We all know that theatre artists bare their souls for an audience. But often they go so far as to bare their bodies. Nudity on stage can shock, engage, heighten, jar, excite or even delight—responses that artists work tirelessly to garner. But nudity deserves further contemplation. For starters, it seems like a lot to ask of a performer. So what function does it serve? What do playwrights and directors seek to achieve by using nudity? What does it mean for actors to appear in the nude, and what are the conditions under which they agree to do so? How does an actor assess if the use of nudity is necessary or gratuitous? And how does it affect the audience?
Nudity is a tense subject for American audiences. In fact, many theatre companies that I contacted for this article declined to survey their audiences about nudity for fear of alienating their patrons or sending the erroneous message that they should soon anticipate a veritable festival of nudity in the company’s programming.
This tension with audiences dates back to the very founding of the country, when puritanical views held that the theatre was “the devil’s drawing room,” as it was referred to in one of the earliest authentic American plays, 1787’s The Contrast by Royall Tyler. In an effort to improve the public’s perception of theatre, playwright and historian William Dunlap warned audiences in 1832 against being pleased by “glitter, parade, false sentiments, and all that lulls conscience or excites to evil,” and alternatively suggested that the role of theatre is to teach lessons of “patriotism, virtue, morality, religion.”
Alas, the theatre’s questionable reputation persisted in many quarters—in 1904’s Questionable Amusements and Worthy Substitutes, clergyman J.M. Judy quoted Dr. Herrick Johnson’s remark that the theatre is “a moral abomination…exhibiting women with such approaches to nakedness as can have no other design than to breed lust behind the onlooking eyes. It is furnishing candidates for the brothel.” Clearly, the institution had been given something of a bum rap, and the use of nudity is potentially an emphatic confirmation of these historic, deep-seated prejudices for those who hold fast to them.
What is it about nudity that some audiences find so threatening? Why have prosecutors in the 20th century deemed the practice urgent enough to bring legal action against artists, such as Mae West in 1927, for her New York production Sex, and Julian Beck and Judith Malina of the Living Theatre in 1968, for indecent exposure?
Director Mary Zimmerman has a simple explanation: “The objection is that nudity evokes sex, and sex is raunchy, so nudity is de facto raunchy.” Zimmerman’s celebrated Metamorphoses, based on the myths of Ovid, was remounted this past September in her home base of Chicago as the opener to Lookingglass Theatre Company’s 25th-anniversary season (it closes Jan. 6). The production depicts the Greek god Eros in the nude.
“The nudity is symbolic of our vulnerability and exposure in love,” Zimmerman says. She calls the nudity easeful and decidedly not erotic: “It looks like a painting the way it’s lit—it feels like a sacred scene.” But when school groups came to see the show, Eros was covered with a skirt to avoid scandal and to prevent schools from shying away from the production. Ironically, Zimmerman points out, the story of Myrrha, another tale the production tells, is far more risqué because it is erotic and deals with incest, “but it’s not naked, so it’s okay.”
Have audiences complained about the nudity in Metamorphoses? Zimmerman cites a couple in Kansas City who claimed they weren’t informed about it. When a staff member pointed to a sign that announced the use of nudity, the patrons responded, “We thought you meant female nudity.” Zimmerman figures that this inequitable distinction is a pervasively held view—for some reason, female nudity continues to be far more palatable than male nudity. “Female nudity is familiar,” Zimmerman postulates, “and the female body is meant to be available.” Society’s view, historically speaking, has been that the female body is “territory to be conquered.”
This helps explain why in the very same decade that Questionable Amusements was comparing theatre to a brothel, the masses were flocking to the Ziegfeld Follies, which delighted them with images of scantily clad, sometimes ostensibly naked women. Florenz Ziegfeld became famous for “glorifying the American girl.” His success encouraged the popularity of burlesque, which was ultimately celebrated for the nudity it promised and never delivered.
Full-frontal nudity onstage would not in fact be embraced by American audiences until 1967, when it was utilized in the spirit of civil unrest and political protest in the prototypical rock musical Hair. But even Hair, with its brief glimpse of nudity in a pre-intermission tableau, was met with legal challenges in its national tour and was barred from stages in Indiana, Texas and Tennessee, among other places. Eventually, the Supreme Court got involved and ordered that Hair be allowed to perform in Boston in 1970.
