Showin’ What Their Mamas Gave ‘Em

There seems to be a proliferation of nudity onstage these days. I feel like I have seen more exposed flesh onstage in the last six to seven months than I have in all the rest of my theatergoing life. What is up with this? I think it’s a very interesting development, indicative of relaxing social mores, and people (both artists and audience members) being more open-minded about sexuality, among other things. Frankly, I’m surprised I feel this way because, until recently, I usually found onstage nudity to be frightfully distracting. It would take me right out of whatever show I was watching, and I would sit there wondering “Should I look at that person?”, “Are they cold?”, “Do their parents know they’re doing this?”, etc. Clearly, I wasn’t the only person who felt this way. A few recent examples indicate that theatre practitioners are sensitive to such audience discomfort, and are willing to make oogling the actors more palatable for everyone:

  • In Boomerang Theatre Company‘s September revival of The Ugly Man by Brad Fraser, the play’s teenage heroine gets massively turned on after a hired hand on her family’s ranch rips her shirt open and wipes the blood of the person he’s just murdered all over her breasts. Yeah, it was a pretty shocking moment, but more so because of the new information it revealed: namely, the up-to-that-point unknown sexual attraction between those two characters, and their kinky little turn-ons. The nudity turned out to be essential to the plot (and a little chilling, as well).
  • Blue Coyote Theater Group‘s December production of Standards of Decency Project featured a lot of (mostly male) appendages and genitalia flapping in the wind. The point of this project was to explore and challenge conventionally held views of morality and obscenity, and it was interesting to see that no matter how far the nine participating playwrights pushed the envelope, they barely made me (or the rest of the audience) cringe. Which I would say was a good thing. Why? Because, to me, it shows that our collective standards of decency are pretty broad and inclusive. Even the most potentially offensive play of that evening – Matt Freeman‘s “What To Do To A Girl,” in which a male teacher at an all-boys school veers dangerously (and unknowingly) close to objectifying a naked young woman he is using as a study aid for his class – struck me more as humorous social commentary than anything else.
  • The recent revival of Heather McDonald’s Dream of a Common Language by 3Graces Theatre Co. also featured male and female nudity, but of a much more “tasteful” variety: art modeling. Again, crucial to the story because it is necessary for the artist’s work (in one instance), and essential in brokering the peace in a brewing gender/equality war (in another instance). In that aesthetic context, the actors’ birthday suits seemed positively harmless.

It seems to me that artists are finding ways to present onstage nudity that go beyond (but might still also include) pure titillation.

What are your thoughts on this? How do you feel about seeing live beefcake at the theatre? Do you like it or hate it? Could you take it or leave it? Do you think there’s more of it around now than there used to be, or am I just imagining things? Give me the scoop.

2 Responses to Showin’ What Their Mamas Gave ‘Em

  1. Jeff says:

    A friend of mine just got back from London, and saw Ian McKellen in King Lear. After getting over seeing his “well hung” performance, she said that the nudity, although fitting, seemed like it was there for shock value and promotion, much in the same way Daniel Radcliffe is showing off his Hairy Potter…

    I don’t hate nudity in theatre, but I also don’t like it for the same reason: it has to fit the show and be there for a reason. No doubt this is a “duh” for a lot of us theatre folk, but I’m surprised that a fair number of shows that have nudity, have it more for titillation than context. And maybe that’s because, at least in America, we have a very different notion of what it means to be nude in the presence of others, unlike places like Italy.

    I do think that it is more prevalent now, only because it is less acceptable now, thus making it “daring”. We (again, America) have traveled backwards in a sense, because theatre in the 70’s (Hair anyone?) was more “free” than it is now. Maybe because of our litigious nature as a society? Dunno.


  2. Yeah, I agree that necessity is essential when dealing with onstage nudity. Necessity, I think, is what makes it easier for the audience to watch, and for the actors to do.

    Interesting that you think nudity is more prevalent now because of societal regression. To me, the rise of this trend shows that people aren’t as uptight as they used to be about these things. There’s a lot more open-mindedness and permissiveness about it, at least to my mind.

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