What is it about this town and public nudity? Whether it's excursions to Hippie Hollow, frat-boy streaking hijinks, clothing-optional apartment complexes, the abundance of strip clubs, or punk escapades down at Emo's (Ignorance Park, this means you), Austinites do an awful lot of stripping down to the altogether. Is it the music? The beer and pot consumption? The hippie legacy? The heat? Pick your rationale; the end result is that folks 'round here love to shed their clothes. This local spirit of au naturel carries over into the theatre community, where actors frequently get naked onstage. Just scan this paper's theatre listings and more weeks than not you'll come across at least one "Warning: Nudity" proviso.
From the audience's point of view, this theatrical exhibitionism can come off as scary, sort of noble and impressive, possibly narcissistic, occasionally pretentious. But it has different connotations for each of the numerous nakedness-prone artists, actors, and stage directors in town, and they approach undressing onstage with a wealth of nuance which may surprise you.
Most believe that used poorly, the nude body is just another pointless prop. Used effectively, however, nudity can get laughs, make an audience nervous, turn people on, turn people off, provoke and reveal assumptions about power and sexuality, humanity and death, and be either an awkward or incredibly satisfying, even fun, experience on the part of the performer. What follows are a few tales from the full-frontal front.
Fellow Monk Paul McCollough claims that his cohorts in the improv comedy troupe are perpetually setting him up to get naked during the Monks' weekly shows at the Velveeta Room (though he often covers himself modestly with his hands). "They know I'm not afraid to get naked and they exploit it," he says. "Sometimes it's a cheap joke, but it always gets a laugh," especially from the Sixth Street crowd, who are usually, um, "a little inebriated." That doesn't mean the stunt always goes smoothly; a couple of weekends ago, McCollough decided to run out fully nude, as in "Improv this!" (he calls it "revenge nudity"). Unfortunately, the plan backfired because he couldn't get one of his boots off in time.
Knicely's second nude performance was at UT for his MFA. As a backlash to his Mormon upbringing and a purification ritual through which he stopped eating meat, a naked Knicely (again fully shaved but partically hidden behind a table) ate rats. Then, a couple of years ago, when Knicely was with the now-defunct troupe Circus of Fools, he did a performance piece in which he was strapped to a ramp that was raised at the very end of the performance. A sheet fell off him and he was revealed naked except for a bunny mask.
Most naked performers make a distinction between sexual nudity and nonsexual nudity. It can be argued that one is always, inevitably, sexualized by being onstage, on view. Knicely insists that for a man, it's easier not to be eroticized, but audiences still tend to slip into an evaluative process. Whenever you meet someone, you think, "Is this person interesting? Do I like him?" This process is amplified by performance because you can sit back in the dark and go through all the stages of considering the person with no obligation to keep up appearances yourself. Knicely's naked body is usually in a "stressed-out" state when he's performing (as when he was filmed nude being buried alive). This is part of an effort to make people "edgy rather than horny," to shock people to the point where he has their attention, but they're no longer going through the process of checking him out.
Asked why performance artists tend to get nude so much, Knicely replies honestly: "because it's hard to fall asleep when there's naked people." If performance art is generally about making "something different" happen, nudity can be a tool to, in Knicely's words, "be psychologically intense and see what shakes loose." Plus, Knicely feels it's noble to do whatever it takes to communicate: "I'll do anything to get my point across. Being uncomfortable is okay; it's good if it will lend more strength to the work." Whatever the context, Knicely says, "If you're going to do it, you better do it well."
Davenport left stripping because she was turned off by the nature of the industry: a commercial venture designed to pander to the customer while making as much money as possible. She says that being naked in a sexualized context was ultimately unfulfilling for her because she found it impossible to "do things that aren't pretty." Through performance art, Davenport has discovered a way to look at "the uglier side of life," to use her naked body to show the ultimate commonality of all people, and to express pain and grief.
Davenport admits that in her earlier performance days, she used nudity for shock value, taking the private public for the jarring effect of it. Now, though, she employs nakedness to explore images that are hard to look at, thereby revealing what we like to see and what we don't. She also seeks to challenge our estrangement from our bodies and psyches by making nudity "less of an issue." After all, she says, "we see ourselves nude every day."
