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Naked on Stage

Wednesday, 23 July, 2014

Words by Josiah Lulham
Photography by Zoe Efron

Recently I appeared in a performance in which I was to appear naked on stage in a gay orgy sequence running for approximately fifteen minutes. Theatrical nudity is a difficult thing to get right, both in practice and performance. I reflect on it here as an actor—not a director—because I believe my experiences are important as they are not unique, but are likely quite common. Furthermore, the material this show ‘dealt with’—ranging from sexual violence and humiliation to homoerotic lovemaking—was handled poorly both in rehearsal and performance, and neither the nudity nor these confronting moments in the show were handled with much sensitivity or consideration for those performing or viewing.

Before I get into too much detail, it is worth acknowledging that I will be referring to instances of simulated sexual violence and simulated sex.

When I joined this production three weeks out from opening night, I spoke at length with the director about why this show was being staged now. I did not get a straight answer, but I was told that I would not be appearing in the orgy sequence or naked on stage. Later on, at a rehearsal that ran late into the night about eight days from opening night, I was ‘put’ in the orgy scene. No request was made. It was just, “and Josiah, I want you behind the couch.”

This scene had the majority of the cast on stage—14 out of 15 people—all naked bar a pair of black socks and sock suspenders. The cast was primarily male, with a total of only two females.

The orgy scene was made up of about five smaller sequences, each of which involved stylised simulated sex, some of it oblique and some extraordinarily graphic. The sequence in which I was most involved was the finale of the scene, in which a champagne bottle was—and I am expressing this indelicately to ensure you understand both the nature of the scene and the show—shoved into a man’s arse.

This sequence was not put together in its intended performative form until three days prior to opening night. At the time of rehearsal I had been with the production for approximately 15 days and was still getting to know most of the cast members. For this sequence I was required to lie down next to another man, underneath a third man who was on all fours above us, behind which was yet another man inserting the bottle. My legs and that of the man lying next to me were then to be lifted up by other actors, who would feign penetrating us, creating a symmetrical and (possibly) compelling theatrical image.

We rehearsed clothed, but we would be naked on stage. I could not help but think about the would-be nudity of the group and having to be comfortable constantly touching and being touched—manipulating and being physically manipulated—by other cast members. The director, in rehearsing these scenes, focused solely on the physical images being created, with crude asides shared in by the actors about penetration and nudity, creating what I felt to be a strangely non-communicative workspace that was increasingly boisterous and masculine.

When I was later asked to kiss the man I was laying next to in this sequence, I became uncomfortable. On reflection I was probably uncomfortable the whole time. Yet I did not allow myself to consciously acknowledge it, instead working through the scene hoping I would become comfortable as we rehearsed. However, with my focus on the nudity and the physical closeness with the other actors, I hit a moment of mental overload when thinking about the kiss. It was already too much to take in, and I was not mentally prepared.

At the time, my way of expressing my discomfort was to immediately say, “No, I’m not doing that”. I said this in such a way that I felt I was having to make a joke and apologise for my discomfort. I was confronted because I did not feel as though I had a lot of control, and the space in which we were working was not one of trust and open communication. I felt extremely uncomfortable expressing discomfort.

This was not the sole unpleasant rehearsal experience in this production, but I think it is representative of a larger problem within the production. The lack of opportunity for communication in the development of such theatrical images is indicative to me of an unsafe rehearsal space. In my opinion, the director—a man with thirty years of experience whose only attempt to create a safe rehearsal space was the use of the phrase ‘respect your fellow actors’—should have the experience and the knowledge to know better.

Not being a director, or even someone who is often subject to experiences like this, perhaps I am not the most appropriate person to write this article. I also do not presume to have any conclusive solutions to the problem posed. However, my hope is that it will encourage a conversation among young theatre makers, especially those involved in student theatre, about how to approach difficult material and how to establish safe rehearsal spaces. These should be environments in which every persons’ physical and mental safety is considered; in which boundaries and mental blocks are discussed; and in which one is always aware of why such risks are being taken. Without an environment that fosters communication and trust between actors and directors, phrases such as ‘respect your fellow actors’ are virtually meaningless.

Josiah Lulham is a former Creative Arts Officer and was Co-Artistic Director of MUDFest 2013.