A few months ago I was sitting in an entertainment venue in Richmond, enjoying a drink and watching several good-looking, fully naked men showering. No, the Chippendale male dance review wasn't passing through town — and if it had been, it would be completely illegal for members to parade around in the buff. The occasion was a performance of Richmond Triangle Players' production of “Take Me Out,” which won the Richmond Theatre Critics' 2010 award for best play.
There's been quite a bit of bodily exposure on Richmond artistic stages in the past couple of seasons — other recent examples include Triangle's “The New Century” and the Firehouse Theatre Company's “Love Kills.” Looking ahead to 2011 productions such as Cadence Theater Company's “Equus,” the trend doesn't seem to be going away. That's because nudity that would be forbidden in another venue, such as a strip club or bar, is completely fine in the legitimate theater.
It boils down to the venue, according to lawyer Kevin Martingayle, one of the region's go-to litigators specializing in noise and indecency laws. “Obscenity is regulated by what is deemed obscene,” he says. “It is difficult to regulate or ban nudity in artistic venues.” That's because what one person may deem obscene, another could consider art. The Virginia obscenity statute provides a rather murky definition: “[Obscenity] ... goes substantially beyond customary limits of candor in description or representation of such matters and which, taken as a whole, does not have serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value.”
Local theater companies have ways of avoiding problems with the law — and with patrons. Two years ago, when Barksdale Theatre staged “The Little Dog Laughed,” a play that contains nudity, adult situations and plenty of raw language, the company created a general warning system for their audiences and prepared for public fallout.
“Subscribers needed to know what the play was about and be forewarned,” says Judi Crenshaw, the public relations director for Barksdale and Theatre IV. “We didn't want to catch anyone off guard.” The theater sent a letter to subscribers, added notices to all promotional materials and created a sign for the lobby. Still, there were some complaints, which were calmly addressed personally by Bruce Miller, the Barksdale's artistic director.
In sharp contrast to the preparatory hoops through which Barksdale jumped, companies such as Richmond Triangle Players and the Firehouse Theatre Project avoid warning audiences of nudity, but also avoid what they call gratuitous nakedness. “Our audience sort of expects adult themes and content, so nudity is never a problem,” says Phil Crosby, Triangle Players' managing director.
The company put a disclaimer on its website for “Take Me Out” because it thought the play might draw a wider audience. “There was actually more nudity in the Broadway version [of the play],” Crosby says, “but our stage is so small we decided to do less.” He adds that “too much nudity can be distracting in such a small space.”
“We have nudity, profanity and adult subjects so often we tend not to put anything on our promotional materials, says Firehouse's artistic director, Carol Piersol. “[Nudity] is the least thing in our plays that people might get upset about.”
As for not posting warnings to the audience, she says, “we don't want to promote [the nudity] out of respect for the actors. We don't want people coming particularly to see someone naked on stage. It's a fine line. We want to present the truth of what the playwright intended and not exploit it.”
Cadence Theatre Company is planning for potential problems as it prepares to stage Peter Shaffer's “Equus.”
“In order to grant you rights to do it, they send you a contract that you have to sign to say that you will not alter the nudity in any way or do body stocking suits or half nudity,” says Anna Johnson, Cadence's artistic director. “It has to been done as it is written, otherwise they won't let you do it.” Johnson plans to audition only actors who are older than 21 and admit audience members 18 and older to avoid potential legal issues.
Artistic dance companies are even more confident about their rights than their theatrical cousins — which is ironic considering that burlesque girls, belly dancers and strippers are quite regulated.
Rob Petres, artistic director of Ground Zero Dance Company, and choreographer of a piece called “Rope” for the grand opening of the Dogtown Dance Theatre last May, initially envisioned his work performed by naked dancers. “It's a pretty primal piece,” he says, “and costumes didn't make sense except for comfort.” White shorts were added to cover the dancers because of a particular movement executed with a rope but all dancers, male and female, were topless. “I knew I had artistic license,” says Petres, who acknowledges to not having checked any state laws before exposing breasts onstage.
The Richmond Ballet is also confident in its costume choices, which may be suggestive but never exposing. “In the dance world, we are lucky because people are used to seeing dancers in tights and unitards,” says the ballet's artistic director, Stoner Winslett. “Dance is about the form.” She included simulated nudity in a John Butler piece called “After Eden” in the ballet's last Studio Series performance.
Because of the sensual nature of the choreography and the “barely there” costumes, you might assume there was some fallout from more conservative viewers. But the ballet's former managing director Keith Martin says that there were “none whatsoever. In fact, many people said they'd see it again.”