Mills, who has done dance and performance art at Frontera and Movements Gallery, is much less philosophical when answering the question "Why do you always take your clothes off when you perform?": "It ain't performance art unless someone gets naked." Besides, he says, he always has something on, even if it is only "blue clay, white paint, or tapioca pudding." More seriously, Mills' definition of performance art goes for a basic human understanding, beyond trappings such as the clothes that define us. In communicating emotions, Mills wants to get rid of the connotations of costume, to "kick people on a human level."
VORTEX is known citywide as a bastion of bareness, with nudity common both at its legion hot-tub parties and in its stage productions. With nudity featured in about 30 of the 140 shows the company has produced or hosted during its 11-year history, VORTEX wins, hands- (or pants-) down, the prize for most onstage nakedness in Austin. The VORTEX folk not only acknowledge their proclivity for clothing-optional theatre, they're not above spoofing it -- at one company fundraiser, company member Matt Patterson was tagged as "the actor that had it in his contract" to get naked in every show. But not everyone in the community is laughing; some have charged VORTEX with using nudity for nudity's sake, for sensationalism and sales, and others have characterized the company as staging thinly disguised porn. At the epicenter of all this controversy is VORTEX artistic director Bonnie Cullum.
To begin with, Cullum thinks the company's reputation for exposed flesh has been exaggerated; after all, VORTEX has mounted more than 100 shows in which performers have remained fully clothed. As for the charge that the company employs nudity more for juvenile titillation than aesthetic purposefulness, she believes the charge to be unfair. "Certainly we have enough things in this world that are about putting up barriers between people and creating things that are going to not be penetrable," says Cullum. "Hopefully with theatre, we are creating a live, experiential exchange with the audience and the actor, energetically in the same space. And yeah, it might make the audience feel something different when the person gets naked and they go 'gasp.' They might feel self-conscious, they might feel excited, they might feel scared, but it's real."
A member of the pagan community, Cullum is interested in melding theatre and ritual to yield a different kind of spiritual performance, emphasizing the "divine aspect of the flesh." Some pagans like to perform ritual "sky-clad" to feel one with nature; one thing company member Chad Salvata tends to do is to "juxtapose the flesh and the machine." It all adds up to experimentation with the body in all its glory.
VORTEX has carved a niche for itself as a theatre willing to experiment, and she feels the rest of the community has benefited from its willingness to push boundaries. Cullum points out that it was a calmer and gentler theatre scene when the VORTEX company made its debut in 1989, and once the more established companies saw that VORTEX wasn't being picketed because of a little nudity, they became less uptight and it helped pave the way for more liberal performance elsewhere in Austin. The comparatively conservative Zach Scott, for example, recently put on Angels in America, which Cullum suggests wouldn't have been likely had there not been an Austin precedent for nudity onstage.
Cullum credits the level of trust and comfort in the VORTEX company and at the Vortex space with allowing the theatre to do nudity a lot and do it well, and to bring in physically explicit artists such as Tim Miller, Karen Finley, and renowned sex-demystifier Annie Sprinkle (who will be back in Austin next summer but who, according to Cullum, "doesn't spread for the world anymore" because she's getting older and has already been there, done that -- something like 10,000 people have seen her cervix). Humanity and compassion are qualities Cullum lists as key to running a theatre, hostessing hot-tub parties, and priestessing rituals, because after all, "Somebody's not going to get naked in an unsafe environment and feel good about it."
According to Fix, there's just something about being naked onstage: "There's something very powerful about it. People get very quiet and still in the face of it, because we don't get to see it a lot in contexts that aren't, like, a stripper bar. It's nice to have that kind of power. I'm just nude, but everyone's kind of like 'ahhhh ...' There's something so powerful and electric when there's a room full of people ... and everyone's energy is focused on you ... and you're in a really vulnerable position. It's chemistry."
Fix's latest project, which finishes its run at the Vortex this weekend, is Heaving Shadows at the Skin Show, a prostitution musical and intimate road-trip story about the psychological effects of being sexualized early. Trant Batey, David Sangalli, and Tommy Vasquez all get naked in the course of the show. Sangalli was giddy about the part because it let him finally try the two things he's always wanted to do onstage: be naked and smoke a cigarette.
