their nudity somehow stopped being titillating and just seemed appropriate—I never forgot they were naked, it just wasn't a big deal anymore. I didn't think that the show really worked for other reasons, but it was the bravest production of any play I've seen in many years. On the other hand, I saw a horrible sci-fi play in London where a woman was "born" from a machine fully nude and covered with goo; the director/writer/lead actor then proceeded to wash her body for a good five minutes (I'm really not exaggerating here) before she was finally given some clothes. Even if it had been a good play, that scene was incredibly self-indulgent and had nothing to do with the story we were supposed to be seeing; I understood why the creator put it in but being able to justify something doesn't mean it serves the play.

For me, theater is about artifice: nudity is about reality. That's not to say that I don't think it has a place onstage but I believe it should be used judiciously and for specific reasons. The artist/creator has to ask: why do I want this character to be nude onstage and is it worth the possibility that the audience will stop thinking of the actor as a character?

Dianna said...

It depends on the situation: Theatre should (at it's best) be a mirror of reality, and the human body is a part of that reality. In real life we use our bodies for sympathy, for leverage, for passion, for lust, for violence. If I have an issue with seeing a naked body used in any of those ways onstage, shouldn't that ENHANCE my viewing?
For example, in a show that involved a rape - if I have an issue with seeing someones body, wouldn't that only ADD to my feelings of dread and discomfort? Wouldn't it "heighten the scene" for me? Make it MORE uncomfortable, more dreadful?
And talk about a literal "stripping away" - if someone is there before you with no clothes on, you are seeing them at their absolute base, their absolute beginning or their absolute end....

Are you contemplating nudity for "Finger"?

devilvet said...

Are you contemplating nudity for "Finger"?

I haven't decided yet. I mean it would take serious balls on my part to attend the show in nothing but my birthday suit. Although, It will be warm enough for me to show up sans pants.


Dianna said...

smartypants :-)

(and "sans pants" will have to be used by me in a conversation sometime today.... I don't know how yet, but I'll work it in somehow)