I don’t recall the first time I undressed on a stage. Probably college. Taking clothes off in the presence of others is not unusual for an actor; you do an onstage costume change with dim lighting between scenes or a love scene in which you unbutton your shirt until you’re left in your bra or, lordy knows, your character is arbitrarily described in some super sexy way and the costume designer has given you a skirt so short you can’t sit down without flashing the front row.
Even if you don’t strip on stage, you certainly do behind the scenes. Every actor has done the lightening fast scene change that requires one stagehand to rip off your clothes, one to Velcro on your new outfit and one to swap your wigs — all while you’re holding your arms straight out, breathing deeply and switching dialects for your next character. There’s no time to worry about anything other than whether or not your underwear is clean. (Remind me to tell you about the time I unexpectedly started my period moments before my three-second-turnaround backstage costume change.)
But totally naked is different. That’s its own special moment. And the only time I was completely, totally naked was a role I cast for myself.
In 1999, I adapted and produced the fantastic Mary McCarthy short story “The Man in the Brooks Brothers Shirt,” first published in 1941. It’s told from the point of view of a young bohemian woman, Meg, traveling across the country on a train. She ends up drinking with and bedding a middle-aged businessman. She wakes up hung over and regretful, then finds herself humiliated when he insists that she take a bath. In the tub she gathers herself and manages to leave the train with her dignity intact.
I had a long conversation with the director, my friend Erik. I loved the scene in the story but didn’t want to actually do it in a tub. I tried to convince him we could do it in another setting: alone in the sleeping car or leaning on a wall in the hallway. Or maybe she could be in the towel after the bath? We already saw her wake up in her underwear and fumble for clothes; do we really need more than that? We do, he said. And he was right.
While I didn’t particularly want to be nude onstage, the moment in the story – contemplating her state as she is most vulnerable, the water turning tepid around her – was too powerful to change. We got the tub.
I left my clothes on for rehearsals, of course, but opening night loomed ahead of me. I really, really wanted to diet, but I knew from experience that it’s a bad idea – focus on the scene, not the body. Nobody’s gonna remember a few pounds, but they’ll certainly remember a bad performance.
The day came for our tech rehearsal, when we set the lighting and sound for the show. It’s usually a grueling day. Setting light levels for each scene can take a long time, and then actors need to stay in place, quiet and still, while the director and designers communicate together. I was nervous all morning waiting for my bathtub monologue. I wore clean, nonsexy underwear, figuring I might at least be able to fake full nudity. No such luck; Erik had other ideas.
As the crew prepped for the bath scene, I grabbed my bathrobe to undress backstage. I was blocked to appear on a platform in my bathrobe, remove it, and then lower myself into the tub. My character was disgusted and dejected, so there was no hopping in and the platform was elevated. Stepping onto the full set piece for the first time, I felt very isolated and very lonely.
The crew and designers were ready, and Erik asked me to begin the scene. I spoke my first lines, stepped on the platform and removed my bathrobe. “Hold please!” called Erik. “You’re going to have to take off your underwear.”
I hustled backstage, pulled off my bra and underwear, put them in an embarrassed little pile under my bag and put the bathrobe back on.
“Can you jump back onto the platform?” Erik asked.
“Yep, one sec!” I called, taking a deep breath and ascending the stairs.
As I got to the top, ready to recite my lines again, I heard a huge explosion of laughter. Feeling totally jangled at this point, I shaded my eyes from the stage lights and squinted to see what was happening below – and there was Erik, completely naked in all his hairy, dangling glory.
“Ready to start?” He asked.
“Yep!” I said, and we began.
I won’t lie, it was still uncomfortable to sit undressed in an empty bathtub while they figured out how to light me “tastefully.” It helped that everyone was professional, of course. And they were able to hook up a scrim, which is a thin screen that can be either translucent or opaque, depending on the direction of the lighting. So while I spoke my lines, I was visible (but sitting in the tub) and when I stood to put my bathrobe back on I was almost silhouetted. It was quite lovely. (Well, not the moment when Erik yelled to the lighting designer, “I can still see her pubes! Take it down a notch.”)
No performance was as nerve-racking, not even opening night. I had my bathrobe and the scrim to shield my body and the character to shield my ego. Stage lights are surprisingly warm on the skin (although the bathtub was cold!) and I could use my feelings of vulnerability to help power the monologue. I would have preferred to be less sweaty, but acting is a sweaty business.