It was in June 1968—two months after Hair graduated from Joseph Papp’s Public Theater to open on Broadway—that the vanguard downtown New York company the Performance Group (precursors of the Wooster Group) took stage nudity a giant step further. The troupe’s collectively devised adaptation of Euripides’ The Bacchae, dubbed Dionysus in 69 and directed by environmental theatre guru Richard Schechner, generated shock waves when the actors not only doffed their clothes but interacted with audience members in scenes of orgiastic dance and intimate physical contact. The production enjoyed a 14-month run in New York City, but the entire ensemble was arrested in Michigan for indecent exposure while touring the show in 1969. (A re-enactment of Dionysus in 69 by the Austin-based troupe Rude Mechanicals—a group that has dabbled in nudity in the past, as in 2007’s The Method Gun—debuted last year and played six sold-out performances at New York Live Arts this past November.)
At about the same time, theatre critic Kenneth Tynan sought to celebrate the sexual revolution for more mainstream audiences with his erotic revue Oh! Calcutta! “It seemed to me a pity that eroticism in the theatre should be confined to burlesque houses…All that I hope is that the result will be a few cuts above burlesque in intelligence and sophistication,” Tynan told the New York Times in 1969. Oh! Calcutta! was a quirky construction that proved oddly popular—its ranking as Broadway’s seventh longest-running show in history still endures. Dramaturg and author Rachel Shteir, in her book Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show, calls Oh! Calcutta! honest and anti-burlesque. She explains that the actors in the show “seemed for a moment that they were doing a burlesque tease”—but as they dropped their clothes and stood before the audience completely naked, they “deliberately lacked striptease’s artifice.”
Nudity onstage is indeed a pointed departure from the artifice upon which theatre is based. Audiences agree to witness a murder or a suicide because they know it’s an artificial representation; there is an unspoken agreement of artifice. When the actor undresses, some of the artifice necessarily goes out the window. And what are we left with? A naked character, yes, but also the authentic nakedness of the actor. This nakedness automatically imposes a more intimate relationship between performer and audience. Is it possible that this heightened intimacy is more than the audience bargained for, and could it be a violation of the tacit agreement that is part of theatre’s essential nature?
Zimmerman disagrees with the question’s premise. “Theatre keeps one foot in fiction, but there is a fact of real bodies in front of you. Whether the actors are naked or clothed does not make theatre more or less artificial,” Zimmerman contends.
“I go back and forth about whether theatre is artificial or real,” says actor Claire Wellin, who stripped down for the role of Dottie in a haunting revival of Tracy Letts’s thriller Killer Joe at Chicago’s Profiles Theatre in 2010. “What’s being presented is truth. Nudity is a reminder that this is real, and people are able to connect with that,” says Wellin.*
Similarly, director Kim Weild believes that “nudity is brutal in its honesty.” She choreographed a 1997 Los Angeles production of The Bacchae with 20 naked women and began her Drama Desk–nominated 2010 production of Charles L. Mee’s Fêtes de la Nuit with a middle-aged woman philosophizing in a bathtub. Weild calls nudity a viable tool for storytelling. “If it’s not used gratuitously, nudity has the potential of elevating humanity.”
So what is the litmus test to determine whether nudity is necessary or gratuitous? “The nudity has to serve the story,” says James Kautz, co-founder and artistic director of the Amoralists, one of New York City’s fastest-growing downtown theatre companies. To illustrate the point, Kautz refers to his company’s site-specific piece HotelMotel, which was performed to an audience of 20 in a room at the Gershwin Hotel in 2011, in which one actor feigned an onstage orgasm—yet there was no nudity because “it wasn’t necessary.” Kautz says he has declined roles with other companies that required him to appear naked: “There is nothing worse than being naked and not believing in it.”
“It has to contribute to something greater,” agrees Zimmerman. “If it’s part of an image. If it’s beautiful.” But Zimmerman remains nonjudgmental about artists who feel the need to include nudity in their work regardless if it’s “necessary” or not. Her theatre students at Northwestern University often employ nudity in their work, and she recognizes that its use can be a stand-in for doing something genuinely daring or brave. “Students don’t understand how shopworn it is—it’s a cliché,” Zimmerman posits, then generously acknowledges that nudity plays out as a novel experiment for her students, and she tries her best to remain supportive.
