Like the stunt artist, the highly trained athlete and the erotic artist, the actor traces a thin line between art and life. The stunt artist risks real injury (even death) to create a spectacle for entertainment. The highly trained athlete performs real feats with real acts of courage discernable by an audience ... and nowadays she/he performs for the pleasure of the audience as much as for personal satisfaction. The erotic artist performs, sometimes with consummate skill, to awaken, stimulate and satisfy sexual desires of the audience. So it is for the actor. Just as the stunt artist, the athlete and the erotic artist are not pretending to do what they do, the actor also should NOT be pretending ... at least if the actor is serious about making a real connection with the audience ...
This is a a deceptive statement and needs clarifying. So let's consider art, life and how it is either representation or misrepresentation.
When a director asks an actor to be nude on stage it can't be assumed this is solely for some clinical aesthetic that suits the context of the play. It could simply be to exploit a superb body. It could be for promotional reasons. It could be because the script contains a requirement for nakedness. Or it could be for more subversive reasons.
Nudity, flesh and sexuality on stage can be like the fleeting images of animistic figures from the dream world of artists and individual audience members. Dreams undercut the norms of culture, society, religion and belief systems of all shapes and forms. In dreams the dreamer wanders naked through some vaguely recognized ordered society only to feel the shame of awakening. The dream is not the construct of social sanctioning, cultural orthodoxy or even the conscience of the dreamer. In this sense, dreaming is subversive activity which sometimes reveals hidden truths and disconcerting observations about the dreamer. So theatre which draws on dream imagery and forms has the potential to challenge and extend cultural, social and personal stereotypes of acceptance and vision. What we accept as truth and our vision of truth can be challenged and subverted through such a theatre.
The naked actor becomes the dream figure exposing the emperor's new clothes of our civil costume. Our social and cultural costume is more than the material with which we adorn or conceal our bodies. It is also the total of our sculptural mannerisms, our daily rituals, our very thought processes.
It follows that the naked act is both symbolic and actual. It is symbolic according to the context of the performance. But it is, more importantly, real because the actor him/herself has to cope with inner processes concerning exposure: ie. vanity, exhibitionism, aesthetics and sexual shyness and even shame (in the classic Adam and Eve sense). The actor has to portray a person that breathes and interacts. She/he needs to be able to find her/his psychological way into the character or role being performed. There is a huge range of thinking on this (see the article on David Mamet's True and False). But essentially, the actor copes with personal tensions that inform the portrayed role. And here we have the blurred line between art and life; between representation and misrepresentation.
Too often actors and directors bypass the real concerns and tensions surrounding the actor on stage in order to achieve a kind of enforced order or absence of chaos. The notorious "nude" scene gains a reputation for all the wrong reasons in mainstream commercial theatre while being under utilized in much alternative and experimental theatre. The result isn't a representation of the human spirit but rather a misrepresentation.
The dreamer, naked and vulnerable, is very similar to the actor. If we allow ourselves a moment to reflect, we will perhaps come to identify with such vulnerability. An audience may also experience ambiguous feelings ranging from lust to wonder to sheer violence. Whatever the case, we must acknowledge the nature of relationship between actor and audience: that same terrifying relationship.
No thought on this subject can be expressed without acknowledging the published works of Antonin Artaud. Some of his ideas and legacy were discussed in Theatre and Eros: Artaud's Legacy (Scream April 2001). In that article, I stated: "Artaud's shock treatment is needed to revitalize and refocus theatre into accepting the erotic nature of performance."
We need to follow Artaud's impulse and seek to bring an awareness of the erotic to the foreground of our practice. While nudity isn't necessarily erotic theatre, there must be consideration of the context where an actor steps out naked into the public arena. Perhaps the actor is comfortable enough. But there will always be a tension in the audience. A contemporary audience will probably not be shocked. However, it will be engaged and probably curious. The voyeurism of any audience will be heightened as the actors body becomes accessible for scrutiny. Will he or she reveal genitals? Is it in good taste or is it simply a vulgar exhibition or strip show bordering on the pornographic?
Unfortunately, religions step in and categorize the naked body into categories for moral consumption. Religious art, for instance, may use nudity (as in Leonardo de Vinci's work and other paintings in cathedrals). However, we must step carefully into hallowed ground when considering nudity with religion. Is the nudity likely to be sexually stimulating? In which case, it is considered morally wrong. Sex outside of heterosexual marriage is akin of sin! Should an image provide an occasion of sin, then the perpetrators should be dammed. Some feminist writing suggests the same (if it be heterosexual stimulation that is). A glance at Andrea Dworkin's home page will indicate a very dogmatic and politically rationalist view of sex, gender politics and gender based artistic expression.
In the realms of film censorship and what is appropriate viewing for the public, great pains are made to separate artistic nudity from sexual nudity ... and the eye of the beholder is winking in admiration of those who go to such pains to separate the two forms of nudity. Is there evidence of "exploitative" nudity? No doubt their skills would be useful in some department somewhere! The problem is that some people find naked feet sexually stimulating while others may find the image of the lips of man a turn on! So what do we ban in the interests of us human beasts without the capability for control of their sexual proclivities?
It's all a matter of controls. If you can socially control sexual behaviour and sexual thought, then you can control a whole population and make it conform to whatever you define as god's wishes. In some instances this results in covering a woman's face in public lest she be beaten to death. Historically, we have seen women being burnt to death for daring to defy the mind of some man's god! Whatever the case, so imbedded in the human psyche is the fear of sexuality that most who will draw exception to these statements will not understand their own subjugation to sexual fear and political control.
So thank god for our dreams! Even the most subservient amongst us is going to dream disturbing dreams that challenge the dominant moral sexual code. Such dreams might even challenge the mind set of a culture that can stone a woman to death for fucking outside of her marriage or even for simply displaying her face or neck in public while that same culture can willingly send children to certain death as they march gloriously across a mine field to martyrdom.
Theatre which dares to touch on such touchy subjects is open to persecution by those practicing cultural denials of the most basic kind. One doesn't have to be a Salmon Rushdie to feel the resultant sledging and persecution that theatre has traditionally suffered. Theatre can be anti-cultural as it attacks cultural complacency and dogmas of all persuasions. Only when theatre challenges cultural orthodoxy can it offer hope and assurance for humanity beyond political expediency .
And so back to eroticism, dreams and representation of the human condition. Theatre that is too respectful of cultural masters risks misrepresentation of human behaviour, instincts and thinking. Ironically, Peter Brook (the greatest of Western European theatre directors in the past fifty years) discovered that only by practicing a multi-culturalism approach to theatre could it seek to be truly universal; offering truthful insights into the human condition that defy cultural tunnel vision and chauvinism. Isn't theatre supposed to be paradoxical and ironic?
In dreams and theatre that is close to dreams, there is the best chance of achieving such an aim. Nudity on stage is a tool that may provide a direct link to the dream reality giving substance to a theatre of challenge and cultural subversion. It is no more or less useful. However, it should not be underestimated as a weapon subverting cultural hegemony. It can be more than a marketing tool for big business involvement in the arts.
Because live theatre is essentially one human being interacting with other human beings, the exposure of one leads to the exposure of the other's vulnerabilities and cultural lock-in. But this requires an amazing energy and commitment to an art form that is itself vulnerable and open to malicious attack. The nude actor is thus a very powerful artistic tool and provides the mechanism for artistic and cultural challenge.