published Sunday, June 17th, 2012

"Equus" is undressed in a clothes-minded town

The cast of "Hair" gathers around the stage during a musical number in Wednesday's rehearsal at the Chattanooga Theatre Center. In the 1970s a traveling Broadway version of the show that used nudity was banned in Chattanooga, but actors in the current production will keep their clothes on.
The cast of "Hair" gathers around the stage during a musical number in Wednesday's rehearsal at the Chattanooga Theatre Center. In the 1970s a traveling Broadway version of the show that used nudity was banned in Chattanooga, but actors in the current production will keep their clothes on.
Photo by Jake Daniels.

JUDGE FOR YOURSELF

• “Hair” will be offered on the CircleStage at the Chattanooga Theatre Centre, 400 River St., on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. through July 14. For information, call the box office at 267-8534 or visit www.TheatreCentre.com. Tickets are $18.

• “Equus” will be offered at Barking Legs Theater, 1307 Dodds Ave., Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. from June 21 through July 1. No one under 18 will be admitted. For information, call 987-5141 or visit www.ensembletheaterofchattanooga.com. Tickets are $10.

Blame it on Harry Potter. Had not so much been made of the full-frontal nudity of "Harry Potter" star Daniel Radcliffe in the Broadway play "Equus," the upcoming local production of the psychological drama by Peter Shaffer might not be such a big deal, said Ensemble Theater producer Garry Posey.

Because the local production has nudity, too.

A Chattanooga Theatre Centre production of the musical "Hair" -- various national productions of which have included a brief nude scene -- opens this weekend, and "Equus" begins final rehearsals for its presentation at Barking Legs Theater.

All this comes in the same city that was the subject of a 1975 U.S. Supreme Court case, Southeastern Promotions v. Conrad, which found the city used prior restraint -- suppressing speech before it occurs -- to ban a national touring presentation of "Hair."

But it's 37 years later. A touring production of "Hair," an homage to 1960s counterculture and sexual revolution, has since played in Chattanooga, nudity and all. As has "Oh! Calcutta!" another controversial play from the 1960s that features nudity and simulated sex.

The country, in general, seems to tolerate more from its movies, television shows and Internet content. Yet nudity in a community stage play here, where family values generally rule, has been practically nonexistent.

Poll
Would you attend a play that included nudity?

Legally, the nudity may or may not be a big deal, said Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett.

Adult-oriented establishments, in general, must be licensed by the city, he said, citing sections 11-421 through 11-449 of the city code.

"Whether this constitutes that is another issue," Noblett said. "Mere nudity may not do that. It may not be a big deal."

When it came to their productions, the Chattanooga Theatre Centre and the Ensemble Theater arrived at different conclusions on whether to include the nude scenes.

"Hair" director Scott Dunlap said theater officials' understanding of the law after consultation with an attorney was that theaters had no special dispensation when it came to a display of nudity -- that it would be judged similar to other adult establishments. However, he said the nature of community theater was the deciding factor against it.

"We certainly debated it," he said. "It's always voluntary [in 'Hair' productions] on the part of the cast. It's a choice for the actors. But do we allow our actors to have the choice? Superimposing was that actors would want to bring parents or friends."

Posey, on the hand, had no choice if he was to present "Equus." The rights forbade nude-colored body stockings, underwear or pasties.

"We had to sign an agreement with the publisher, saying we would honor the convention fully," he said.

Posey also said Ensemble board member Leigh Anne Battersby, an attorney, told him their chances of any trouble over the production were remote.

"Could we be arrested? Yes," he said. "Would we be tried? No."

According to the city code, a violation of the adult-oriented establishments article is "a definite sum not exceeding $50."

NUDITY IN CONTEXT

The fuss is over a 20-second scene, normally done behind a scrim, in "Hair," and five to seven minutes at the end of a 21/2-hour show in "Equus."

The message of "Hair" is not that people should be naked, though "it's certainly a purposeful, provocative image of freedom," Dunlap said. The nude scene at the end of the musical's Act I was inspired, he said, by an actual incident in which two men took off their clothes to antagonize police during an informal Vietnam anti-war gathering in New York City's Tompkins Square Park.

"That's a lot of back story to explain 20 seconds," Dunlap said.

