At this year's Live Arts Festival, nudity sends a message

In her new show, "Bang," festival veteran Charlotte Ford ponders the question: What happens if you get what you want? It is one of the shows that includes nudity. KEVIN MONKO
In her new show, "Bang," festival veteran Charlotte Ford ponders the question: What happens if you get what you want? It is one of the shows that includes nudity. KEVIN MONKO
Posted: September 05, 2012

If you're looking for a way to be cool - not just comfy but cool - take off all your clothes.

At the 16th annual Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe, which runs Friday through Sept. 22, nudity seems to be the prevailing fashion statement. In the Live Arts portion - 16 productions invited and backed by the organizers - five acts include nudity, and in one of them, a movement-theater piece, Untitled Feminist Show, no one wears anything at all for an entire hour.

That's the most ever: Last year, no Live Arts show listed in its description that its production "includes nudity" (though one actually did). The most before this year was three in 2007.

The other part of the festival, the Philly Fringe, a free-for-all, 136 productions this year by artists and troupes who invite themselves, doesn't as a rule list nudity in its short, mostly fuzzy one-paragraph descriptions in the festival's guidebook and online. So some years, Fringe with birthday suits as costumes are a surprise.

This year, one Fringe show, Rub, already has defined itself in the guide as "performance erotica" and the blurb featured a highly suggestive picture of one of the cast's women that is apparently a piece of truth in advertising.

Why so much nudity this year? Partly, it's happenstance - the festival doesn't build itself each year on a theme. But two of the Live Arts shows with nudity, plus an excerpt of a work in progress about onstage nudity, are purposely being presented because they explore a common element: female gender politics.

In fact, a Sept. 16 discussion of body politics in arts and culture that has artists from those three shows on the panel is a part of the festival. A description of the panel lays out part of the premise: This year, it says, several Live Arts shows consider artistic, medical, and sexual rights of control over one's body, as well as the nude body and identity in performance.

"If artists can transcend, on stage, the political and cultural identities that our genders, our clothing, and the opinions of others stamp onto our bodies, is it possible to do this in the real world?"

Heady stuff, the sort of left-field approach that has made the festival essential for many of the 40,000 or so people who attend - and that has powerfully helped nurture an audience of Philadelphia theatergoers unafraid to encounter new or unusual work. (There's much of that in the festival, and clothed.)

No one knows better than Nick Stuccio, the festival's co-founder and producing director, that nudity sells; he has said so for years as he's watched tickets fly out of the box office (not this year, though - there are no printed tickets, only Web images) whenever the odd show included bare bodies.

But most of the shows weren't grounded in anything like prurience, and stage nudity has come a long way since the mid-'60s, when ripping off your clothes to perform was a fresh and simple statement of shocking radicalism in theater (as in a two-minute slice of the musical Hair) or an aesthetic one in dance (Anna Halprin's Parades and Changes, which earned its artists arrest warrants).

"Nudity is used for all kinds of reasons," Stuccio said, pointing out that in some work this year, "the people who are nude are not people that we want to normally see nude. There's a reason we're wearing clothes. To turn those people loose nude and to say, 'That's right, what about these people? What about the other people in this culture?' - that has nothing to do with aesthetics at all, and it's not to be salacious in any way."

He was referring specifically to Food Court from the Australian troupe Back to Back Theatre, with live music by the Necks. Its plot, set in a suburban mall, includes unclothed performers with disabilities. "We never encounter that on stage, we never dare see a person with a disability naked [publicly]. But why not? Here, it's about perception. That's what their work is about."

In the new work Bang, theater artist Charlotte Ford, veteran of many festival productions, is creating a show that, according to the guidebook, "answers the question, under the glow of a pink neon sex-show sign, what happens if you get what you want?" She appears in it with Lee Etzold and Sarah Sanford - all are members of the city's boundary-changing Pig Iron Theatre Company - and it includes nudity (as well as what is called an "orgasm chair.")

Other Live Arts entries that feature costume design by Mother Nature are Private Places, a dance by Philadelphia choreographer Jumatatu Poe and his troupe, idiosynCrazy productions; The Gate Reopened, by another Philadelphia choreographer, festival favorite Brian Sanders and his company, Junk, set in Pier 9, a warehouse on the Delaware River; and the aforementioned Untitled Feminist Show.

That work, performed by six completely naked dancers to an intense, driving soundtrack, was acclaimed in New York earlier this year. Its delivery is based on movement, but Young Jean Lee, the Korean American who created it, runs a theater company under her name, so theater critics came to see what "may well be her most daunting attempt to push her talent in a new direction," as the New York Times' Charles Isherwood wrote. The New Yorker's Hilton Als called it "one of the more moving and imaginative works I have ever seen on the American stage."

Stuccio saw it, and so did Sean Buffington, president of the University of the Arts, who said he was "completely blown away by it" and called Stuccio to offer to cosponsor it in the festival. "I found it profoundly moving, disturbing, and also funny," Buffington said. "It is a piece about gender and it is a piece about the body, but it's not only about those things."

Lee wanted a piece whose performers had "a range of realistic female body types who were 100 percent confident, fierce, and fabulous. Women are trained to have so much shame about their bodies and looks, and I thought it would be amazing to see female-bodied people who didn't seem to experience any of that, even without clothes or makeup.

"I wanted the nudity to be the opposite of titillating and objectifying."

As for Rub, whose Fringe performances were moved at the last minute to the Latvian Society off Spring Garden Street after the tavern it had booked closed down, the idea is that we're in 2040. Society has "made robots and all the people die off and they're kind of left there," says its cocreator, Gunnar Montana, who, among other things, is responsible for choreographing much of the aerial work the women perform at Delilah's Gentlemen's Club & Steakhouse.

"And the only thing they know how to do is put on this kind of this weird, futuristic sex show that they just do over and over and over again in the postapocalyptic future." Now that's the classic blurb for a Fringe show, naked or not.


Festival Facts

To find complete schedules, locations, descriptions of the Live Arts Festival/Philly Fringe shows, and ticketing information, go to www.livearts-fringe.org.


Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727 or hshapiro@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter #philastage.

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