While there's a strip-club scene with a scantily-clad Tiana Hux, all the full-on nudity is male. This was a deliberate decision on Fix's part, because, she says, "once you make a woman nude, you call up that whole host of associations" (a short list: earth motherdom, Playboy, and beer-ad billboards). Fix has evoked and played with such associations in the past and will probably do so again, because she sees a richness in the "pussy power" concept that goes beyond the bumper sticker.
For example, Fix recently saw a strip-club performance in which one especially athletic stripper "would grab the bar and go up to the men and put her pussy right in front of their faces and wrap her legs around their necks and one minute the men would be like, 'wahwahwah,' and as soon as she started doing that ... You know when cats get grabbed by the neck? It was like they were looking into the great abyss. That's what nudity does." Startle, shock, remind people where they came from. The great mystery of birth and death, etc.
But it's not always a good thing. One way Fix says it's nearly always misused is in a commercial context, where semi-nude women are draped over everything from cars to food. "We have this physiological response to certain images. Like those late-night pizza ads. I'm not even hungry and I want to order that fucking pizza. I don't even know that person and I want to fuck them." In the B-movie industry, breasts are known as "the cheapest special effect," and even in the loftiest performance, it can be just that. Fix claims that unless you're being purposeful, nudity is just like any other costume, set piece, or prop. In the wrong hands, "it becomes really meaningless and irritating, because you know you're being manipulated. Don't do this fake sexual chain-yanking. It lacks integrity."
And once an image or performance is out in public, there's no telling how it will be perceived or manipulated. One piece Fix did with Tara Vamos was called Butter Breast Licking Doggies, in which the two sat in people's laps and Fix's dogs licked tuna butter off their nude breasts. A photographer from SPIN magazine was in the audience one night and an image of Fix half-naked ran as part of a photo spread on the performers for whom Fix was opening. The photo was run with no name or explanation, and it gave Fix pause about the empowerment of appearing nude. "I felt kind of raped, like they had stolen my work, because as a performer your image is your work. ... It was awesome to have my picture in SPIN magazine, but without my name it becomes almost meaningless, because then I'm just a pair of tits."
Fix, a perennial fan of oddity, says the best use of nudity she ever saw was a few years back while performing at a festival in Berlin. A woman from Chicago who was very large, six feet tall, pear shaped, and scarred, walked out nude and started jumping up and down. Fix started out thinking, "Okay ... " and then the performer started breathing hard and the audience could smell her body, and then she picked up a jump rope. At which point Fix thinks, "Okay, I get it, I get it." But it went on so long there was time to get past that and get to the point of "This is fascinating." According to Fix, "There's a loveliness to that kind of honesty. We all deserve to be loved for our peculiarness."
Compiling this piece, I got to call up several prominent members of the artistic community with questions about how it feels to be naked in public. This is a fun activity, and I recommend it. Inevitably, there is a certain voyeurism in such research, as there always is in seeing people take their clothes off. It's unavoidable. Bodies just happen to be really interesting. Naked body burnout is, however, a reality. Having seen a high volume of flesh-full shows and having had multiple conversations about nudity theory in recent weeks, I can attest to the fact that onstage nakedness gets remarkably less interesting once it becomes a nightly event.
Still, theatrical nudity is completely necessary for certain scripts and in small doses, used wisely and well, it sure can be refreshing. The fact that Austin has plenty of clothes-shedding on- and offstage is a testament to our fair town's role as Texas' enduring liberal bastion, a land of fearlessness, fun, and enthusiasm, all tempered by vastly varied degrees of intellectual justification. So go forth, Austin art folk, naked and proud. Just don't overdo it, lest we get jaded and need to find something else to lend watchability to performance art and that occasional spark of primal fascination to our evenings at the theatre.
The Possibilities runs through April 15 at Robert Mueller Airport. Call 454-TIXS for info.
Monks' Night Out performs every Fri-Sat, 9 & 11pm, at the Velveeta Room, East Sixth & Red River. Call 469-9116.
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