The musical also has profanity and simulated sex acts, depicts the use of illegal drugs and shows an irreverence for the American flag.

"In the grand scheme of things, [the nudity] is not that important to the piece," Dunlap said. "There's lots of other things that are shocking and taboo -- plenty of other things to be upset about."

In "Equus," a psychiatrist attempts to treat a young man who has a pathological religious fascination with horses. Toward the end of the play, the young man, in a psychiatric session, reveals and begins to act out a sexual tryst in a stable with a female friend. It is then that he removes his clothes, and he remains nude as he agonizes over what the horses may have seen. Eventually, he blinds them.

Posey said a onetime professor told him "Equus" might be performed with clothes throughout, but his reading of the script said otherwise. And the publisher's demand cinched it.

He and his two co-producers debated the use of the play with its mandatory nudity as, subsequently, did the theater's board and the board of the faith-based St. Andrews Center, where the theater is housed.

Ultimately, Posey said, he made the decision to move the production to Barking Legs Theater.

"I'm still not sure everyone's 100 percent behind [the production]," he said.

"DESENSITIZED"

In the 1975 case, the municipal board charged with managing Memorial Auditorium and the Tivoli Theatre -- headed by then-Commissioner of Public Utilities Steven F. Conrad -- concluded "Hair" would not be "in the best interest of the community," according to the case summary.

The promoter of the show, Southeastern Promotions Ltd., was denied a preliminary injunction to reverse that decision by the U.S. District Court, then turned down again in a full hearing by the District Court, which said the production contained obscene content not entitled to First Amendment protection. That decision, in turn, was affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals.

However, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case on prior restraint, not on the play's merits.

Today, ticket sales for the Theatre Centre's "Hair" are ahead of the pace of last year's "Rent," which sold out 10 shows, Marketing and Public Relations Director Jan Belk said late last week.

"That doesn't mean every show will be sold out," she said.

But apparently, in the years since the show was banned at Memorial Auditorium, standards have changed -- whether that's for better or worse depends on who is asked.

Raleigh Wooten, who has lived in Chattanooga 45 years and served as minister at several churches, including Ware Branch Church of Christ for the past 15 years, said the country's standards in general have loosened since the original "Hair" case.

"We have such a total exposure now on the Internet and the television," he said. "That's the direction we have gone."

Sonia Young, a longtime Chattanooga Theatre Centre backer, said people have become "desensitized" to nudity.

"Nudity is not a problem," she said. "It's not what I'm concerned about. A whole generation has seen it on television. Young people don't bat an eye at it."

The language in "Hair" is less to Young's taste but won't keep her from seeing it. Its history of a time and place and its memorable songs make it attractive, she said.

As to "Equus," the nudity doesn't bother her, but the simulated blinding of horses does. She said she didn't like the Broadway production with Radcliffe and doesn't plan to see it here.

However, Young said, "we can't just always do 'Annie.' There has to be a balance. You can't just keep doing all of the old favorites."

CASTING THE ROLES

Posey said he is fortunate the actors who will be nude, Haden York, 21, and Christy Gallo, 30, were precast before Ensemble even secured the rights to the play.

York had been in a previous production the theater did, and Gallo is one of Posey's co-producers.

"If we'd done an open audition," Posey said, "God knows what we'd had."

York said the director asked him how he would feel about being nude in a play and gave him the script to read.

"I'd heard about it," he said of the script, "because I was a Harry Potter fan. The only thing I knew was that [Radcliffe] was nude."

Once he read it, said York, like Gallo a graduate of the Professional Actors Training Program at Chattanooga State Community College, "everything changed. I said, 'Yeah, it makes sense there is nudity.'"

At the end of the play, as the psychiatric session builds to climax, he said, "[the character] is bare -- his soul, his mental [state], his physical [state]."

"Equus" with Radcliffe was staged so the frontal nudity was somewhat gratuitous, Posey said. Even the promotional photographs showed the actor shirtless, he said.

"The play is not about sex," he said. The Broadway staging "works against us. It doesn't do us any good."

Because nudity "scares even me," Posey said, "I wanted to find a very comfortable way to do it." What resulted, he said, "is really tender" and "not gratuitous."

about Clint Cooper...

Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...

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