Actress Wellin points out that the nudity in Killer Joe is amply motivated by the story. The play begins with a woman who casually answers the door in the middle of the night, completely naked from the waist down. “It communicates to the audience who these people are,” Wellin says. “There is nothing careful about them.” Profiles Theatre artistic director Darrell W. Cox, who played the titular character in the same production, explains that Dottie’s nude scene communicates her fragility, beauty and innocence, while Joe’s nudity communicates a sense of strength and makes him scarier. “You can’t get that with clothes on,” Cox avows. Wellin admits that the nudity in Killer Joe made her nervous, but “I was just as afraid to shoot the gun as I was to take my clothes off.” Ultimately, Wellin confirms, the show empowered her, and she found the nudity liberating. “It’s nice to take everything off and be that vulnerable,” Wellin concludes.
Nevertheless, playwrights and directors I interviewed generally agreed on one thing: “It’s a huge thing to ask of actors,” declares Keith Bunin, author of The Credeaux Canvas, a play that includes an extended nude scene between a male artist and a female model. He figures that if the audience is commiserating with the actors, then the nudity can become disruptive to the story. In Bunin’s play, the characters feel awkward about being naked together, and so the audience gets to share the same awkwardness that the characters are going through. “Nudity can make the audience feel less safe. That could be good or bad, but you have to be aware of it,” Bunin cautions.
“It’s a lot to ask if it’s used badly,” believes Itamar Moses, author of Completeness, which premiered at California’s South Coast Repertory in 2011 and had a follow-up staging at NYC’s Playwrights Horizons. “If the nudity makes sense to the actors, they are generally on board,” he says. Moses uses nudity in Completeness to juxtapose physical revelation with emotional revelation. “Once the physical nudity is behind them, the characters engage in emotional nakedness, and they find that this is more scary. Emotional nudity is always harder.”
“Michael Cerveris was game and very brave,” says playwright Sarah Ruhl about the lead actor in her 2009 Broadway production of In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, who ended the play naked in a liberating moment of intimacy with his character’s wife. But Ruhl confesses that she has had actors decline projects by saying, “I can’t speak poetry and be naked at the same time.” To which Ruhl’s response was a very supportive, “Good for you.” But Ruhl was surprised when some New York audience members purported to be “horrified” and “scandalized” by the nudity in her play. British audiences had an easier time with it, according to Ruhl, and the same seemed to be true in several other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, when the play was performed at the Wilma Theater in 2011. Indeed, the play was one of the most-produced works at professional theatres nationwide during the 2010–11 and 2011–12 seasons.
Philadelphia audiences clearly demonstrated comfort with naked actors at the 2012 Live Arts Festival, where nudity was all the rage. Roughly a third of the festival’s offerings included scenes of extended nudity, two of which were comprised of all-female casts: Charlotte Ford’s outrageous and hilarious Bang; and Young Jean Lee’s much-acclaimed wordless dance-theatre piece Untitled Feminist Show, which premiered in 2012 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and will be seen at Pittsburgh’s Warhol Museum in March, before heading to Seattle’s On the Boards and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in April. While both shows share the extensive use of female nudity, the effect could not be more different. Ford uses the naked body as an exploration of female sexuality, while Lee’s piece is avowedly asexual.
Lee describes her show as an “expression of joy,” and she feels that expressing joy is ultimately “more vulnerable than nudity.” She was struck by the marketing campaign for the Broadway show Rock of Ages, which used the slogan “Nothin’ But a Good Time.” Lee says she too wanted to create a “good-time” experience for an audience, but she has received criticism that her piece is “too much fun” and “should be more disturbing.” Perhaps the word “feminism” in the title is misleading to a portion of the audience. “People associate feminism with conflict,” Lee notes. But to her, joy is feminine—and Lee’s company members agree that performing the piece is a joyful experience. One performer remarked in a talkback, “I have fun dancing naked.”
