The Bare Facts: No-Clothes Acting at the Naked July Festival
Onstage nudity—the artistic variety, not the Gentlemen's Club kind—is nothing new. Experimental theatre groups in New York's Greenwich Village like the Living Theatre took it all off back in the 1950s, as did the casts of Hair and Oh, Calcutta in the 1960s. Steppenwolf actor Jim True skinny-dipped in full view of playgoers for the 1989 premiere of The Grapes of Wrath, and just recently, in Timon of Athens, silver-fox Ian McDiarmid displayed his well-toned gluteals at Chicago Shakespeare. Despite this, many theatergoers continue to display nervousness at the prospect of National Pastime Theater's multi-disciplinary event featuring art, music, dance and drama centered on the theme of beauty-in-birthday-suits.
For the actors in the two plays slated for this year's Naked July Festival, however, going bare is simply another aspect of their craft. Shrugs Chris Kossen, who—along with Kris Hyland—spends the major part of Cal Yeoman's Richmond Jim lounging in a west village apartment with nothing on but the tape deck that supplies the scene its mood music, "I've worked nude in projects with artists, photographers, painters, sculptors, and never experienced any problems. Kris and I were at ease with each other from the beginning of rehearsals. We touch bases before each performance to 're-bond'—this helps us both to be comfortable getting nude and intimate together."
In Jose Rivera's References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot, Alison Chemers plays an allegorical figure in the style of Federico Garcia-Lorca named Cat, whose sheltered house-bound upbringing is meant to contrast with the free-range amorality of the seductive Coyote, played by Cameron Peart. These animal totems are suggested by scenic artist Gary Shirmer's expressionistic representations, rendered in body-paint applied directly to the performers' freshly-washed skin.
Salvador Dali director Keely Haddad-Null rehearsed the two actresses alone while they acclimated to moving without the physical restrictions of fabric and seams. "[How you hold your body] is very different when you don't have clothes on," Chemers observes, "especially when Cameron and I have to get very up-close and personal with each other. We joked a lot about the nudity, which put us both at ease for getting painted before running our scenes. Neither of us think twice now about taking off our clothes and getting into our 'costumes'. I'd never been one-hundred-percent stark naked in a play before, but now I think that there's nothing more freeing for an actor! I'm a cat showing off for an audience, and that's empowering!"
Have your friends and family seen the play? What do they think about your "wardrobe"? Chemers laughs, "I invited everyone. I'm very lucky that my family and boyfriend are such good sports to come see my shows no matter what happens onstage. Afterward, my dad hugged me, and then said 'I haven't seen you this naked since I changed your diapers!'."
National Pastime Theater's Naked July Festival runs through August 11.
Mary Shen Barnidge
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