This is Part Three of a four-part series of reminiscences by Neal Weaver, entitled Nudity, the Unconscious and the Creative Process.
You can read more about this author at the end of the article.
Part Three of Nudity, the Unconscious and the Creative Process:
Then when we rehearsed the scene with the actor playing the Painter, he was the one who was nervous about the nudity. He was not an adventurous actor, and I knew he’d never arrive at the moment of whipping off the sheet, so I instructed him to do it. He was bothered, but did it. I then explained that she should begin nuzzling the boy’s nipple, and then begin to work his way downward. He got very uptight—I think he thought I was asking him to actually fellate Charles. I told him that as he started to work his way down, the lights would fade to black. And he said, “Good.” I said, “It’s important for us to know where you’re going, but there’s no need to see you get there.” It took a while for the scene between then to gel, but when it did, it worked like gang-busters.
Meanwhile, Charles had begun to enjoy the nudity, and began spending a good deal of time naked, even between scenes, which was making the other actors nervous. I explained to him that he’d had the exercises to get used to the nudity, but the other actors hadn’t, and they regarded his actions as simple personal exhibitionism. After that he became much more circumspect.
Later, after my company folded in 1987, I decided to move to Los Angeles. Actors Equity was making it harder and harder to function Off-off-Broadway, and I’d heard that the 99-seat theatre rules in Los Angeles were then less restrictive. I made the move, but didn’t know how to raise the money to launch another company, or even a single production. But I was rather haunted by the experience of working with Charles, and eventually decided that perhaps I could make a play of it.
It had to be simplified and fictionalized, of course, so I conceived the notion of a 2-character play about a director and an actor. The director was also the actor’s acting teacher. When the director decides to write a play that involves nudity, he asks the actor if he’d be willing to work with him on the nudity. The actor is immediately suspicious, of course, because when nudity is mentioned, there’s always a suspicion that one is up to no good. (I resisted this notion, feeling that if painters and sculptors could use nudity in their work, playwrights and actors should be able to do so, too. And eventually I came to the position that nudity was something which could be used legitimately for its own sake, if the actor and the audience could accept it.) Finally the actor agrees, saying that he has to do it because he’s scared of it, and doing what he’s afraid of is necessary for him. They set about it, and shortly the clothes are off. Much of the dialog was a direct transcription of the dialog between myself and Charles.
It gradually becomes clear that the director is strongly attracted to the actor, but thinking the boy is straight, he daren’t make his feelings known. And the actor, who believes he is straight also, is led by the exercises to confront his own homosexuality. In the end, they acknowledge their mutual attraction and have at it as the curtain falls.
I was very nervous about the play, uncertain myself whether it might be pornographic. I began submitting it to actor friends for their reactions. Their initial reaction was always very positive. Actors kept telling me it was brilliant. But when I tried to sound them out as to how they’d feel about it if asked to do it, they tended to get very grouchy or angry and ended the conversation. One actor said he didn’t believe the director would have the guts to go through with it. I was perplexed by the reactions, and put the project on hold for a while.
Then my mother died. She had been in a bad way for some time, so it was not a shock, and I’d felt she was ready to go. When I had that famous conversation with her, telling her I appreciated her love and tolerance and all she’d done for me, she reacted, as usual with avoidance of any emotional stuff. She just said, “Okay,’ and not long after that, she passed away. And I discovered she had left me a tidy sum of money. It was not all that much, but it was more money than I’d ever had at one time in my life, and I thought I was rich.
I decided I could risk some of the money to produce my play, which I had called Strip/Tease. I felt it was risky to do it, but I’d always worked sort of on the edge, and taken long chances. I decided to give it a whirl. I soon discovered that things were different here from the scene in NYC, and doing theatre was going to be much more expensive than it had been there.
First of all, one had to take out insurance, according to Equity, and that cost a couple of hundred dollars. The trade papers in NYC had run our casting notices free, as a service to actors. Here, one had to pay the casting services to publish our notices. Any notice had to be very specific about the requirements for nudity or partial nudity, so the actors wouldn’t be taken by surprise. This made sense to me, but the requirements were so specific that it seemed the intention was to scare actors away.
One major casting agency refused to submit actors for our consideration because of the nudity requirement. I accepted that. There was still a strong response to our casting notices, and I received mailbags of pictures and resumes. The Equity rules also frowned on the idea of auditioning actors in one’s home. But there was no way I could afford to rent a theatre for all of the casting process and I planned to conduct the majority of the rehearsals in my apartment to avoid costly theatre rentals. So I was very careful in talking to actors to make it very clear that the play would require considerable nudity from both characters, and I asked them if they had a problem with auditioning for me in my apartment. They almost unanimously had no problem with it. According to the Equity rules, one was prohibited from asking for nudity in the course of an initial meeting, and it had to be reserved for call-backs. And for any auditions involving nudity, an Equity representative had to be present.
That was not a problem for me as I had never asked actors to get naked in an audition. I felt that would make them feel as if they were being accepted or rejected on the basis of their appearance. I asked them to remove their shirts so I could see if they were healthy bodies, but that was all I needed. (Uta Hagen, who opposed nudity in any form, announced that, where nudity was involved, actors were cast purely on the basis of the size of their penises or their boobs. This was plainly untrue and certainly not true for me. (Shelley Winters was more upfront. She said, “Sure I don’t approve in nudity, but if you’d asked me a few years ago, when I was younger and thinner, my answer would have been very different.”
The first actor who auditioned for me was a young man named David Benbernathy. He was personable and had dealt with nudity before, so it held no fears for him. His reading was excellent and I was prepared to cast him on the spot. But, having read the script, he said he did not want to do the show because he felt the ending was exploitative. That was rather a shock to me, and certainly a surprise. I thought I had done everything possible to avoid exploitation. I asked him to clarify his comment, but he didn’t really do so.
Part Four will be published next week.
About the Author – Neal Weaver:
A playwright, director, and critic, Neal Weaver has been working in and around theater for 65 years. Over these six-plus decades he has worked as an usher, a puppeteer, a movie projectionist, actor, playwright, publicist, and editor.
Neal Weaver’s plays have been produced Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, in LA’s 99-seat theaters and in universities.
Weaver was stage manager for the Playwrights Unit of the Actors’ Studio in NYC, and he was founder and artistic director of The Meat and Potatoes Co (NYC)., which mounted 92 productions in 12 years.
He began his journalism career in 1968 as associate editor, critic, and feature writer for the now defunct After Dark Magazine, reviewing theater and film. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and since his arrival here has reviewed theatre for LA View, Backstage, LA Weekly and Stage Raw, and has been a member of Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle since the mid-1990s.