Last week I went to a play where the audience had to be naked if they wanted to watch it. You could keep your shoes on, though.
Toronto indie-theater production S H E E T S, written and directed by Salvatore Antonio, hosted the naturist night. S H E E T S, a series of vignettes about how people act in hotel rooms, is the type of script that lends itself to a room full of nude strangers. The play is intimate, sexually charged, and a bit uncomfortable. Among other things, S H E E T S features a scene navigating the politics of a threesome, discussions about the merits and pitfalls of sex work, and a list of various bodily fluids found on used bedsheets. At one point during a monologue decrying the injustice of circumcision, one of the characters explains how as a child he would pee into his foreskin until it expanded like a balloon. The actors performed these scenes in various states of undress.
"I was inspired to write the play after a year I spent by myself in numerous hotel rooms around the world for work reasons," Antonio said. "I experienced loneliness, and insomnia, and would often obsess over the history of whichever room I was in, doing the math of how many people had been in that particular room over the years—on that bed, in those sheets. The law of averages for how much sex and suicide those rooms had been witness to turned me on, or revolted me, or saddened me on any given night."
The idea to host a naturist night came from S H E E T S co-producer Samantha Kaine-Gruen, an actor and theater creator, who also happens to be a naturist. When I asked Kaine-Gruen if the themes of sex and intimacy explored in the play had anything to do with naturism, she quickly shot me down.
"Most of the audience are naturists and simply want to see theater in a way that is most comfortable for them. The new folks coming also want the opportunity to do the same thing and didn't know there was a community that is welcoming for them to go to," she said. When I followed up by asking Kaine-Gruen if she was worried about any newcomers being voyeuristic or disrespectful, she seemed annoyed. "If people want to disrespect others, they are going to do so with clothes on as well."
I understood the response but thought it overlooked the fact that most of the time a theater audience is wearing clothes. While being naked in a public space is a normal thing for the naturists, it's not something that the general public regularly partakes in.
I took an informal survey among my friends and asked them if a nude audience would make them more or less likely to attend a play. Their responses proved that people make a lot of assumptions about naturists, mostly that naturism has something to do with kink or sex, a stigma that the community fights hard to overcome. But there was also a lot of curiosity. That curiosity, along with a large turnout from the naturist community, led to a sold out performance of the show.
I didn't know what to expect when attending the naturist performance of S H E E T S. Previously my nudity had been contained to intimate situations or locker rooms. Entering the theater that night, I picked up my ticket before heading upstairs to the lobby. I passed a green sign saying "nude people beyond this point" and was greeted by an older naked gentleman with a comically large mustache. The man explained that I could remove my clothes behind the curtain or out in the open. Afterward, he would check my belongings and usher me toward a table where, for a dollar, I could rent a towel if I had forgotten to bring my own. I opted for undressing behind the curtain. Despite knowing that for the next 90 minutes I would be baring it all, there was something about the act of stripping down that still seemed private. After I had undressed and purchased my towel, I stepped into the theater. Entering the performance space, I was greeted with a sea of flesh.
The audience that night was mostly white and under the stage lights they collectively took on a pinkish tone. There was a pretty wide age bracket, bodies of all shapes and sizes, smooth and hairy legs. Some people paraded to their seats without abandon, while others hid behind slouched shoulders or crossed arms. Entering the room, I felt nervous and exposed. Normally when I experience those feelings I ignore them by looking at my phone, but without my crutch, I simply put down my towel, sat, and waited for things to begin. After a couple minutes, the nudity in the room became normalized. People stopped looking at the ceiling and acknowledged one another in a way that I hadn't experienced before. While there were more than a few nervous giggles, the situation forced us to be present. I started to muse on what that presence might mean to my day-to-day life, but before I could come up with anything, the lights went down and the show began.
S H E E T S was funny and thought-provoking, though the experience of watching the show was obviously heightened by the nudity situation. When the final scene ended, the audience leapt to their feet in a standing ovation. As I stood from my towel, I was surprised at how quickly I had become acclimatized to the setting and wondered if participating in a naturist event was something I'd do again. Just then, a fellow audience member pointed out that there was a fruit sticker stuck to the back of my thigh. My whole body turned red. I decided that this would definitely be the last time.
Follow Graham Isador on Twitter.