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Focal Plane

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Focal Plane: Unusual performances

This is the fifteenth instalment of the GoobNet Focal Plane, an occasional series wherein we highlight an unimportant social problem, trying to make you care about it. Use the Whine Control, above and right, to view other instalments.

"Jackie, can you look at the underside of this breast here? It feels like it's not thick enough."

Maria Nalmontada is due on stage in two minutes. She is performing in What's My Clime, a new play that is in the second week of a five week run at the Municipal Theatre in Reseda, CA, USA.

But this is an unusual performance. In What's My Clime, none of the actors or actresses wear clothing. Instead, each is covered in a brightly coloured coat of body paint, all of which is applied and maintained under the watchful eye of costume designer Jackie Wills.

So why would a small community theatre group in the Los Angeles area resort to a complex scheme of body painting that, in their own estimation, costs about 50% more than traditional costuming? As the show's producer, Brian En, says, "Blame the city. They love theatre, but they hate nude theatre."

Tolstoy Twenty

The problem of theatre restrictions is not a new one. Plays that require partial or total nudity have always been a vital part of the theatrical scene. Various communities, seeing this as a threat to their self serving hypocrisy, immediately banned any sort of public performance involving states of undress.

One such community was Tolstoy, NH, USA. During a 1968 performance of You Can't Put That There at the Tolstoy Community Center, angry residents, in response to the frequent exposures during the show, ripped up seats and threw them onto the stage. In the resulting chaos, a light fixture shorted, leading to a fire that destroyed the building entirely.

But the unrest was not complete, says Jean Rockbrey, author of Non-Great Moments in New Hampshire History. "The performers and crew, having evacuated the building to the rear, were shortly found by the unruly mob," Rockbrey says. "Many of them still unclothed, they tried to escape on foot before eventually doubling back to the theatre, which was still on fire, and escaping in the safety of their cars."

Having lost their prey, the rioters instead turned their rage on the city around them. Four days of unrest followed, during which the entire town was destroyed beyond recognition. Music stores, sandwich shops, locksmiths' offices, and junior colleges alike were broken into, their contents stolen, smashed, and discarded.

"In just a few days," Rockbrey says, "Tolstoy went from the twentieth century to the Dark Ages."

Dick Rulmont, state prosecutor in the trial of the infamous Tolstoy Twenty, recalls, "I think the reaction around the rest of New Hampshire was of shock, basically. Some people around the state were in favour of nude theatre, others were against, but this incident opened everyone's eyes to the potentially disastrous consequences. Unfortunately, though, we went too far in the opposite direction."

Forbidden audition

The Decency in Performance Act of 1968 banned nudity from the public stage in Tolstoy, though it is strictly a technicality since the Community Center has not been rebuilt. But several other towns in New Hampshire and nearby states also banned nudity from their stages.

"It was all a completely stupid knee jerk reaction," says Betsy Glargh of Hot Crossings, NH, USA. Hot Crossings, despite having a name that seems perfect for nude theatre, is one of the many cities that bans it. As such, Glargh, who turned eighteen three weeks ago, had to travel to Boston, MA, USA to see Clitoroscopy.

"It was so hilarious!" gushes the recent graduate of Coolidge High, whose cousin bought the Clitoroscopy tickets for her and six of her friends. "I got to go backstage and meet all of them, and they told me that I had potential! They told me to try out for an understudy role!"

Her mother, Wilhelmina, learned of Betsy's trip to Boston and immediately grounded her. In response, Betsy moved in with her cousin in Boston and is currently preparing for the audition in several days.

"I thought she'd be happy for me," Betsy laments. "But she's just like everybody else around there. They just want to make it hard for those of us who like good theatre."

According to Betsy, the only place near Hot Crossings that permits nude theatre is over 100km away in Wrexham Ridge, ME, USA.

Nude Theatre Capital of the World

But far from the restrictive society of Hot Crossings is Mt Gronn, New Zealand. Located in the Kakanui Mountains west of Oamaru on the South Island, Mt Gronn is a popular destination for backpackers, photographers, cyclists, and nude theatre enthusiasts.

A sign at the city limits proudly announces Mt Gronn as the "Nude Theatre Capital of the World". And with three theatres dedicated exclusively to expressive performances, Mt Gronn has the highest concentration of nude theatres per capita in the nation, and perhaps in the world as well.

The community is proud of its stature, says mayor Francine Austau. "We've had a very good relationship with the performing arts in this city for over a century. Around 1935, the Glenarm Theatre requested council permission to put on a performance of Nigel's Best Friend in the Whole Wild World. Needless to say, the council at that time was reluctant. But the city embraced it, and that's been our hallmark ever since."

Most shows only run for two to three weeks in Mt Gronn, but those that are successful often move on to make longer appearances in other locations. For example, The Inventions of Nora Jane Smalley completed three weeks in Mt Gronn earlier this year and immediately moved on to the home of its writer, Panda, UT, USA. In two months there, it has played to packed houses every night and is widely considered a frontrunner for the prestigious Sidthorpe Awards.

Our town

Back in Reseda, the cast of What's My Clime have their eyes on Mt Gronn, and perhaps on the Sidthorpes as well. Rick Charleston, who portrays Cenner, purchased a jersey from New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team as a good luck charm. It hangs backstage, and virtually everyone rubs it as they walk past.

En, boyfriend of the show's playwright and director, Kelly Vicsene, feels that their location is holding them back. "Having to play here, instead of somewhere we can do proper nudity, is really hurting us," he says. "People aren't seeing the best performance we can give them."

While it is true that the play was written for completely nude performers, critics do not necessarily feel that total nudity would improve the show. In Reseda Arts Scene, theatre critic Ralf van Hendeyen wrote, "The brash dialogue and relentless physical comedy make a night at What's My Clime one to remember.... Painted silver head to toe, Kathleen Ghinelli delivers a masterful performance as Avisa, a female android whose programming appears to feature a random fetish generator."

So can a compromise be found between the desire to bare all and the need to protect whiny nonnudists? What's My Clime would appear to have found that middle ground, but Nalmontada, in the role of human friend Dione, disagrees.

"The tapdancing scene!" she shouts. "Wouldn't that be so much better without the paint?"

Sitting across the room, En and Vicsene nod in agreement.