The 1991 case of Barnes v. Glen Theatre inspired one of the most entertaining debates of the Supreme Court, involving both Justice Antonin Scalia imagining a hypothetical gathering of 60,000 people at a show-me-yours convention in the Hoosierdome and a philosophic debate about “high” art, “low” art and the First Amendment protections of each. The case, on whether Indiana’s requirement that dancers wear G-strings and pasties onstage was a violation of the constitutional protections of free speech, is the basis of Arguendo, a work in progress from Elevator Repair Company that will play this year’s Live Arts Festival & Philly Fringe.
It’s appropriate, given the unusual number of high-profile works this year in which nudity is a significant part of the show. In the bigger-budget Live Arts Festival alone, there’s Bang, Untitled Feminist Show, Private Places, Food Court, The Gate Reopened and Arguendo; it’s harder to parse the hundreds of performances in the more DIY Fringe, but there’s at least Rub, Ghost Sonata, I Hate Monologues, Hair and The Big Nude Pinhole Shoot (see p. 18).
In Barnes v. Glen Theatre, the court ended up ruling 5-4 against full-nude dancing, a close decision with a lot of disagreement even among the majority. One of the more intriguing opinions came from Justice Souter, who wrote that although “dancing is inherently expressive, nudity per se is not.” The message, in other words, is not the medium.
There are many people appearing nude onstage over the next couple weeks who would also have some strong, divided opinions on that. The many shows that incorporate nudity run the gamut from feminist subversions of expectations about the naked body to the sort of baby-oil-and-6-inch-heels performance that some would argue makes that subversion necessary.
“We don’t get as naked as some other people in Fringe,” says Gunnar Montana, who describes his dance show Rub (relocated to the Latvian Society after the Dolphin Tavern shut down in mid-August) as an “avant-garde strip universe.” “We have to keep it cute with liquor sales to stay legal.” (Arcane licensing regulations in Philly require dancers to wear pasties and G-strings at any place that serves liquor — hence the odd existence of BYOB clubs like Show & Tel and DayDreams.)
“Full nudity is usually more considered feminist — like, ‘I’m a woman, here’s my body, this is beautiful — I don’t need to shave my bush,’” says Montana. “And that’s fine, I appreciate that very much! But I’ve gotten a lot of flak for this show because it’s more in the entertainment realm of nudity,” he continues. (Though Montana doesn’t appear in Rub himself and his four dancers are all women, he was happy to strip down for the show’s sweaty ads and the cover of this newspaper, and last year was a finalist for Mr. Gay Philadelphia.)
“Both are very effective ways of … feminism, and art through nudity, you know?” Montana says, sounding slightly frustrated, as if he’s gone through this many times.
Rub dancer Fatima Kargbo says she doesn’t understand why people are making this such a big deal. “I feel like just as long as you have a rocking body — the body is beautiful; our bodies are beautiful.”
Charlotte Ford describes the nudity of herself and two female co-stars in her comic Live Arts show Bang as “definitely not about looking hot. At all.” She laughs. “It’s more about, ‘This is what I want, this is my body, and I don’t really give a fuck about what you think about it.’”
Ford, a festival staple, says she’s acted in a couple of productions involving nudity in which she sometimes felt like an object; in Bang, she never does. She credits this to shedding all desire to be found attractive by the audience, which she says has been strangely freeing. In those past roles, she says, “I would feel one thing if I was trying to be pretty, and I’d feel more like myself if I was trying to be funny — so, to put those things together, it feels like you become a more whole person.”
And so Bang, though it is quite sexual, focuses on the desire of the female characters onstage rather than any eyes that might be watching from the audience. The piece is based in clowning (“theatrical clown — not scary, Barnum & Bailey makeup clown”), and the nudity is partially for humor. “It feels … kind of radical, oddly. I’ve never been un-self-consciously doing early-‘90s hip-hop moves while naked anywhere,” says Ford. “Because these characters are clowns, though, it feels like re-appropriating the female body.”
