12 July 2017

Sex—And Gender—On Stage

[Sex on stage is one of the most difficult matters for actors to handle.  And it’s not just nudity and making love that actors have to encounter in some performances.  There’s also the issue of men playing women and vice versa.  Below are two articles that treat each of these acting problems.  First is a first-hand look at the work of some top-flight male actors who presented a classic repertory of two Shakespeare plays on Broadway in which, as in Elizabethan times, the female characters were portrayed by male actors in drag.  In 2013, Mark Rylance and a company of actors from Shakespeare’s Globe in London brought productions of Twelfth Night and Richard III to Broadway’s Belasco Theatre for a limited run (10 November-16 February).  The repertory was a sensation on the Great White Way that season.  The article was originally published in Playbill magazine of December 2013.

[In the second article, an actress relates how she negotiated two explicit sex scenes in the Washington Rogues’ production of Alexandra Petri’s The Campsite Rule at the Anacostia Playhouse in Washington, D.C.  The play ran from 23 July to 16 April 2014.  This article was published originally in the Washington Post Magazine on 26 October 2014.]

by Melissa Rose Bernardo

Mark Rylance, Samuel Barnett, and Paul Chahidi on the waxing, wigs, and corsets of Shakespeare’s leading ladies.

You may know Shakespeare. You attend Shakespeare in the Park every summer. You may even have a Shakespeare app on your phone (guilty!). But you haven’t really seen Shakespeare until you’ve seen the double bill — Twelfth Night and Richard III — running in rep at the Belasco Theatre. The critical smash hits — imported from Shakespeare’s Globe in London — rely on Elizabethan-era conventions: Candlelight; bare scenery; live music on such instruments as the hurdy gurdy; and actors — including two-time Tony winner Mark Rylance (Jerusalem, Boeing-Boeing), Samuel Barnett (The History Boys) and Paul Chahidi — in the female roles . . . just as it would have been in the Bard’s day. Rylance stars as the mutilated Richard III, then as the lovestruck Olivia in Twelfth Night; Barnett plays hard-hearted Queen Elizabeth in Richard III, and Viola, who disguises herself as Cesario in Twelfth Night; Chahidi doubles as the eventually-beheaded Hastings and the sleazy Tyrrell in Richard III, then plays saucy servant Maria in Twelfth Night. These leading men — er, women — gave us the dish on their roles (“There’s a lot of my mother in Olivia,” said Rylance), and we discovered the following surprising facts about these women and the men who play them.

Shakespeare can be intimidating for actors too.
Before joining this production at the Globe in 2012 — where he played Viola’s twin brother, Sebastian — Barnett had no real experience with the Bard. “I’d done a bit at drama school, but that was years ago. I felt like I didn’t know what I was doing with it, and therefore I didn’t enjoy it,” he confessed. “And I’d auditioned at the RSC [Royal Shakespeare Company] when I’d gotten out of drama school about five times, never gotten anywhere. . . [.] So there was a huge part of me going, ‘Just don’t, you won’t get the roles because you’re no good at Shakespeare.’”

Shakespeare can also be painful. Very painful.
“In our first production, where Eddie Redmayne was Viola,” recalled Chahidi of a 2002 Twelfth Night with Rylance, “I went to the waxing parlor with Eddie. We were sent to some backstreet waxing parlor — I don’t think they’d ever had men there. We went in thinking, ‘How bad could this be?’ We went into adjacent rooms — the walls were paper-thin — and all you could hear were our screams.”

They’re not playing women, per se.
“With Queen Elizabeth, she’s royalty. So I will play the status, rather than being a woman,” explained Barnett. “I try to play the emotional reality and I’ve sort of let the costumes, the wigs and the audience’s imagination take care of the rest.”

Chahidi remembered first tackling Maria a decade ago: “We did research, how women of that period might move. We experimented with our voices. It got quite scientific! We went through all these contortions, we had all these worries, and I came back to square one and realized: All I needed to do was play the character truthfully. And it just so happened to be a woman.”

