Naked on the stage

"In the annals of naked New Zealand theatre, the story of the woman who stole the hunky late actor's smalls is legendary."
"In the annals of naked New Zealand theatre, the story of the woman who stole the hunky late actor's smalls is legendary."

KEVIN SMITH was in bed when his underwear went missing.

Halfway through a nude scene in an Auckland production of The Blue Room and a woman in the front row leapt on stage and made off with his discarded underwear.

"I'd like to say she was spectacularly tackled by the usher and brought down in a heap of bouffant hair and Jockey underpants," says fellow actor Danielle Cormack. "But I was on stage and trying to continue with the play. It happened so quickly... there was nothing else we could do, we just kept going."

In the annals of naked New Zealand theatre, the story of the woman who stole the hunky late actor's smalls is legendary.

Cormack, coffee in hand as she sits in the spring Wellington sun, is recalling the incident while thinking about a sex scene she'll film in two days' time. The actor stripped bare - again and again.

"It seems every production I've ever been part of I've had to become naked. I would never say I've got used to it. But I guess if that's part of the project and it's serving the story and being in that predicament or situation or state of undress is actually helping tell the story, then it's not such a big deal for me.

"I've not yet met or read about someone who works in this profession who has said they are 100% fine or comfortable with it. You have to have a lot of trust in the people you're working with. That's one thing I do know."

Last week, in a rehearsal room at the top of a set of precarious stairs on the side of the old Silo Theatre, Paolo Rotondo and Charlie McDermott took off their clothes and considered how to kiss. Two straight men, preparing for their first full-frontal nude sex scenes in the upcoming production The Little Dog Laughed.

It's the story of a movie star and a rent boy; of public relations trouts and gossip girls; and of two men who get naked - and fall in love.

"I'm motivated by the idea of having the balls to do it," says Rotondo, 37. The former Shortland Street actor gives good soundbite. But he's serious when he says: "I'm scared, totally."

Nudity in New Zealand theatre is not new. In 1975, Wellington police investigated an indecency complaint about a Downstage Theatre performance of Equus - the play about a young man's religious and sexual fascination with horses. No charges were laid and, allegedly, at least one member of the vice squad signed on as a friend of the theatre after seeing the play (recently re-made famous by a naked Daniel Radcliffe - otherwise known as Harry Potter).

By the 1980s, it was all Ladies Night and Steaming, with ensemble casts that included everyone from Marton Csokas, Michael Galvin and Geraldine Brophy getting their gear off for laughs. In the 1990s, Eryn Wilson and Glen Drake went on stage and pretended to inject heroin into their penises in the play-of-the-movie-of-the-book Trainspotting. Michael Hurst was photographed wearing nothing more than wings to promote The Holy Sinner and a naked Jed Brophy embraced Cormack and Larissa Matheson in Skin Tight.

Foreskin's Lament, The Graduate - even Romeo and Juliet - have required Kiwi actors to go kit-less. The wonder is that Rotondo has made it this far as a fully clothed fulltime actor.

"I auditioned for a play once that had nudity in it. They said `Are you prepared to take your kit off? You may as well get it over and done with now'. I got the part, and then I didn't want to do the play any more." That was a decade ago. "I wasn't ready for it... I wasn't mature enough as an actor."

Let's face it, he says, "Everyone will have a look. And you should. You look at people's eyes, you look at people's bodies. And Charlie's a handsome young man ..."

Co-star Charlie McDermott, 25, gets the bulk of the naked work. At least a page of dialogue's worth, he reckons.

"I think, from a career point of view, it's something everyone goes through. Whether you're Ian McKellan [in King Lear] or Daniel Radcliffe doing Equus in London. I haven't done it in front of an audience, but I think it will be an incredibly awesome moment in my career.

"I remember as a young actor, going `oh, I don't know if I'd do that, the script would have to warrant it'. New plays come out, and the actor is nude the whole time and it's just gratuitous - with something like this, it's such an incredible text, it all arises out of something happening between us. It's not as confronting."

In the 1980s, Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School ran a class in which students were segregated by sex and invited to "break the barrier of being nude in front of each other".

Why? "I have no idea," says Jonathon Hendry, current head of acting. "It's certainly not happening now."

The school's graduation season kicked off at the start of this month with Sarah Kane's Blasted. Predictably, perhaps, it included nudity. Hendry says students "wanted to participate, wanted to take part and were happy to do that".

It's all about context, says Hendry. Drama students are encouraged to talk about roles that challenged their views on violence, sexuality, intimacy and morality. "The choices they make will affect their ability to work positively and negatively. We want to empower students to read context well, to feel they are in charge of the situation and not being exploited.

"We would certainly not force a student, for example, to experience being nude on stage as part of their learning."

And audiences? "The reaction to nudity on stage... is almost like a litmus test of social mores."

Veteran actor Ray Henwood appeared in the infamous Downstage version of Equus.

"There was nudity, but it was brilliantly lit. Nobody really remembered it was a nude scene because it was so integral to the piece. But that moralistic approach was one that did the show huge favours.

"I still think people realise gratuitous nudity."

Welsh-born Henwood says the New Zealand situation was never as bad as the United Kingdom. "In my youth, just after the war, the rule was they could be nude on stage as long as nobody moved. They could have tableaux, but nobody could move and the lord chancellor vetted all scripts."

A Short History of Censorship in New Zealand records that there was no law specifically aimed at censoring the content of theatrical productions and other live performances until the 1961 Crimes Act, which outlaws the distribution or exhibition of indecent matter at a show or performance (a 1972 attempt to prosecute the promoter of the rock musical Hair under the relevant section of the act which carries a maximum penalty of two years' jail was unsuccessful).

When Rotondo and McDermott take to the stage next Friday, audiences will be warned The Little Dog Laughed is a show that contains "nudity, ribald humour and scandal-du-jour".

Rotondo's sister has already confirmed she won't be attending. "We're really close. She's like, `I don't want to see him nude.' And I'm fine with that."

He thinks despite six solid weeks of working out and watching what he eats and constantly checking himself out in mirrors "there's a little bit of a big deal made out of nudity. It's like painting, there have been nude people in paintings forever".

The play is directed by Shane Bosher. It's his third to feature full-frontal nudity.

"There's an assumption that it's there for titillation or whatever," says Bosher.

"That's certainly not been my experience, in the work we've done."

The audience reaction, he says, is often as interesting as the actor's performance.

"Take Me Out, for example, was set in a baseball team's changing rooms. There were seven or eight naked guys on stage at the same time. The audience members who were there for a titillating experience were so exposed at that moment that nobody was looking below the shoulders!"

* The Little Dog Laughed, October 24-November 15, Herald Theatre, Auckland.

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