Live Nude Improv

I’m willing to admit I can be a curmudgeon. And as I get older, I fight it less and embrace it more. But being a complex human being, I also have a strong romantic streak that can find the beauty in a plastic bag floating around an abandoned parking lot.

This yin and yang was tested on Saturday night when I attended the one-night-only reprise of Live Nude Improv as part of the 3rd Annual Improvised Play Festival at the Hideout Theatre. This show, which won some awards when it debuted a couple of years ago, has more buzz than any improv show I know. And so, when I purchased my ticket, I had a little internal debate:

Curmudgeon Andrew: Fah! Naked improv? I’m sure it’s just some artsy fartsy nonsense, an excuse for all these sexually adventurous improvisers to have a cuddle party!

Romantic Andrew: You’ve got it all wrong, old man. This is about art. It’s about pushing the traditional boundaries of the art form!

Curmudgeon: You just want to see if your cock is bigger than Marc Macher! This is oddity for oddity’s sake. There cant possibly be a grand statement being made. After all, nudity onstage stopped being interesting in the mid-60s when “Hair” debuted on Broadway.

Romantic: Admittedly, I’m curious how I stack up, phallically speaking. But improv aims for vulnerability in performance. And what is more vulnerable than nudity? How is the improv affected by being butt-ass naked?

So yeah, I went in with both an open mind and an upturned eyebrow. Was the buzz this show had developed deserved, or was this a bauble, a sideshow, an improv experiment interesting only insofar as you might see someone’s butt acne?

But the curmudgeon in me lost this battle, and I’m compelled to admit that I enjoyed the hell out of Live Nude Improv (LNI).

For starters, it defied whatever half-baked expectations I’d developed.The theater itself was transformed from a traditional proscenium to a “theater in the round.” The audience sat on chairs, couches, and makeshift benches 360-degrees around the room. The performance took place in the middle, so no angle was hidden.

I love shows in the round. It creates instant engagement. If it doesn’t completely obliterate the fourth wall, it certainly dilutes it. We the audience were abuzz with the fun of sitting in a big fat circle.

And then there was the show itself…

Part of my suspicion going in had to do with how the nudity would be justified. Somehow I had decided that the show would be a traditional montage of improv scenes that would attempt to justify nudity. E.g., “Welcome to the doctor’s office, Ms. Jones! Please remove your robe so we can begin the examination.” That kind of thing.

I was wrong. Live Nude Improv was a lot more like the recent mainstage show Fandom (both of which were directed by the Hideout’s Education Director, Andy Crouch). Fandom was focused on experimenting with a genre in any way it wanted—short-form games, highly directed narrative stories, audience interaction and performance, etc. That experimentation held over to LNI.

This show’s story became an exploration of the traditional James Bond-esque spy thriller. But instead of just telling the story in a linear manner, Andy and the rest of the cast kept jumping around in time, showing a scene and then dissecting it a bit, offering voice-over narration, jump-cutting, slow-motioning, asking for audience suggestions all the while, etc. There was plenty of good, old-fashioned funny improv—-a fight between our spy hero (played by a bikini-brief-clad Andreas Fabis) and his Armenian nemesis (played by some dude from the audience) in a sauna was especially riveting—there was also a sense of ownership. Anyone in the room could shout out their thoughts for what should happen next, and more often than not, it did.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE NAKED PEOPLE?

For starters, only two people in the cast got 100% naked, one man and one woman. About three others got down to their underwear, and the rest stayed clothed the entire show. It was a mixed bag.

This was disappointing. Seeing a scene between a fully nude woman and two clothed improvisers seemed incongruous. I wondered if the clothed players were scared to get naked. If so, why were they in this show? If not, and if they didn’t undress simply because the scene didn’t really justify it, then should the format/direction change to force them into their birthday suits? Naming a show “Live Nude Improv” and then showing only brief moments of nudity from a small percentage of the cast is false advertising. (To be fair, this was a reprise of a cast that hasn’t done this show in two years. So they’re to be excused if they weren’t comfortable or warmed up to the nudity.)

That said, the nudity and partial nudity was often compelling. Because, ya know, hey, there’s a naked lady right there! And um, I’m pretty sure that’s a cock I see across the room! You don’t see naked people doing improv often. So yeah, there is a fair jolt of novelty involved.

But the nudity, when it did show up, was too brief to do much. What I want to know is, How does being naked affect a performer and a scene? But with brief scenes, and witht he performers (understandably) getting re-dressed as soon as the scene ends, we were robbed of what would’ve been the most artistically compelling aspect of this show.

BUT WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER NUDITY?

The audience interaction bit extended to our clothing. Toward the end of the show, as the director passed by the row I was sitting on and pointing to each of us, naming each of us a different famous dead British celbrity (it was part of the story onstage), my fellow benchwarmers began to undress. And a moment later I looked and saw that everyone on my row was in their underwear. Everyone except me.

Why not me?

Because (a) my family has a long-standing, proud tradition of remaining fully clothed at all times, and (b) I didn’t see the point. It’s not like we were in the show. And it wasn’t as if this was suddenly a show about creating a “safe space for showing off our bodies.” It was just a silly bit tossed in at the end of a particular scene, and everyone around me bought it. They got mostly naked, y’all.

Now, I don’t begrudge them their nudity. Hell, I’m even a bit jealous of their sense of whimsy and body pride. But why did they do it? I think it’s because others were. About 1/3 of the audience was shedding some amount of clothing, so they did too. But this wave of concurrent stripping didn’t become a tidal wave. Most of us remain dressed (including much of the actual cast). So the “Nude” part of “Live Nude Improv” remained mostly a shtick, an aspiration, not a mandate.

BUT WHAT DO YOU REALLY THINK?

Reading back over this absurdly long post, I think a reader might mistake my “analysis” as criticism. It’s not. Because in the end, I really loved this show. The improv itself was very solid, and the slight electric buzz coursing through the audience kept me engaged for all 80 minutes. In the end, I think the promise or suggestion of possible nudity was the point. It wasn’t that I was expecting or hoping for 100% nude; it’s that, at any moment, someone might decide to strip down. The potential was the point.

And that’s why, when this show is revised two years from now, I’ll see it again. And I’ll giggle like a schoolboy in his first Sex Ed class. And I’ll marvel at the bravery of the players onstage.

But I’ll be buttoned up, right up to my Adam’s apple.

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