Last summer, Pitr Strait and Alice Mottola co-directed a nude, all-female production of The Tempest in New York City’s Central Park. The public nudity was intended to empower women and celebrate their bodies, and it started discussions about body positivity. After the play, some audience members thanked Strait and Mottola for “sparing” them the sight of naked men, and the directors realized they had touched a nerve. Encouraged by strong reactions to the play both in the audience and online, they formed a theater company — Torn Out Theater — to continue exploring modern sexuality, gender, and the body.
This summer, Torn Out brought an all-male production of Hamlet to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, and several of the actors get naked during the performance. Director Pitr Strait talked to MEL about how it all came together, what the nudity represents, and why men need body positivity, too.
What inspired you to combine Hamlet and nudity?
For us, the nudity in Hamlet is a way of expressing, on the one hand, Hamlet’s madness and the madness of others, because it’s a crazy thing to do to walk around naked in public — especially as a man, who has been told most of his life that his nudity is not desirable. But it also, the more we worked on it, came to represent honesty and transparency. When you’re naked, you really don’t have anything to hide, or anywhere to hide. You’re just out there being yourself. For us, that’s what Hamlet as a play is really about. It’s about a man looking for the truth, trying to be honest, even when everyone is telling him that he’s insane to do what he’s doing.
Honesty and transparency have come up a lot lately in relation to Trump. Is this play making a political statement — albeit in a more subtle way than the recent Public Theater production of Julius Caesar?Yes. At the beginning of the play Hamlet, Claudius is king. He’s settling disputes, he’s lifting the spirits of the nation, but he’s also, as we come to learn, a liar, and extremely reliant on secrecy and espionage and deceit. He’s a very skilled politician, and Hamlet has no interest in that. The concept of “shuffling” comes up multiple times in the play. Shakespeare is literally shuffling things around, while also metaphorically manipulating and recontextualizing things to hide the fault. For Hamlet, there’s no shuffling — and for Shakespeare, there’s no shuffling. We definitely do think about Trump. Not as much as the Public Theater, but it came up.
I feel like it’s impossible to do anything creative or artistic right now without it coming up.
There’s a line that for us is very Trump-ish. It’s from one of the “shuffling” speeches. Claudius is alone, and he’s praying. He’s trying to figure out how to pray, how he can possibly repent for what he’s done, because he’s not willing to sacrifice the prize from his crime. He regrets the murder, but he doesn’t regret becoming king and getting a wife. He says,
“In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law.”
If you cheat your way to the top, you’re not going to get prosecuted for your crimes, because you now run the system. As long as you lie big enough, and cheat big enough, and get enough power in doing so, no one can touch you for what you did to get there. If that doesn’t make you think of Trump, I don’t know what will.
What were you hoping to accomplish with this production?
I was expecting that the presence of male nudity would be very unusual for a lot of people. Even if they know there are going to be naked men in the show, once it starts happening and there are a bunch of naked men running around the park, I expected that to take some getting used to, because you just don’t see a lot of male nudity in the arts.
Why is it still a bigger deal if a guy gets naked in a movie or TV show?
It may sound clichéd, but we live in a society that’s dominated by the male gaze, and the naked female form has been commercialized and commodified for time immemorial. If you’re born into that world, at some point, both men and women, gay, straight, queer, whatever, we’re all programmed to see the naked female form as a standard beautiful thing. Given that most media is still today controlled by middle-aged men, they don’t want to see a lot of dicks, so dicks just don’t usually work their way into their projects.
Also, the naked female form isn’t linked to sexual violence in the same way that the naked male form is. If a naked woman walks up to you in the street, you might be concerned about a lot of things happening, but sexual assault is probably not one of them. That’s part of the reason that we picked Hamlet. My directing partner who I formed the company with, Alice Mottola, said, “It’s a shame that the women got magical, uplifting, positive nudity in The Tempest, and the men get the tragedy where everyone dies.” But then, after we worked on it for a while longer, she said, “You know what? It makes sense, because male nudity is tragic. It is linked to fear and violence and anxiety in a way that female nudity isn’t.”
How much of the play involves nudity? Does every character get naked at some point?
