This week I’ve been thinking a lot about responsibility.
It is the subject of our upcoming season of Audio Stage, which Jana Perkovic, Kieran Ruffles and I are currently in preproduction for but the horrific attacks in Paris and fascinating Facebook conversation about onstage nudity really emphasized to me how crucial and wide-reaching this concept is in the arts.
I don’t want talk about Charlie Hebdo. I’ve been silent since the attacks happened. I don’t just mean social media silent: for three days I paced my parent’s house, listlessly agonising over four typed paragraphs, which I never posted. My mother kept catching me staring vacantly at bits of wall, my blank page or my muted computer screen. All I will say is that my un-ranted rant, still sitting on my computer ended with this:
“Je ne suis pas Charlie et je ne suis pas Ahmed. Je sues Australienne and I cannot begin to understand the full complexities of this horrific event from where I stand.”
I’m taking a moment.
It is hard to re-set from that but let’s give it a shot.
Okay? Let’s go.
Stage nudity I can talk to.
The essence of the Facebook conversation was that one theatre maker stated that nudity is always gratuitous onstage, always the easy choice and never a necessary one.
Now I don’t mean to attack this one artist. Rather, I think some of what he said opened a very interesting discussion, for whilst his absolutes aren’t likely to get many artists on side – for absolutes are not conducive to art – I have heard similar reservations expressed by many: nudity frequently alienates the audience, removing them from the play and turning the body before them from ‘character’ to ‘actor’ in an instant. We often find ourselves critically scrutinising the naked form, not for physical imperfections but for signs of discomfort.
Here’s the thing: We’ve all seen nudity done badly. We’ve also all seen lighting done badly. And sound. And, let’s face it, acting. The difference is, of course, that doing nudity badly can result in a trauma considerably more serious than the annoyance I feel at seeing a badly focused wash. (But check your washes. Don’t make me get up that ladder for you. Because I will, you know.)
I’ll come back to this. First, let me state how much I love good stage nudity. I am completely opposed to the idea that it is always gratuitous or always the easy choice. I am also opposed to the concept that it should only be used if there are no other options. Few elements of theatre could hold up to such scrutiny and why should they? I don’t believe that artists need to choose any element of their art as a last choice; rather they should ask if it is the best choice.
There is a belief that, because nudity often makes us aware of the actor, rather than the character, that it is devoid of metaphor. I believe this shows a fundamental lack of understanding of both metaphor and how multifaceted theatre is today. Frequently this alienation is exactly what the makers want: to bring you, your pre-conceptions, your discomfort, your little judgmental inner voice and your own relationship with your body into the room with their theatre.
One outstanding example of such a choice is Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It, A One Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy And Little Else. Adrienne performed the show naked from the waist down as she spoke and joked about rape and how comedians (particularly male comedians) talk about sexual violence towards women. In performing half naked, in drinking the entire time and making constant references to her own sex life, she dared us to accuse her of ‘asking for it’. It was a battle cry in the war against victim blaming and sex shaming and a very subtle dig at the audience. As liberal-minded, lefty arts-going types, it is easy for us to distance ourselves from the shitty, lowlifes who would blame a victim for their own victimization. Adrienne crafted her show in such a way that many of the audience were forced to confront their own internalised judgmental voices. She brought us into the room and made us own the ugliest parts of our psyche.
Another example is one of my own play, Yours The Face. (Spoilers ahead if you are planning to catch the Perth or Melbourne season.) In this one-man show, a male performer plays both a middle-aged male photographer and the nineteen-year-old female model he photographs. People relax into this surprisingly quickly. The jarring image of seeing a bearded man perform as a girl is always present but becomes less of a mental dislocation as the piece goes on. About half way through the show, as the relationship becomes messier and the ways in which the photographer objectifies her become more problematic, the actor strips off. His maleness is brought back to the front of our minds and his body is objectified as a woman’s. In that moment he is read as both physically male and socially female. It is an incredibly challenging image and the nakedness of the performer is a big part of what sells this moment.
The Rabble’s Frankenstein was also a stunning use of onstage nudity, not because it removed us from the world but because it allowed us to sink into it. The monster, played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, was left abandoned on the stage directly after its birth, umbilical chord still attached. The nudity of the performer and the duration of her abandonment emphasised the complete disregard the other characters had for her: she was not a being but the unfortunate bi-product of a failed experiment. It made her ‘other’ from the rest of the world and was fierce an induction into human cruelty. Could it have worked with a clothed performer? I don’t know. But I do know that certainly worked incredibly well with the nudity and it intensified my experience of the scene. The image will stay with me for many years.
And nudity can also be fun and silly! Did Trygve Wakenshaw need to strip down in Kraken? Who the fuck cares. The scene was hysterically funny and, as it was a clowning show, I feel that is justification enough.
Look. As someone who used to get my gear off for art, I know more than most how shit it can feel to be made vulnerable for the sakes of someone else’s art and how quickly you can change from ‘Person Comfortable With Their Body’ to ‘Person Totally Demoralised’. But this can also happen to someone wearing clothes.
This is particularly true of artists because we work in highly charged environments. Our work places are more complicated than other peoples’ and require a level of vulnerability that most people never reach in their day-to-day lives. There is never going to be a time when the bank teller will be asked to push his co-worker up against a wall and close his hands around her throat. The retail worker will not need to put her hands in her co-worker’s pants and the barista will not be spat upon. The political lobbyist won’t have to simulate his own suicide and the carpenter can safely assume that she won’t be pinned down by three colleagues today.
As artists, we need to work with an acute awareness of the demands or our world. Sensitive subject matter should always be a dialogue with the cast and creatives. Just because someone has been naked on stage before or performed a sex scene in previous production, does not mean that the process can be abbreviated. The fact that everything and everyone was fine last time is no guarantee that everything and everyone will automatically be fine this time. The burden of responsibility will always be with the facilitator (director, photographer, leading artist, etc.) to ensue that participants feel empowered, validated and safe.
I have fucked up in the past. Most young directors have. Some may not know they have but I happen to have fucked up in such a way that it was undeniable. The fact that both performers were fully clothed and the scene involved no physical violence only serves to remind me how carefully we must tread. It was a lesson (a traumatic one) in just how quickly and drastically a rehearsal room can change and how crucial it is to be across all aspects of your room at all times, particularly when dealing with sensitive material.
As much as I wish I could push the memory of that day back into the darkest recesses of my mind, I keep it present. I remember it frequently and I talk about it with young directors and actors. I recently used it as an example to a room of forty young theatre makers as they took notes. I am determined that this incident will make me a better artist and educator and I hope that, in sharing it, I may save someone the trauma of having to learn the same lesson in their own rehearsal room, at the expense of someone else’s feeling of security.
The reason that our work places demand vulnerability is because vulnerability is the superpower of art. We examine violence, sex and nudity because these are things that need to be examined. We need to press on these wounds, grieve and shout but we also need to laugh at our bodies, to celebrate our bodies and to argue with them. We need to challenge each other, protect each other, mock each other and anger each other. The old adage that art holds a mirror up to society is far too passive. Sometimes, that mirror needs to be smashed. So go on: take your pants off.