Not everything you see is original practice.
“The dressing on stage was not something the Elizabethans did,” admitted Rylance of the pre­show routine where the actors transform themselves in view of the audience. “But at the Globe we said, ‘We’re spending all this money and all this detail on these clothes . . . [.]’ We found that it confirmed the atmosphere that we want — everyone being in the same room.” In Twelfth Night, the auditorium, Rylance explained, becomes “part of Illyria.”

It’s not costumes; it’s couture.
Said Rylance of designer Jenny Tiramani: “She’ll show the actors what the options are, so you work together — like if you were a really wealthy person, if you were having a fashion designer making you dresses. And the corsets and the detail and the jewelry — the exquisite nature of the clothing, for me, has a resonance of the exquisite nature of the language.”

Those dresses are built for class, not for comfort.
“The corset restricts your breathing. The farthingale — the hoop bit that goes underneath the skirt — restricts how far you can step out,” explained Barnett of his regal Queen Elizabeth regalia. “In fact, as Elizabeth I wear two corsets! I am pinned into everything I wear. Sometimes I am cut out of my costume.”

Paul Chahidi’s awe-inspiring cleavage is the envy of his male costars.
“Women point . . . and ask, ‘How do you do it?’ Anyone in a corset this tight will have magnificent cleavage!” said Chahidi, emphasizing that it is “all natural!” (“Lest anyone think I’m doing something that the Elizabethans didn’t do,” he added.) “I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but there is a tension and rivalry between me and Mark. He is maybe a little self-conscious about the size of his cleavage.”

Rylance conceded that Chahidi’s décolletage is “rather spectacular,” likening it to “a deep river valley.” But, he reminded us, the role of Olivia demands a conservative, non–cleavage-baring black gown: “I’m much more discreet and in mourning. My dress comes right up to my neck. Otherwise I would win hands down.”

*  *  *  *
by Rachel Manteuffel

I’ve been a stage actor for 10 years, but this summer was the first time I’ve ever really considered taking a role with two explicit sex scenes and nudity. Despite my apprehensions — how my body would look, how the role would change the way people perceive me, in theater and in real life — my biggest concern was the potential for lameness. Sex delivered badly onstage is just as depressing as sex done badly in real life, exponentiated by the presence of an audience.

I really wanted the part, the lead in a sexy comedic romance between two brainy people more comfortable quipping than feeling, just like everyone I know. The premise was that a woman at her sixth college reunion starts up a relationship with a virginal 18-year-old freshman, and awkwardness ensues. It was called “The Campsite Rule,” after columnist Dan Savage’s advice for older or more experienced persons in sexual relationships with mentees: Leave them better than you found them.

It was hilarious and new, produced by the Washington Rogues and written by my friend and Post colleague Alexandra Petri — stuff no one else is saying about young people’s relationships. And it was wicked hot. When we did a test reading for an audience, the producer noticed couples snuggling closer as the sex scene progressed, even though we were just standing there, fully clothed, reading from scripts.

The play contains stage directions such as: She puts the condom on him. Good luck staging this.”

As with that stage direction, every script is a challenge, and every production, an answer to it. Theater is about effective illusion. There are hundreds of ways of staging the application of a condom without being pornographic — heck, the whole scene could take place in pitch dark — but a lot of those solutions will vaguely disappoint the audience, who will conclude we couldn’t figure out how to fake it cleverly, or we didn’t have the courage to go further with it.

But nudity isn’t faked. That’s the person’s body . Mine, in this case.

So when the director, Megan Behm, asked me what I’d be comfortable with, I didn’t want to be the limiting factor, the one who wasn’t willing to go all out — the reason the scene would ring false. Megan said that the show would be funny and fun, not exploitative; that she wouldn’t let me look stupid or slutty — so I told her I’d trust her and would do anything the show needed. I could still chicken out, but it would be that: chickening out.

I wanted this role, for all the reasons above, and one more: I am interested in exploring where funny and sexy intersect. In our culture, women’s sexuality doesn’t tend to be funny. Women’s bodies are almost never a punchline the way men’s can be. For better or worse, there is a cultural seriousness to female nudity. And when women act sexy, at best they are setups for punchlines: Meg Ryan’s extended fauxgasm in “When Harry Met Sally” wasn’t the joke; it was the tension-building prelude . “I’ll have what she’s having” was the joke.

