HAIR Stripped Down: Let’s Get This Nudity Thing Straight

 HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical is the most recent musical put on by Just So, St Andrews Musical Theatre Society, and spearheaded by director Adelaide Waldrop and Musical Director Brendan MacDonald. The big buzz surrounding the show has been about the fact that there is a nude scene—cue the immaturity. I chatted with Adelaide about how she approached this sensitive subject, especially since the show involves students, and about nudity in theatre in general. What she had to say definitely put things into perspective for me; hopefully it will clear things up for you as well.

Say as much as you’re willing to about what exactly the nudity in your play entails. I guess this is actually a statement. 

Adelaide: When you mention HAIR, nudity is the first thing that pops into people’s minds.  The funny thing about that is that most people have no idea what actually happens in the nude scene or how the nudity is theatrically presented.  It’s definitely not the biggest or most important moment of the show, but it always gets the most attention.

The scene takes place at the end of the first act during the song ‘Where Do I Go’.  One of the main characters, Claude, is contemplating what he should do about being drafted into the Vietnam War.  It’s a song not just about choosing one’s path in life, but also about the horrors of war, and the decision of whether or not it’s worth dying for your country.  The cast joins in on the song, and it is during the last part of the number that they come out naked.

How does the nudity you’ve decided to depict differ from how it is depicted traditionally in professional theatre, if at all?

Adelaide: The original production of HAIR had the cast members getting under this parachute-like-piece of fabric during the song, which had slits cut in it.  They’d undress under the fabric and then stand up through the slits and sing.  In 1968, it was legal to have nudity onstage but illegal to have anyone moving while naked (don’t ask me why), so they had to stay completely still during this part of the song.  In the 2009 revival, the cast was similarly still, and in most professional productions of HAIR the nudity has been treated in a very mature, respectful way.  It’s an incredibly moving scene, but it’s easy to ruin the beauty and power of the image if you don’t stage it properly.  We’ve decided to similarly keep the cast still, but instead of that weird fabric-situation we’re lowering a projection screen that will then be raised up again to reveal the Tribe (the cast).  This means we also have the chance to block them in a more tableau-like arrangement, which I think adds to the visual beauty of the scene.

If you’re wondering whether we decided to tone things down because this is a student production, the answer is no.

What did you take into consideration when deciding how much/what kind of nudity to put into your show? Do you think that there’s a difference between getting naked in front of an audience of strangers and getting naked in front of a bunch of people you see around town? Should that make a difference for actors?

Adelaide: The question of whether or not we wanted to include the nude scene in the show was never really discussed, actually.  Brendan and I knew from the start we wanted to have the scene in the show, and that as long as we had enough actors who were willing to do it we’d keep it in.  As a piece of theatre, it’s an incredible moment, and I think that, especially in a town like St Andrews, it’s a really important statement to be able to make. In the show, The Tribe are taking off their clothes as a sign of rebellion against the oppression of society, as a demonstration of their freedom and their love and acceptance of their natural states.  It is a very intimate thing to be able to share with an audience, and while it may at first seem more daunting because everyone in St Andrews knows each other, I think it’s all the more powerful for that very reason.

What was the general reaction of your cast to the idea of nudity when you told them what they’d have to do? What have you been doing, if you’ve been doing anything, to make your actors more comfortable with the concept of being nude on stage?

Adelaide: We made sure to be upfront about the nudity from the get-go.  We mentioned it on the audition forms, and at the callbacks I also gave everyone the opportunity to ask me any questions they had about how the nude scene would go down.

In terms of making the actors more comfortable, I knew from the moment we decided to do the show that this would be one of the most difficult aspects for me as a director.  Asking a group of actors to get nude in front of each other – let alone an audience of 200+ people – is a big thing to ask.  It requires them to trust both the audience and each other on a level that isn’t often found in other shows.  In order to develop this trust and intimacy within the cast, we worked from the very beginning on getting to know each other and learning to trust each other as fully as possible.  We’ve played a lot of theatre games, we’ve spent time together outside of rehearsal, and while we often talk about the show, we especially discussed the nude scene to make sure that everyone’s concerns were addressed.  I was adamant from the start that I would not force anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do, and furthermore, that I wouldn’t ask the cast to do anything that I, myself, wouldn’t be comfortable doing onstage.

What is your general opinion of nudity in student theatre as a whole? Do you think that it’s something that people shy away from unnecessarily or do you think there’s a good reason that student directors and producers, especially in St Andrews, shy away from it?

Adelaide: The interesting thing about nudity onstage, for me, is the reality of it.  While other things you see in a show may seem realistic, as audience members we know that the wine they’re drinking is probably grape juice, or the gun that was fired was filled with blanks. With nudity, however, there is this element of complete and utter honesty to it.  The audience can’t deny what they are seeing in front of them.  There is no illusion.  I think that this is one of the main reasons nudity onstage still has such a profound effect on audiences, and why many people find it shocking or controversial.  But it’s for that reason that I feel it’s so important that student productions have the opportunity to experiment with onstage nudity if they so choose.  After all, isn’t university a time for learning, especially by pushing ourselves past our comfort zones?

In St Andrews, student directors and actors shy away from nudity onstage because it’s easier to.  I happen to have directed two different shows now (Spring Awakening and HAIR) that both include nudity onstage.  Not including those scenes because it was ‘too much’ would have compromised the artistic value of those shows, and for me there’s nothing ‘easier’ about that.

More than embarrassment, I see the biggest risk with nudity in student productions to be the potential mishandling of the whole thing.  We’re all still quite young, and if it’s not dealt with in a mature, professional manner then things could be quite disastrous, both for those putting on the production and those watching it.

 

Adelaide later discussed with me that this scene—this scene that creates so much buzz and so many giggles when it comes up in discussion around town—lasts less than 20 seconds long and has traditionally been, and will be done, in dim lighting. Adelaide summed it up pretty well, in my opinion, when she said, “nudity is part of HAIR, but HAIR is so much more than just nudity. It’s a show about self-expression, freedom, love, loss, community, war, peace, and changing the world.” So hopefully this interview will clear things up, get the giggles worked out, so we can all enjoy the real elements this show has to offer.

HAIR: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical goes up on the Byre mainstage on the 1st and 2nd of November. Tickets are available on the Byre website or by phone at 01334475000.

Emily Grant

Photo credits to Adelaide Waldrop and Qi Tian.

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