In Charlotte Ford’s hilarious Bang, three women, including Ford, are inexplicably transported to a live sex show, and find themselves obliged to provide pleasure for the audience. The characters take command of the situation, however, and use it as an opportunity to explore their own sense of pleasure. Bang employs some of the most daring uses of audience participation I have witnessed in a theatre. At one point, Ford reveals a toy lioness conveniently affixed to her groin, and asks an unassuming audience member to feed it and stroke it.
“I’ve always had to make myself grotesque to be funny,” says the fearless Ford. Her impetus for Bang was to see if she could amp up the comedy while being sexy at the same time. Judging by the howls and guffaws I heard when I saw the show, she succeeded with flying colors. She and her two collaborators, Sarah Sanford and Lee Etzold, originally conceived the piece with absolutely no nudity. But in rehearsal Sanford naturally presumed, “So we’ll be naked, right?” Ford’s response spawned the central tagline for the show’s marketing campaign: “It just made sense to be naked.”
The most outrageous segment of Bang comes when Ford’s character discovers she can leave the theatre and decides to go for a naked stroll on the streets of Philadelphia. We follow her nude promenade on a video screen. “This was supposed to be a live feed every night,” Ford explains of the pre-recorded segment, but she became daunted by the challenge of avoiding getting arrested night after night. “I imagined facing a prison sentence and a fine,” Ford says, “and all I could think was, ‘Would the fine be tax-deductible as a business expense?’”
We have obviously come a long way since the Ziegfeld Follies, when scantily clad women were exploited and paraded in front of an audience by men for monetary gain. Young Jean Lee and Charlotte Ford are two women who have elected to employ naked women onstage, not for the gaze and delight of men, but for the exploration and enrichment of women. They have liberated the female body from its context of male objectification, and encourage the audience to engage in its celebration as defined and driven by women. What would Flo Ziegfeld say about that?
Does nudity in theatre sell? “If you’re Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room it does,” playwright Moses says facetiously, referring to a notorious 1998 Broadway production. “But you have to be pretty twisted if you’re rushing out to see Completeness because of the nudity.” When the Writers’ Theatre, in the northern suburbs of Chicago, presented David Cromer’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, they designated the front row “The Desire Seats,” which offered unfettered sightlines to a nude scene between Stanley and Stella. “We threatened to charge more,” jokes associate artistic director Stuart Carden. The production enjoyed a sold-out run for 15 weeks—“our biggest box-office success in our 20-year history,” Carden confirms. “The Desire Seats were always filled.”
Ford is convinced that nudity in theatre does sell, and she has no quarrel with it. “If nudity gets you to see it, awesome,” she says. “Everyone loves looking at naked people. There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you come expecting the strip-club experience, you’ll see that it’s not like that. And it’ll probably be good for you.”
Watching naked performers in a context divorced from sexuality or titillation, as Lee’s Untitled Feminist Show asks its audience to do, is an eye-opening experience. For me, Lee’s piece forced an acknowledgment of the vulnerable, mortal humanity of the women onstage, which challenged me to become hyper-aware of the narrow lens through which I view most people in the mundane world.
Some theatre companies in America, especially those outside urban enclaves or in socially conservative communities, undoubtedly feel that they cannot afford to challenge their audiences in this way—that nudity is and must remain off-limits. But audiences who are most inclined to resist a challenge are sometimes the very audiences who are in most urgent need of being challenged. Do we really serve them best by catering to their own limitations? By the same token, how essential is it to risk putting an institution in peril by coaxing its audiences to step outside of their comfort zones?
Personally, I remain wary of those who categorically refuse to explore any aspect of the human condition. Some refuse to attend plays that contain nudity; others would prefer never to hear certain words spoken aloud. Some would like to avoid certain political points of view; others would prefer to be shielded from expressions of religious dogmatism or discussions of sexual orientation. By allowing audiences to avoid that which makes them uncomfortable, do we become complicit in tolerating intolerance?
Ken Kaissar is a director and playwright whose play A Modest Suggestion ran last May in New York, produced by the Apple Core Theatre Company. He teaches playwriting and theatre history at Richard Stockton College and Rider University in New Jersey.
*In 2016, years after this article was published, Darrell Cox and Chicago’s Profiles Theatre were the subject of a thorough investigation and exposé into a well documented pattern of abusive behavior, and subsequently closed.