Here’s the weirdest news of the day:
There’s a play in the UK to which ordinary women are invited to go on stage and strip naked, ostensibly to teach us that females are not the airbrushed, botoxed, and silicon-based life forms seen in Playboy and porn flics.
My question to female readers of the Fellowship: “If they brought ‘Trilogy’ to Broadway, would you strip naked and prance around on stage like these UK women?”
My question to male readers of the Fellowship: “Would you pay money to see this show?…and…would you join the women, naked, on stage?”
Hundreds of women are venturing on stage to take off their clothes in front of an audience of strangers – but what’s the attraction?
By Sally Williams - 23 Jan 2010
Odd to end an interview by watching your subject dance around naked on stage. I’d met Jenny Gaiawyn, 30, a humanitarian aid worker, in the dressing room of the Barbican theatre. One minute she’s telling me how she had a “negative body image” and always covered up, and how even her shorts were long (“Always down to there,” she says, pointing to below her knees). The next she’s completely starkers in front of hundreds of strangers. And not just standing, but jumping up and down, doing high kicks to the Clash (what happens to the buttocks is a revelation), thrashing her hair, having a high old time. And not just Jenny. I was taken aback to find phalanxes of naked women, marching onto the stage, and then dancing wildly. The sheer variety of breast shapes was eye-opening. And that’s the whole point.
Devised in Glasgow in 2007, the show premiered at the Edinburgh Festival in the summer, where it was hailed as “so disarmingly direct and passionate it makes you want to join the dance”. It is now showing in London before touring the country later in the year.
Trilogy is about many things: body dissatisfaction, dominant masculine hegemony, Germaine Greer. But perhaps the most extraordinary thing is that so many women jumped at the chance to get their kit off. The show, a mixed-media on-stage essay of dance, sketches and footage, has the distinction of using “real” women, not actors, for the six-minute nude dancing scene which ends part one.
And each venue requires a new set of women. The company placed ads in community centres, belly dancing groups, Facebook – “everywhere you can think of that’s womencentric or otherwise,” says Green, who was stunned by the response. There were 120 women at the first Barbican rehearsal, ranging in age from 18 to 73. Then a contingent arrived from Scotland, and now there are 170, and still counting. Green says yes to everyone who turns up. “That ‘A’ word – audition – is so banned from this company.”
These aren’t the only women stripping off. Ever since 1999, when a group of ladies from the Rylstone Women’s Institute in North Yorkshire posed wearing nothing but a smile, we have seen increasing numbers of women posing naked for calendars, from Royal Opera House stars to the villagers of Clawddnewydd. “These aren’t Pirelli-style or page-three girls,” says Ellie Levenson, author of The Noughtie Girl’s Guide to Feminism who notes, too, the increase in ads in women’s magazines for discreet photo sessions for nude portraits.
So is this a brave, new, butt-naked world for women? “In the past, taking your clothes off was something only ‘bad girls’ did,” says Ellie. “But now showing off your body or getting naked doesn’t mark you out as being naughty.” She thinks this is part of the “pornification” of society in which we are so bombarded with sexual images and nudity that it isn’t shocking to see – or do – anymore. But this isn’t the whole story. “There is also a feminist element, an acceptance that our bodies come in all shapes and sizes and are something to be celebrated rather than something of which we should be ashamed.”
This was certainly a driver for Green. She talks of the cold appraising way in which women eye each other up. “When I would meet a woman, very quickly I would compare myself with her. I just thought, how sad to put a distance between two human beings before anything has ever happened.”
The women appearing at the Barbican first met on Monday evening and the move to nudity was gradual. It took three sessions for the women to undress; a process that involves lots of “sharing” (that is, talking) and supporting. Green says the women’s motivations range from wanting to rebuild after dark situations – illness, operations or abuse – to “just wanting to do something different”.
“At the beginning of this process I would say I was a victim of rape, now I would say I’m a survivor of rape,” says Jenny, who is small and intense with dyed blue hair. She first saw the show in Edinburgh last year, where she ended up “in the buff on stage singing Jerusalem” (at the end of the show there’s a chance for female members of the audience to take their clothes off and join in). “If someone had said I would do that, I would have laughed in their face.”
Jean Atkinson, a sporty 58-year-old, saw a newspaper ad in London, where she works as a teacher. “It was such an exciting opportunity to be with like-minded women. Most of my friends my age would never take their clothes off in public – ever.”
Susi Halley, 34, a sexual health adviser, was similarly enthusiastic. “For me it’s about showing women we wobble, we shake, we’ve got big bums and actually an airbrushed magazine is not something to be aspiring to. You can be beautiful whatever shape and size you are.” She’s dancing for all women who “feel trapped in their bodies”.
Sarah Hopfinger, 21, a performance artist from Edinburgh, with pre-Raphaelite hair, says she and her body had fallen out: “I felt very distant from it.” But being on stage with so many other women is where she can feel “my body is me” – where she can be herself.
The most startling thing about Trilogy is not the nudity – after a while the nakedness becomes as everyday as a suit – but the air- punching defiance. It’s one in the eye for the perfect size 10s, says Dr Susan Marchant-Haycox, a psychologist. “You don’t get a body like Victoria Beckham’s through normal eating. But these women hop on stage and say: ‘Yeah, forget the Beckhams of the world, forget people like Jordan with enormous boobs, let’s celebrate what we’ve got.’”
But can stripping really be a feminist issue? Isn’t there a danger, particularly in a mixed audience, that you become a sex object as well as a sex subject? (I saw one elderly gentleman in the theatre who turned up clearly expecting great things.)
“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘stripping’,” says Green. “Stripping is a titillating act not included in this work. I would say we are ‘unclothed’ and ‘naked’. There is a lot of nakedness in this performance, but there is also a lot of really intelligent dialogue.” She’s right: there are, it becomes clear, more than enough quotations from The Female Eunuch to stop anyone getting steamed up.
The truth is that the theatre is the least sexy environment in the world – but everyone had fun. We whooped, we clapped a lot and cheered. Afterwards, Jean enthused about “the warmth, the energy, the glow, the heat”, and hoped her husband, who was in the audience, liked it. Susi felt “a tribal feeling of coming together”; Sarah felt “joyous”; Jenny felt “celebratory”. Playful? I volunteer. But that was going too far. “That really plays down the message that is coming across.”
In the interval, I spoke to one women in her twenties who was enjoying it so much, she wished she’d brought her boyfriend. “He’s so old-school,” she says. “He thinks women should be covered up.” She sips her wine. “But he’s French, what can you do?”