Being Naked in Front of an Audience
Years before I found myself in Hawaii in graduate school for acting I went to see BUG by Tracy Letts at Pillsbury House Theatre in Minneapolis. I sat a handful of rows away from the stage and as the house lights went down, the lights came up revealing a woman in a hotel room bed, naked.
She was in her forties and had an unremarkable body. But from the minute the lights went up she owned every bit of her exposure. She commanded the audience. At one point I remember thinking that there was no way I could ever do that. I couldn't focus on my job as an actor while being so exposed as, well, myself. I couldn't come to grips with how she could be this other person without the protective guise of a costume. The lines between where character began and actor ended seemed blurred by this blatant nudity.
And yet, the nudity was apropos to the play. It raised the bar between audience and actor, intensifying the contract between the two parties and ultimately providing payoff in the form of a heart-breakingly honest, raw and moving piece of theatre.
In May of 2011, with my graduate career thankfully winding to a close I found myself auditioning for a show that would wind up being my thesis performance.
The same show I'd seen years earlier in Minnesota.
The posters advertising the audition explicitly stated that nudity would be required by the actors cast. And I knew this having seen the show and having read the script. But a little part of my brain wouldn't ingest this information, couldn't take this in even during the audition when the director asked if I was okay with being nude onstage. That knee jerk actor reaction-anything to get the part!!-kicked in and I nodded. Inside, one half of me hollered "hell yes I am!" and the other half bitch slapped me upside the head screaming "are you f****** crazy?!"
Later that evening the director called me to offer me the part of Agnes, one of the lead characters. I accepted before he could even finish his offer. I couldn't remember the last time getting the part felt this good or being this excited for a show. He asked again how I felt about the nudity and I said that I was totally fine, it was cool by me, and blathered on about how we had a long enough rehearsal period to get used to the idea of being naked onstage and this would be an incredible learning experience. The half of me that spoke those words believed everything I was saying. The other half of me got up from the couch, walked into the bedroom, faced my reflection in the mirror and immediately went to the kitchen and poured a double shot of Johnny Walker Black.
I thought about all the roles I'd had up to this point. There was The Blue Room in college when I played "Married Woman" who had an affair with a young man and in an effort to seduce him, showed up wearing a trench coat over a leopard print body stocking. Looking at pictures of that show now, I'm not sure who I thought I was kidding but sexy and seduction require a certain amount of confidence and in those pictures I look as though I'd prefer to be the animal skinned to make the body suit and not the person wearing it.
Then there was Etta Jenks. I'd been cast as Etta my first semester at grad school at a time when I felt like I'd been dropped in the middle of the Pacific Ocean without a life raft. EJ was a strange little play about a troubled young woman who takes off for Los Angeles to be a movie star and winds up in porn. The director of this production had begged me to take my top off in the scene where Etta goes in to a porn audition. I refused. I was so uncomfortable in my body, so unhappy with the way I looked at that time that I couldn't even deal with the costumes that had been designed for the show let alone what was underneath. I was looking to cover up here, not take off. And besides, I'd always said very steadfastly that I would never, under any circumstances, take my clothes off onstage. I'd never be nude for a show. Nope. Not a chance.
The director and I finally came to a compromise. I'd take my top off down to my bra and that'd be it. And I did it. Every night. And every night all I could think was "Oh my god, that girl in the front row is staring at me. She thinks I'm fat." "That guy over there knows there's no way I'd ever pass for a porn star." "This is so humiliating I can't even stand it." I'd curse the light board operator for not bringing the lights down fast enough and each night delay the inevitable shirt lift over my head a little longer in order that I wouldn't have to stand in full view, exposed in front of an audience. Those minutes leading up to and after that moment, I was not in command of the character I was playing. I was completely in my head---absorbed in my own insecurity and fears. It wasn't Etta onstage. It was me. And I was not even close to being nude.
The first thing I did after hanging up the phone with the director of BUG was not share my news with everyone, because the idea of telling my friends and family that I'd accepted a role in which I'd be naked onstage for an entire scene was scarier than when I told them I was going to pursue theatre as a career. Instead I made a plan. If I was going to do this, I was going to figure out how the hell to get to a point where I could walk around naked and not wonder if my thighs rubbed together or if my boobs sagged or whether my belly pooched out. And I had four months to do this and not a damn minute to waste.
The next four months I dedicated to getting healthy. Not just physically either. I had to figure my shit out mentally. The last two years in this program, I'd been surrounded by itty bitty twenty-four year olds who consumed only diet coke and granola bars. This had done a number on my brain and I constantly compared myself to them. It didn't help that my husband at the time reinforced this fear by going ahead and dating a couple of them while we were married so I was attempting to repair some pretty serious damage in a short amount of time.
