How nudity can change everything

Theater: With `The Blue Room,' Spotlighters' director Bob Russell had to examine how nakedness would affect every aspect of putting on a play.

January 07, 2000|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

Bob Russell's been directing theater off and on for 37 years, but this production is different.

All of a sudden he's giving the actors the right to change scenes if they're uncomfortable, he's got to think in a different way about whether the audience is comfortable, about rules governing auditions and how much touching is too much. You put naked people on a stage, things change.

Not that Russell had to be pushed into directing "The Blue Room," which opens tonight for a four-week run at the Spotlighters Theatre. Quite the contrary. Once the show closed on Broadway early last year Russell jumped into pursuing the rights. David Hare's adaptation of a late 19th-century Viennese play by Arthur Schnitzler was a big hit in New York, what with movie star Nicole Kidman displaying her bare butt and all. Scalpers were reportedly getting as much as $500 a ticket.

"It was the notoriety around it," says Russell, who works as a newsletter writer in Columbia by day and has been directing at Spotlighters for 12 years. "It was the challenge. I wanted to try this. I've never done anything like this."

Neither has the Spotlighters, which has been operating as a private theater group since 1962. The 105-seat basement theater on St. Paul Street has seen some nudity here and there. In "Equus," for example. "Equus," however, is not "The Blue Room," a drama comprising 10 scenes in which a series of couples couple, in which trousers, bras and panties drop as continuously as penalty flags on an NFL Sunday.

"When I got the cast together, I said I want to create some heat on the stage," says Russell. "We do that in four ways." Nudity is only one. There's also that other stuff: acting, sound and light, and costumes.

Some of which people may actually be talking about after they've seen the show. After all, of the play's two hours there might be a whole two minutes of total or partial nudity. Then again, in New York -- a city full of sophisticates, not to mention a selection of live sex shows -- Kidman was bared for less time than it takes to change a light bulb and created a sensation. That Kidman had appeared partially nude in movies before seemed beside the point. Even in these post-modern times of ours, even when you can rent all manner of videos or step into a universe of Internet pornography as easily as type your name, there's something different about a naked person on stage.

For a theatrical director, to paraphrase another play, this means attention must be paid.

To begin with, there were the auditions. Although Spotlighters is an amateur theater not governed by Actors' Equity Association rules, Russell consulted Equity protocol for guidance and learned that in open auditions the director may not instruct actors to remove their clothes. Russell asked the actors at the first call to sign a form saying they understood that "The Blue Room" included scenes of nudity and that they might be required to disrobe on stage.

From the first group of 60 actors Russell called back 22 men and women. The actors decided to do the nude test in a group and began undressing. At this point, as Russell recalls, three or four people said thanks but they'd rather not, and left the theater. From those who remained, Russell chose his five men and five women.

(On Broadway, Kidman and Iain Glen performed all 10 roles. Russell decided instead on a cast of 10.)

A version of Schnitzler's play, "La Ronde" or "Reigen," was performed without nudity by the Vagabond Players in 1977, says Spotlighters spokeswoman Shirley Bell. There was also no nudity in German filmmaker Max Ophuls' 1950 movie version. Schnitzler, who also wrote the book that became Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut," completed "La Ronde" in 1897.

Russell had no question that nudity had to be used. The play is about sex, after all. Nudity would be necessary, says Russell, to convey the notion that "the power of sex is so strong that it sometimes makes us selfish, thoughtless, unkind and maybe even brutal."

Although nudity on stage has become relatively common since the late 1960s, especially in experimental theater, it's understood that the decision to use nudity should not be taken lightly.

"For me there has to be a really, really good reason for it," says Tim Vasen, resident director at Center Stage. "Otherwise it just becomes a distraction. ... You get people who, that's all they see, that's all they know, is that there's nudity."

When he sees nudity on stage as a spectator, Vasen says, he soon starts thinking about whether the actor is comfortable, meaning he's momentarily pulled out of the flow of the play.

In "Gum," which Vasen directed at Center Stage early last year, there's a scene of two Islamic women disrobing to bathe. Their nudity, contrasted with the head-to-toe coverings required of women in their culture, makes a powerful symbol and had to be conveyed. As the two actors were uncomfortable undressing on stage, Vasen let them wear nude-look body stockings beneath their clothes.

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