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Is sex, nudity, and body objectivity okay in theatre?

Sex sells. But is that reason enough to ask an actor to perform nude on stage? Nudity is a powerful tool in art, but how does one ask for, and give informed consent? In this age of digital media, all forms of art are more accessible: whether that be clips on YouTube, prints on Instagram, or just plain piracy. “Art is for Everyone” has good intentions, but if you are required to physically bare all to the world, perhaps the exclusion of some viewers is necessary to clarify the blurred lines between what is acceptable and what is not.

This is particularly relevant in theatre. While explicit content in film and TV may be more widely distributed, the actual performance is in front of a professional crew. Screens add a degree of separation, a physical fourth wall, making it potentially simpler for all involved to distance themselves from the act. In the flesh, however, it can be much more intimidating for both the actor and audience. After all the appeal of theatre, concerts and live shows, compared to a recording, is that feeling of intimacy. Does this imply that if nudity enhances the closeness of the overall experience, it is justified? Not necessarily. It can be argued that if the subject is sexually explicit, then yes, full-frontal nudity has an undoubtable impact that no abstract movement or implicit suggestion could reach. But nudity is not only used to translate erotic themes. Seeing someone undressed can be funny – embarrassing the audience often elicits laughter – or conversely, portray someone at their most vulnerable by quite literally removing all the layers concealing them. But there is a difference between nakedness being a potential artistic instrument and it being crucial to the show. Overuse of anything diminishes its impact, but more importantly, the performer must be comfortable with it.

Rufus Jones commented on his naked performance in Dead Funny in 2017 that he found the experience “powerful”. However, we must consider the experience is first, deeply personal, but secondly, likely to vary between genders. Women are all too often objectified. This is arguably most blatant in the performing arts, obsessed with visual aesthetic, and exacerbated further by nude scenes, whatever the nature. Critiques have historically hyper-focused on women’s naked performances relative to their male counterparts. Yes, sex sells. But often you only need one sex, to sell.

A further problem posed by live crowds is knowing who is there. Its conceivable one may consent to perform nude to a mature, art appreciative audience, but there is no guarantee that will be the case. While of course, it’s impossible to check a member of the crowds’ intentions, could the theatre vet the audience beforehand? Just as psychologists can refuse to see people they personally know in a professional setting, would it be reasonable for actors to ban, for example, an abusive ex, or an overly-obsessed fan, from a theatre viewing? This could be one way to ensure a safer, more comfortable environment.

Pragmatics aside, requiring “scenes of an explicit nature” are, of course, advertised on the callouts, but it feels unfair that actors may lose out on roles because they feel uneasy with the conditions. Regrettably, this will be the case in some situations but it is justified where nudity is key or meaningfully adds to the themes and context of the show. Emily Berrington, whose first performance after drama school involved stripping, said she asks herself “How does [nudity] serve the story?”. In other circumstances where nudity can be replaced or scaled back, it's harsh to penalise artists for not consenting to explicit content. When it is used superfluously to increase sales or just for the sake of nudity – requirement is wrong. 

But it’s just that cut off which is unclear: when does artistic creativity become gratuitous? Hopefully, with the feminist and #MeToo movements highlighting the importance of consent, writers, directors, and producers will become more acutely aware of what is appropriate to ask from actors and the provisions they can put in place to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Nude performance is a compelling symbol – but there must be a discourse and thorough consideration about when, and how, to use it. 


1 reply on “Ethically naked”

Steve Moore says:

The nude scene in Equus was pivotal to the entire play. It would just not have worked without it

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