In popular media (even disregarding porn), if there’s a unclothed woman onscreen, she’s almost always there specifically to look good and to turn the viewer on. Fringe audiences, more accustomed to experimental theater and nudity as a statement, are more likely to go in without expecting arousal. Rub performer Courtney Lapresi is particularly interested in this divide.
Lapresi met Montana and Kargbo when they were all dance majors at UArts — during her senior year, she started using her technical chops at strip clubs. (“I was the bad girl,” she laughs. “I was the ballet major that was keeping it a secret — until I competed at a show at Delilah’s and somehow all my friends showed up.”) Having performed many times both on pointe and on the pole, she’s curious about how the respective appreciators of both forms will mix together at the Latvian Society. “The audience that we’re going to have, because I still work in the industry — their experience is going to be very different from someone who goes to a lot of Fringe shows but doesn’t go to a lot of strip clubs. I’m excited to see how my clients are going to feel about my profession, and what I’m trained for.”
Because of the last-minute venue change, Rub had to be quickly amended so that all four dancers will be wearing G-strings and pasties — the shows that go full nude seem to be the ones where the point isn’t to be sexy. It’s not just liquor laws, either. “When you’re stripped down to absolutely nothing, it’s a little more sterile, I think,” says Lapresi. “A little bit of clothing creates more in the imagination.”
Though the goals of Untitled Feminist Show are much different from those of Rub, they do seem to agree on that last point. That’s why Katy Pyle and five other performers (four women and one trans person) are completely naked for the entire wordless hour-long dance piece, minus the bows. “It’s creating this container for people to deal with their relationship to female-born people’s naked bodies without the added suggestion of costumes — which I think create more eroticism than naked bodies,” says Pyle.
One aim of UFS’s copious nudity is to normalize it via prolonged exposure and humor, to gradually have the audience recognize how much about the female form we unconsciously tie to things like porn or fashion, and how long it takes for those assumptions to temporarily fade. Over the two years Pyle’s been involved with the production, she says that’s been her experience as a performer, too. Being naked onstage has become “very… not normal, but much easier,” she says. “It’s just like a jumpsuit now.”
Though their intents vary widely, most of these performers said they ran into some similar surprises about nude staging. There’s the obvious — “We make it 78 degrees in the theater instead of 72,” says Ford — and the less obvious. On one of the first days of rehearsals, a UFS cast member and seasoned burlesque performer “went to the stage manager and said, ‘We need baby wipes; they have to be on the table at every rehearsal,’” says Pyle. Performers in UFS also don’t wear lotion, since given all the ground work, it can leave slippery residue on the floor; someone actually slipped at a dress rehearsal once, says Pyle. Lapresi had the opposite problem while rehearsing the finale of Rub, which Montana describes as “pretty much them drenching themselves in baby oil in this amazing sexual slip ’n’ slide.” “I had a Band-Aid on my knee and I couldn’t — like, you just cannot have anything on,” she says.
“We won’t have any actual naked people in our show — at least, not in this version,” says John Collins, director of Arguendo. The excerpt is a straightforward staging of the oral arguments of Barnes v. Glen Theatre as the court digs deep into freedom of speech. “One of the most interesting things is listening to them try to define ‘dance,’” laughs Collins, who’s listened through many times.
One problem the dissenters mention is that the law permits some types of staged nudity, like in a production of Hair (another Fringe entry this year), while banning others. “To them, this law was making a distinction between ‘high art’ and ‘low art,’ saying that this kind of expression was OK in high art, but not in low art — that, they found objectionable.” The excerpt ERS is showing at the Arden is partly to help them gauge audience reaction to a verbatim re-enactment of a court case — though Collins himself finds Scalia’s endless font of zingers entertainment enough, “it may be hard to resist putting a little naked dancing in there for balance.”
Arguendo, Sept. 16, $18, Arden Theatre, 40 N. Second St. Rub, Sept. 7-22, $20, Latvian Society, 531 N. Seventh St. Bang, Sept. 4-12, Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American St. Untitled Feminist Show, Sept. 19-21, $28-$35, Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.
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