The summer before the show went up I stayed on the island and my husband went back to the mainland to work. I was alone, for the first time in five years, with nothing but my fierce determination and a handful of Beachbody Workout Videos. I'd wake up in the morning, pop Tony Horton into my DVD player and in a space not large enough to do a puzzle, I'd do push ups on the floor of my living room and then attempt with every ounce I had to do a half of a pull up on the pull up bar hanging from my bedroom door. Back and forth I'd go, living room to bedroom, push ups to pull ups or whatever routine du jour Tony was screaming through my television set. Tripping over cats and slipping on my own sweat for an hour each morning. Then I'd sit on my couch and watch hours of "Intervention", researching my character, memorizing lines and making my way into the world of this play. After a few hours, I'd get up, pop Shawn T into the DVD player and begin sprinting from the wall of my living room to the bathroom door, BRINGING IT when Shawn T screamed at me, huffing and puffing and sweating from a combination of exertion and tropical summer air.
I quickly came to realize that whatever I was working out was not just physical. At the end of the day as I showered to get ready for rehearsal my body would protest, I'd struggle to shampoo my hair with my aching arms, would lean against the shower wall, my legs quivering. But God, I can't remember the last time I'd felt so in my own body, so in tune with my physical self. As I watched my body change, watch the pounds drop and the muscle gain I found myself losing and gaining something else as well. Losing fear and gaining confidence to just be in my own body.
When I teach acting I emphasize the importance of an actor's body as the primary tool for expression. It's ironic because as a performer that has always been my biggest challenge. To find in my own body, another character. To drop the self consciousness and express emotion, tell a story, communicate through my body. It requires a certain amount of willing vulnerability, this physical presence and the ability to drop a guarded nature and be open to give and receive in communication with another. For the first time in my acting career, I was beginning to find that vulnerability through physical strength and slowly start to shatter the walls I'd spent so long building.
Every evening for three or flour hours that summer I was in a theatre with an extraordinary group of artists. We'd park ourselves outside the door of the theatre and leave them there with all their baggage and insecurities and bullshit and not pick them back up again until the stage manager ended rehearsal. I'd never, in all my years of doing theatre, experienced anything like it. It was glorious and affirming and for a girl who was ready to chuck it all and find a new path, was exactly what I needed. This is how it went for four months.
During this time I was meticulous. I wrote down everything I ate, calculated calories burned against calories consumed and was militant about my health. I took pictures of myself in the same bathing suit every week and compared the pictures and my progress. I watched my arms gain muscle and legs definition, I'd look into the mirror and be able to hold my own gaze instead of running from it. I found my focus return to myself, after years of letting it be about someone else. I fell in love with working out and being healthy, loved how strong and capable and confident I finally felt again. I walked a little taller, cared a little less about what others thought of me and for the first time since moving to the island felt like this show might make all the pain of the last two years worth it.
When we were a month out from performances, the other main character and my partner in nudity-Peter, and I began shedding clothes at the beginning of rehearsal. For the past month in rehearsal I'd been wearing the shortest shorts I could stomach and the tightest tanks I could find in an effort to train myself to get used to wearing very little. At first I couldn't get past what I imagined I looked like to everyone else, and feared what I thought they saw. That fear, that preoccupation translated onstage. When I was in my head like that, Agnes, my character was nowhere to be found. She couldn't be. There was no room for her. But slowly as I got used to wearing less and depending more on her to come through, she did. She'd show up and suddenly, without warning, I'd be gone. At times it was an out of body experience, riding that line between conscious control and unconscious creativity. I understood finally what it meant to be a conduit, to let myself be present enough to be safe and protected but to ultimately give myself up to tell a story that wasn't mine.
The more that happened, the less I began to care about the clothes, the nudity and the fast approaching date the director had set to work the nude scene. However, the day the stage manager locked the theatre door, placing a "Closed Rehearsal" sign outside, I was so nervous I thought I'd throw up my heart. The fluorescent lights in the theatre were unflattering to say the least, the proximity from front row of seats to the stage was less than a foot and I realized, perhaps for the first time, that all these fully clothed people were going to be looking at me naked. As an actor I'd always been told when nervous to imagine all the people in the audience naked, in an effort to make your audience vulnerable to you, to gain control and the power in the relationship. What the hell was I sposed to do now? That simply wouldn't work, my messed up brain said, to imagine all of us naked together was just weird and suddenly I was flooded with twice the vulnerability and nerves.
