The Naked Truth About Onstage Nudity

The first act of The Hot L Baltimore ends in a chaotic and hilarious babble, with almost all of the characters talking at once and Suzy, the hooker, dropping a towel to reveal that she’s naked. The young boy, Jamie, is so startled by this that he drops the box he’s carrying down the stairs.

Many years ago, I played Jackie in a production at Boulder’s Nomad Theatre, and I remember that after a lot of discussion, and some negotiation, the actress playing Suzie agreed to appear topless in this scene -- though for only a few seconds before the lights went off. This seemed to me a somewhat mealy-mouthed compromise, but I noted with amusement that in Terry Dodd’s very fine production, currently being staged in the lobby of the Barth Hotel (see my review here), Suzy never strips at all. She’s clad in undergarments as substantial as any 1950s swimsuit.

“Times change,” Dodd observed, when I asked him about this.

In the 1960s and through most of the 1970s, you could hardly go out to the theater in New York without seeing someone naked. Occasionally, actors even engaged in sexual intercourse onstage -- and this wasn’t intended as porn, but as profound and rebellious artistic honesty.

During that time, I went to see the Living Theatre (google them if you don't know who they are) perform Paradise Now . The piece called for actors to swarm the auditorium, mournfully proclaiming, “I am not allowed to travel without a passport”; “I don’t know how to stop the wars”; “I am not allowed to smoke marijuana”; “I am not allowed to take my clothes off.”

“Really?” said George Birimisa, a playwright who was sitting nearby. “I can.” And he stood up and stripped. And so did half the rest of the audience.

Amazing how squeamish we’ve become. -- Juliet Wittman

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