Thursday, August 02, 2012

Live Nude Theatre

Bas-relief of a scene from a Roman Satyr Play.
(CC BY 2.0) ForsterFoto, licensed under Attribution License.

I've been thinking about stage nudity lately.
My most frequent experience has been Naked Girls Reading, a bi-monthly production of some of my burlesque friends. My wife is often one of the naked girls and so I've been the booth operator for a couple of shows, have been audience for others, and I have noticed some very curious things.
First, the show is built to drive in audience members. It's all there in the first word of the title: "NAKED." If it were "Clothed Girls Reading," I doubt there would be quite the same turn-out. Yes, the intent is to titillate before the audience even sits in the house and the house lights dim, but the titillation is short-lived once the show actually starts.
The make-up of the audience is evenly split, men and women. Everyone takes their seat, and you can feel a nervous energy in the room. Chris Beyond, one of the producers of the show comes to the front of the house for a little curtain-warming speech, explaining where the show originated (from the brilliant and sexy mind of Michelle L'amour in Chicago), asking the patrons to turn off cellphones, and informing them that photography of any kind is not allowed.
Each show has a theme ("Fan Service" was all about horror, sci-fi and comic books. "Sea Faire" was pirate-themed) and the set is dressed reflective of that theme. The readers enter, wearing robes over not much else. They sit in couches, chairs, etc. Each reader introduces what she is going to read, disrobes, and reads. Once disrobed, the reader stays nude until all the other readers have read, and they take a brief intermission.
A very simple show. It is literally naked girls, reading. Do you see how, after an hour and a half of the above, the titillation factor wears off? All the audience is left with after the initial "shock" of seeing a naked girl is ... the reading. And this is where the show lives or dies. If the selection is engaging and if the reader is engaged, the audience is engaged. If the selection is boring or goes on too long, or if the reader doesn't really care about what she's reading, the audience begins shifting in their seats, coughing, etc.
When everyone is engaged, something strange happens. The reader is reading something that matters to her. She is completely exposed with literally nothing to hide behind as she shares this important stream of information to a rapt audience. Theatre is about live communion between actor and performer -- it's one of the few things we have over television and film. Nudity in the case of Naked Girls Reading heightens that exchange.

That's my most frequent experience.  My most recent experience was quite a bit different.  Back in June I caught Matt Morillo's The Inventor, The Escort, The Photographer, Her Boyfriend, and His Girlfriend at the Lounge.  In the second act, the titular girlfriend (a delightful Jenni Halina) crashes a reconciliation between her cousin and her cousin's boyfriend -- with whom the girlfriend had a dalliance.  The climax of the act arrives as the girlfriend performs a modern dance piece, culminating in her complete disrobing.

It was hilarious and appropriate to the action of the play.  I was taken by the actress' ease and the audience's reaction.  After I published the review, I posed a question on Facebook and Twitter:
"Onstage nudity in stage plays.  Thoughts?"
To my delight, none other than Jenni Halina herself answered my question.  We had a very pleasant exchange on Twitter, and here's what I learned.  (Note:  Our exchange is slightly edited to compensate for the imposed brevity of 140 characters.)
In the review I noted that the nudity seemed entirely unexploitative.  Jenni agreed: "Yes, I feel that way now. I wouldn't have done it had I not understood that."

"I didnt want nudity," Jenni said, "tried to change it, they said no. The others [other actresses in the play] get down to underwear [and it] wouldn't be enough contrast to do the same."
Absolutely true.  I would add that the character is more of a free spirit than the other women in the play.  Jenni did an excellent job portrarying that freeness of spirit, but the visual knocked it out of the park.  I asked her if it was in the script or if it grew out of rehearsal.  "SCRIPTED," she said.  "He [the boyfriend character in the play, "John"] says she doesn't wear panties, she's uninhibited. She's trying to get the other woman to leave."  So yes, the playwright/director knew exactly what he was doing with this moment.

I asked her if being nude onstage in anyway changed her experience of the audience; was she more aware of them?  Less?  She responded, "Neither actually.  In any show, I block out the audience."  Fair enough.  But, she added in regards to her costar, "I felt more confident with my 'boyfriend,' it felt realistic."  Now that's interesting. "Everyone has a body. Everyone gets naked. Playing real life on stage -- to not do something because of the audience, it's fake no?"
I asked her if she was nervous about it.  "Not about the performance, more the reaction. And my cast is supportive, though we all laughed a lot the first time in rehearsal."  I imagine!
It's easy to write off stage nudity as a mere marketing ploy or some kind of stunt.  I think that's a mistake.  I think it can be a storytelling tool -- a potent tool, to be sure.  How much of that potency is due to society's view of the naked body and how much is due to the inherent symbolic power of nudity is one more thing I don't know the answer to.  At any rate, this is a subject I find fascinating, and I intend to explore it further.

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