Peter, a young and handsome man, shed his clothes so fast you would have thought they were on fire. He strutted around the stage, no qualms about what anyone thought about his naked body. I stood by the bed and, as fast as I could, whipped my tank and bra off, and jumped out of my shorts. I dove for the bed and drew the covers up to my neck. I knew I was safe until the scene began and then I'd have to be up and moving around the room in all my glory for the duration of the twenty minute scene. I prayed that Peter would forget his lines, that we could remain in the safety of the bed, that the power would go out, that a tsunami would hit, that anything would happen to keep me from having to do this. But of course, that's not how it works.
The nude scene centers around Peter's "discovery" of bugs on his body, in his bed and in Agnes's motel room after spending the night together. It's not a sexy scene as the two drug and alcohol riddled characters search for bugs. It is comic and sweet as the two are revealed to be deeply vulnerable, flawed human beings who are looking for what many of us look for--love and acceptance. As I got up from the bed, a million things raced through my head and I found myself beginning to panic. I took a deep breath, looked at Peter who was deeply focused on a "bug" and thought "C'mon Agnes, get your butt over here." And God love her, she did. She showed up and pushed me out of the way and before I knew it I was bending over the bed, searching for invisible bugs, my big ol' white butt waving to the audience and suddenly, without warning, I. DIDN'T. CARE.
To my shock, this scene became my favorite to perform. The more I let Agnes do the talking, the more the humor came out and the scene, and though always initially about the nudity for the audience, it quickly shifted to the very human and very relatable experience of the two characters onstage. The liberation and freedom of standing nude in front of hundreds of people, some of them my peers, some my professors, some my own students was exhilarating. Because while in my mind it wasn't ME who was nude, but Agnes, the part that was me was there, that was naked and loving it was the brave, confident, talented part of me that had been hiding for far too long. I took all my clothes off and stood, very vulnerable and exposed in front of a lot of people who'd put me through the wringer, who'd hurt and betrayed me, and who I knew didn't really care a lot about me. And in doing so I reclaimed a hell of a lot of myself.
There was a learning curve for me though. As someone who didn't really spend a lot of time naked previously, I had no flipping clue where to put my hands when I stood, naked. Had no idea how to stand, for that matter. Had no idea how to drink wine out of a coffee mug leaning against a dresser. But again, when I worried about it I looked weird--a freaked out naked girl crossing and uncrossing her arms and her legs in an attempt to hide what's obviously there-- I looked like a freaked out naked girl and not like Agnes. When I calmed down and let her take over, she did. With abandon and gusto. Agnes didn't give two shits about being naked. She loved it. She leaned against that dresser all come hither like and sipped that coffee cup wine like it was the sexiest thing a gal could do. She wagged her butt and moved through the space like she owned it. For all of Agnes's other issues, she lived in her body and had no hang ups about doing so.
There were people who wouldn't come see the show. Whether it was the nudity or language or difficult content, I don't know. I suspect that had distance not been an issue my family and friends back home (with a few exceptions) would not have come to see the show despite the fact that I'm deeply proud of my performance and the show itself. And before this experience I understood why, understood how embarrassing and uncomfortable it may be for friends and family. But as many of my trepidatious students found out, the discomfort lasted only seconds, before the scene drew them in. If we as actors do our job right it's not about the nudity, and never will be.
What I learned from this experience was that as cliche as it is, your body does not define you. It's not reflective of your intelligence or sense of humor or kindness or heart. It's a container for all that and yes, admittedly I've had many a hang up about my container in the past, been subject to the crazy societal demands on women but I no longer let it define me. And a body is just that--a body. We've all got them and for the most part, we've seen all the parts the external body has to offer. The size of your boobs, the flatness of your belly, the tone of your legs, none of that has anything to do with who you are. We place such importance on our physical aesthetic, work so hard at the gym and watch what we eat that sometimes the work on the internal falls by the wayside. Maybe every time we do cardio and work out our heart, we should think about exercising it emotionally as well. Expand our capacity for love and acceptance of ourselves in order to do so for others.
I had tried to lose weight in the past, had resolved myself on countless January firsts to shed some pounds, to get into shape but like many people, the resolve wouldn't stick. It wasn't until I was faced with exposing myself, physically, mentally and emotionally that I found the drive and desire to really attempt change--from the inside out. And when those four months were up, when the show had closed, I kept the workouts, I kept the healthy lifestyle. I am no longer militant about it, but I recognize and respect that change is worth holding on to.
Being nude onstage forced me to come to terms with my physical self. With my mental and emotional self. There was no other choice. I needed the role to graduate, and in order to perform the role I had to be nude. Had to be brutally honest with myself about my own hang ups and insecurities and had to face them dead on. And only when I did that was I able to do the thing I'd travelled thousands of miles to do--- to tell stories, in a compelling and honest way.
By holding the mirror up to myself and being able to accept what was reflected back to me, I could "hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."