What’s more, things generally aren’t funny and sexy simultaneously, as if those two parts of the brain can’t fire together. I was hoping that this show — written by, directed by and featuring funny women — would be able to bridge that gap.

Megan had never directed a sex scene , but she was an experienced fight choreographer, which she assured us was the same thing. Matthew Sparacino, my younger scene partner, was a stranger to me until I started wearing only underpants in his presence and we simulated — and coordinated — cunnilingus and boinking.

In Shakespeare, comic fight scenes are punctuated with dialogue, while tragic fight scenes are wordless. Our show was like that, but the fisticuffs were connubial. There were two sex scenes, one long and slapstick, with dialogue built around each stage of the process in a dorm room’s twin bed; for much of it I was standing in my undies with my dress caught over my head as I frantically struggled to remove it.

For the bit to remain funny, Megan discovered that the dress had to stay on enough to cover my breasts. It had to stay there long enough for the audience to realize its getting stuck wasn’t a technical mistake (live theater!), but if I ever pulled it all the way up, the sudden emergence of my parts would distract from the funny dialogue.

Which was why we ended up killing the nudity entirely. A naked actor is all the story the audience can process for some time. If you’re not convinced, try it at home.

So: I didn’t have to show my breasts, but it wasn’t because I was lame. Later, I was topless, though, beneath that flimsy, shifting sheet, which left a frisson of danger. But that scene was so carefully choreographed I felt safe, safe enough to pursue the strange planned spontaneity good theater can have.

I felt so safe that one night I turned early — my line was “Don’t look at me like you’ve never heard of brunch” — and flashed the audience, in spite of our hours of careful rehearsal and all my neurotic worries.

Predictably, the audience didn’t laugh, but in a weird way, my body did get to be the punchline — not for the people in the seats, but later, for me and everyone else involved in the effort to make that not happen. Art.

The other sex scene was not supposed to be funny at all, and, just as in Shakespeare, there wasn’t any dialogue. The script left the choreography entirely in the hands of the director and cast. Because Alexandra is diabolical, the stage direction said only that “something sexlike happens and it is actually sexy.”

Here are some more things I learned:

1. Female friends will come up to you after the show, delighted and congratulatory, to tell you what they saw. “Nice abs!” one said. “I caught some side boob!” observed another. “I saw you have cellulite, and it made me so happy,” said a third. I’ve decided that is a compliment.

2. Male friends will say, “Nice job,” with lots of eye contact.

3. Nudity for the entertainment of a crowd is still a decision with moral implications. I asked a friend if my going topless in this show would make her lose any respect for me. “Well,” she said, “is it really, really necessary for the story?” (That means yes.)

4. In interviews, movie stars say that sex scenes are too awkward, with too many other people around, doing their jobs, to be actually hot. Matthew was never distracted or creepy in the slightest, but, yes, it did get hot sometimes. In rehearsal, when we would do something new, I would sometimes think: Oh, he does that in real life, and that’s what it looks like when he does it. It is professionally necessary that neither of you ever acknowledge any actual real-life hotness in real time. The professional way to disclose this is to write a magazine article about it months later.

5. Nightly rehearsals are intense and, thus, wildly accelerate the pace of normal relationship development. Matthew and I got weirdly comfortable with each others’ bodies. Once, as we were listening to directions, he rested his head on my thigh. I haven’t been 15 years married to anyone, but I think that’s what it would be like. At one point, during a kiss, he burped in my mouth.

6. The dedicated actor is at work 24-7. The world is one’s studio. One might, for example, contrive to experimentally place oneself in an intimate circumstance in real life that approximates an act one will be performing onstage, noting how it happens in real life and using that information. I should have mentioned my handy research partner in the program under “special thanks.”

7. The audience — friends and colleagues, family members and even strangers — were generally much cooler about the show’s content than I imagined. Except one commenter on the discount ticket Web site Goldstar who grumped “Advertised nudity is a lie.” I hope this essay has been especially helpful for him.

[Rachel Manteuffel is an editorial aide at the Washington Post.]

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