Thursday, February 28, 2013

Nudity and the Theatre

So, on WBEZ yesterday there was an entertaining piece on sex in the theatre. I know, I wish people would talk about serious stuff too, but we take what we get. And it was funny and engaging, so there’s that. And then it did get serious, at least for me. Because the most interesting part was when Kelly Kleiman said that maybe we are uncomfortable with sex on stage because we are uncomfortable with men in the nude. She said that we are used to looking at naked women but naked men make us uncomfortable. The three men involved in the conversation remained silent. I was cheering. I have noticed this for a very long time. So many naked women on stage, but hardly any naked men. Why? But, here’s what I didn’t think about until yesterday – why is everyone so uncomfortable with naked men? Up until TAKE ME OUT, I didn’t, but I probably could have, counted the number of naked men I’d seen on stage on one hand, so naturally, it is more shocking when you see it – like a rare bird. And speaking of TAKE ME OUT, those men were entirely comfortable being naked in a way we almost never see when men are naked on stage. Maybe because there is safety in numbers. Some people don’t like nudity at all, and that kind of energy can be present if the nudity is gratuitous no matter the sex of the actor. But I think Kelly is right on – when a male actor is naked on stage we feel entirely different about it than if it’s a woman and we are not entirely comfortable with it and I get the sense that neither are the actors. I don’t really have a point here – I’m just so happy to have a new intractable issue – I thought I’d share.

Anyway, I feel like I should slip in something about advocacy – you know, because I have your attention.



Unknown said...

Deb, I absolutely agree. We are conditioned to seeing women in the nude. Not just on stage but everywhere. Riding down I-94 you'll see a litany of billboards for strip clubs, a swimsuit clad woman selling beer, even nude women are used to sell cosmetic products to other women. This proliferation isn't replicated with men. I rarely see near-naked men used to sell much more than underpants, but we'll use a naked women to sell apples if the ad exec or company likes the concept.

Similarly, we aren't so shocked to see hetero-normative sex on stage, but male-male sex on stage is almost always classified as controversial. Just another hegemonic wall to break though. More sex on stage for all!

Thomas Garvey said...

Sorry, but I go to the theatre many times every week, and at least in Boston it's far more common to see men in the nude than women. I even wrote a blog post about this. It's no doubt the result of the gay presence in the theatre, but there's no arguing it's all but a rite of passage for most male actors in this city.

Jeremy said...

I'm happy to say that we're equal-opportunity nakedness in COMPLETENESS. :)

genevieve1352 said...

Several years ago I saw a Broadway production of Julius Caesar in which Caesar was getting a massage when the conspirators arrived to escort him to the Senate. As such, the actor was undressed, and apart from a towel across his lap remained so for most of the scene. When he stood for a servant to help him with his robe, the audience got a full rear view, and my goodness, you'd have thought they'd never seen a bottom before. And this was not a young crowd. It got me thinking about our levels of comfort with sexual vs. nonsexual nudity, but I hadn't considered that gender might have been a factor in the reaction. It's turning out to have been a most educational moment of theatre....

Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing this Deb.
Kelly Kleiman made a great point that nudity onstage is a separate issue from sex onstage. In the best portrayal of sex onstage that I have seen (and by best I do not mean sexy - it was terribly violent, but absolutely true within the world of the play), the man was naked and the woman was not. This was the Oresteia performed by a German-speaking company in Berlin. I did not understand the language, but completely understood what was happening (not just during the sex scene) through the emotions and physicality of the actors. The sex scene did make the audience uncomfortable, but that was the intent. It was not an embarrassed-for-the-actors uncomfortable. It was seeing-how-truly-horrible-one-human-can-be-to-another uncomfortable. I think that instead of a blanket statement that sex does not belong onstage, Chris Jones would have been better to say that a director should be certain that the sex scene affects the audience as he or she intends. Otherwise it should be cut.
On the other hand, nudity onstage can be completely non-sexual. For the past four years, I have co-produced The National Pastime Theater's Naked July: Art Stripped Down a festival centered around nudity on stage. We include plays that deal with the human body, not only in terms of sexuality but also birth, death, body-image, nature, violence. In choosing shows for the festival, we purposely include a mixture of both male and female nudity. The split is fairly event. Sometimes there are more naked men, sometimes more naked women. What's interesting is the split between men and women wanting to get naked onstage is also fairly even. As is the split between men and women in the audience.
What I do find true about Kelly Kleiman's concern that there is a double standard when it comes to male versus female nudity onstage is that I have rarely seen a heterosexual male portray nudity in a purely sexual way onstage. This is especially true if the male is in a sexually vulnerable position (no pun intended, seriously). I would say the opposite about heterosexual female nudity onstage. Rarely have I seen a female naked onstage outside of a sexual context. (The exception to both of these is, of course, the Naked July Festival mentioned above.) I think this speaks to the wider American culture and our views on gender and sexuality. In this American culture a naked woman is automatically sexualized. The same is not true of a naked man (ie Will Farrell).
I would love to have someone respond to this and prove me wrong. Give me an example of female nudity onstage that is completely non-sexual. It would give me more hope for our current society.

-Keely, NPT