There are some characters that never get naked. There ended up being a lot less nudity in the performance than we were expecting. As much as the nudity concept is important, it should never take precedence over the logic of the play itself. For The Tempest, it made sense for everyone to be naked or almost naked by the end, because both the text of the play and the concepts we built around it led in that direction.
In Hamlet, the first nudity is the Ghost. The Ghost shows up almost entirely naked. He’s in the process of being burned away in the fires of Purgatory, and especially back in Shakespeare’s day, with old-world Christianity, there was this idea that when you went to Purgatory, you would have everything of your mortal life burned away until all that is left is the purity of your soul. We see the Ghost sort of halfway through that process, having his outside shell, his outside life, being burned away.
Hamlet is the next person to get naked, and then he’s naked for the rest of the play. The king never gets naked. When he prays alone, he takes off his shirt and jacket in an attempt to bare his soul, but the truth of the matter is he can’t. That scene ends with him saying, “My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go.” He cannot bring himself to be honest, even before God.
Did this year’s cast of men feel differently about the nudity than last year’s cast of women did?
Both casts, women and men, went into it with some apprehension, but were excited about the project — especially once they had a chance to talk to us and the rest of the company. With both casts, there was a day that we started working with the nudity, and people were a little nervous. There was stage fright, and then both men and women dove into it, and by the end of the day, it was just normal.
Back in Shakespeare’s day, all of the roles would have been played by men. How did you handle the women characters?
The women characters, in our production, are men. I really had no interest in trying to play these characters as women. For me, Ophelia and Gertrude manifest themselves as men who are treated differently by the rest of the world, partially because of the way that they live in their bodies. Their costumes were much more covered up, much more constrained. Also, they don’t talk much. They’re given very little room to make their own choices and speak their minds. It became much more about status. … Unlike a lot of other Shakespearean women, Ophelia and Gertrude don’t actually tell us much about feminine identity. They tell us about the feminine experience of living in a patriarchal society, where every little part of their life is carved out by other people, and managed by other people — by men — but that tells us less about what it means to be a woman and more about what men do to people they see as submissive to them.
What does body positivity mean to you personally?
As a kid, many of my friends were girls, and that meant that I heard a lot about how women talked about men, and how girls talk about each other, and there was so much fear and second-guessing.
I remember when I was 13, we took a class trip to the pool. I was very self-conscious because I was a gawky teenager. I was walking around in my swimsuit, and I was a shrimpy little skinny guy. I couple of my friends made a very obviously sarcastic joke — it was very clear they were joking — about me being fat. In hindsight, I don’t know how I took it seriously, but I did. I took it so hard. I knew I wasn’t fat, but for some reason, I got red-faced and kind of scurried away. I’ve spent a lot of time getting to a place where I’m okay with my body both clothed and naked.
How have audiences reacted to Hamlet so far? Has it been different from the reactions you got to The Tempest?
Shockingly, not as different as I expected. One of my biggest questions going into it this year was “What are our audiences going to be like? Are they going to be smaller? Are they going to be more or less unruly?” but we had about the same size audience, maybe a bit bigger, because we have a bit of a history now. We got about the same number of jackass kids riding by on their bicycles yelling shit. This year, I think there were a few more shocked faces in the crowd when the first naked male bodies started walking around. We had a very stoic audience for The Tempest.
Did anything surprise you while working on this production?
I was surprised at how hard Hamlet is. It’s an incredibly difficult play to work on. Our actor who played Hamlet, Jake Austin Robertson, said multiple times, “The nudity is just another thing I have to remember to do. The Shakespeare is the hard part.”
Is nude Shakespeare kind of Torn Out’s thing now? Or do you have other plans for the future?
The Shakespeare is where we started, and I’m sure that we’ll continue to explore that particular type of performance. If nothing else, next summer, we’d really like to do another performance like this, either with Shakespeare or a Shakespeare contemporary, that is not a single-gender cast, just to close out that trilogy.
We’re also developing an anthology of fairy tale adaptations that are specifically geared to explore gender and sex. A lot of those old Grimm’s fairy tales are extremely sexually charged in weird and sometimes very creepy ways.
Torn Out Theater’s production of Hamlet will be performed at the King Jagiello Statue in Central Park on September 7 and 8 at 5 p.m. Admission is free.