In the Spotlight: Nudity and Performance

Performance theorist Richard Schechner on the contradictions of “nakedness”:

“Nakedness reverberates in apparently contradictory directions. A naked baby, a naked corpse, a naked person asleep. A naked prisoner running a gauntlet of truncheon-wielding concentration-camp guards. Dreams of being naked alone among a crowd of the dressed. Naked and seductive; hundreds of naked people sunning on a Vancouver beach; films of naked lovers; pornography. Medical films. From innocence and helplessness, to vulnerability and the inability to defend oneself, to confusing images combining vulnerability and sadomasochism. From eroticism to clinical detachment. Also nakedness implies a public event: To be naked with no one watching is to adumbrate a process that needs another’s acknowledgement. Nakedness is a social condition. If nakedness indicates vulnerability, it also can indicate imperviousness.”

Schechner wrote this in or just before 1974, when his Environmental Theater was first published. In his chapter “Nakedness,” and indeed throughout the book, he continues to explore firsthand the fissures and clashes among aspects of nudity as they pertain to stage performances, happenings, and actors’ workshops. The cultural climate in the US was quite different then, but to my mind, he links nudity too exclusively with exhibitionism: this is something that depends on the person, the context, and other variables. But it is certainly true that many actors find an easy affinity with nudism (if not naturism) because of the relationships they learn to cultivate with their bodies and because of their familiarity with being seen.

I find especially interesting the last part of the text I cited above: “Also nakedness implies a public event: […] Nakedness is a social condition. If nakedness indicates vulnerability, it also can indicate imperviousness.” Schechner goes on to elaborate anthropological examples of “imperviousness,” such as tribal men preparing to battle wearing only warpaint. One could say the same of modern-day urban protesters such as the World Naked Bike Ride participants, animal cruelty protesters, and many others who are in some ways actors in a performance or happening: maybe they’re not under a spotlight, but they’re certainly out in the public eye. Nude (or only body-painted), they are vulnerable, but in another sense they are empowered, ennobled, impervious. They embody a nude modality of fighting, of making demands, of literally testifying (ancient practice of exposing the scrotum or the breasts as a kind of oath) the conditions of their naked humanity. Perhaps therein lies the difference between somebody being on exhibit–such as nude actors on a stage or nude participants in a happening–and somebody being an exhibitionist. The latter is merely a narcissist, the former, a humanitarian.

Schechner, Richard. Environmental Theater. New and Expanded Edition. New York: Applause, 1994. pp. 87-88.

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