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Thoughts on Stage Nudity

ART TIMES May 2009

If you aren't emotionally naked when you perform, you aren't acting. And if you are emotionally naked when you perform, why would you need to take off your clothes? What could it possibly add?

Nudity is the ultimate audience distraction device. The dominant visual fact about the nude performer isn’t the character, the situation, the relationship, the emotion, the language, the sound or the fury. It’s the skin. Possibly titillating, possibly repulsive, possibly intriguing, possibly boring, possibly arousing, possibly deflating, but absolutely, positively, definitely distracting. You are no longer in the moment; you are outside the moment looking in, placed willy-nilly in the shoes of the voyeur.

If that’s what you came for, hey, whatever floats your boat. If that’s the effect you’re aiming for, go for it! Perhaps a sufficient expanse of skin is the ultimate verfremdungseffekt? Pity Bertolt isn’t around to ask.

I’ve never heard anybody discuss Oh, Calcutta! In terms of the music, characters, story, design, direction or theme. Only the skin. Last Tango in Paris has a lot more to offer than Oh, Calcutta!, but still, it’s rare to see anything about it other than the supposedly ground-breaking nudity involved. Marlon Brando’s skin takes over the whole collective memory of the film. It’s more than distracting. It’s obliterating. Daniel Radcliffe does Equus. Does anybody care about the play? Heck, no. It’s our great chance to see Harry Potter’s skin! In all cases, if that’s what sold the tickets, than the more power to those who offer the tickets to be sold. At least they know what we’ll buy, God help us.

But it really underscores the basic knock on nudity. It’s not whether it’s “tasteful” or not. That’s like Churchill’s famous remark to the lady who was willing to make love to him for a million pounds, but not for a fiver—“Madam, we’ve already established what you are, we’re merely dickering over the price.” Once you’ve got skin, you’ve got skin, and you don’t have the play any more. It’s just about as simple as that.

Not that it’s an H-bomb dropped on the audience. Audiences are pretty resilient; you can throw a lot of distraction at them and they’ll still find their way back to the play sooner or later. And after a while, it loses its power. It becomes just another convention, just another costume, just another part of what’s going on.

So what good is it? While it’s fresh, all it can do is distract. Once it’s tired, it can’t even do that. It’s just like any other design element—by itself, or even in combination, it’s good for a very brief effect at best. The core of the thing is always, always, always the ability of the performer, live and in person, to deliver the authentic truth of the character. If that happens, what happens around it is nice, but not necessary; if it doesn’t happen, what happens around it is nice, but useless.

So I come back to where I started. If you aren't emotionally naked when you perform, you aren't acting. And if you are emotionally naked when you perform, why would you need to take off your clothes?

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