Arts

Critic’s Notebook

Issues of nudity and power take center stage

Ashley Risteen in “Bare Stage.”
Kippy Goldfarb/Carolle Photo
Ashley Risteen in “Bare Stage.”

In Michael Walker’s “Bare Stage,’’ a new drama at the Plaza Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts, an ambitious young actress named Kate learns that her plum role in a Broadway-bound play comes with very particular strings attached: She will have to perform nude.

To Parker, the male director in “Bare Stage,’’ this requirement is a simple matter of artistic freedom and necessary to fulfill his vision for the play (which he also wrote). To Kate, however, it is considerably more complicated and personal. Should she accede to the demand? What might saying yes or no mean for her nascent career? Does nudity even makes sense for the play, or will it only be a distraction for her costar and the audience?

Ultimately, Kate (Ashley Risteen) comes to see the demand itself as an abuse of power — and she regains the upper hand in a way that takes Parker (Kevin Cirone) by surprise. In a coup de grace, she tells him: “You need your women to be helpless.’’

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If so, Parker is living in the wrong era, because women are no longer willing to feel helpless as they do their jobs in theater, film, or TV. Flawed though “Bare Stage’’ is, the play reflects the current reexamination of nudity — and the imbalance of power that often underlies it — within the entertainment industry, accelerated by the #MeToo movement’s wide-ranging battle to draw bright lines on the boundary between consent and coercion.

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To help ensure that those boundaries are observed on Boston-area stages, the regional theater service organization StageSource plans to invite representatives from Intimacy Directors International to conduct training sessions this spring at local theaters, according to Dawn M. Simmons, executive director of StageSource. “The way it’s been handled in the past no longer works,’’ Simmons says, adding that, as with fight choreographers on stage productions, what’s needed is a specialist “whose job is to look at those moments’’ to ensure “that no one feels violated.’’

Intimacy coordinators help ensure that actors and actresses understand the context of any sex scenes within the story and give full consent to sexually charged material. The coordinators (the term “intimacy choreographer’’ is often used in theater) can give directors guidance on the staging of scenes and monitor the scenes to ensure that performers feel safe.

Few issues can be more of a minefield than nudity. Frankie Shaw, the star and showrunner of Showtime’s South Boston-set “SMILF,’’ landed in hot water over her handling of a female cast member’s nude and sex scenes. Controversy erupted two years ago when a Boston Children’s Theatre production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’’ featured a scene in which an actor was naked. (Most of the nudity on Boston stages in the past few years has tended to involve men, not women, including a recent SpeakEasy Stage Company production of “Small Mouth Sounds.’’)

Risteen is briefly unclothed in “Bare Stage,’’ for a scene in which actress Kate pointedly demonstrates to playwright-director Parker that nudity is detrimental to his cast’s performance and diminishes the impact of his play. However, that scene runs the risk of opening “Bare Stage’’ to accusations that it exploits the very sort of gratuitous nudity it decries.

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“There’s a lot of questions about the play-within-the-play that you could easily turn back on ‘Bare Stage,’ ” says the show’s director, A. Nora Long. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with nudity in the theater as an abstract concept. But I believe nudity, like everything else in a play, has to serve a purpose.’’

“One of the things that really drew me to ‘Bare Stage’ is not only the conversation around when is nudity appropriate in the theater but how the nudity functions structurally in the play,’’ she adds. “Within the structure of the play, it is a real show of strength and power’’ that also illustrates “how we don’t tend to believe women.’’

Ilyse Robbins, who choreographed dance sequences for “Bare Stage,’’ says she had misgivings about the nude scene. “I was very torn working on the piece because of that very thing,’’ she says. “But I do see why [playwright Walker] did it. It does make the point: What is it that we are watching at that moment, when she disrobes? Are you watching the play? Are you watching a naked actress onstage? Michael makes us in the audience ask: Are we still in the story?’’

In a program note, Risteen asserts that the nude scene “was entirely necessary to tell the story effectively. It did not detract,’’ and writes that director Long took “the right steps . . . to ensure an environment in which all involved in the rehearsal and performance process can create and collaborate fearlessly, while remaining mindful of the unique component of the nudity and the vulnerability, and the necessity for all-around-and-continual consent, that comes with it.’’

Actress Evangeline Lilly apparently had a very different experience when she starred on ABC’s “Lost.’’ Last year Lilly spoke up about a time she was “cornered’’ into filming a partially nude scene on the show, telling “The LOST Boys” podcast she felt she had “no choice in the matter. And I was mortified and I was trembling when it finished. I was crying my eyes out.’’ In response to the prevalence of such episodes, intimacy coordinators are being brought on sets to monitor scenes of sexual intimacy — HBO recently announced that intimacy coordinators would be assigned to all of its programs and movies that contain such scenes — and performers who are negotiating movie and TV deals are seeking “nudity riders’’ in their contracts that spell out precise conditions and restrictions.

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Elisabeth Moss, star of Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,’’ and Maggie Gyllenhaal, star of HBO’s “The Deuce,’’ are among those who insisted on clauses in their contracts that enable them to call the shots when it comes to nude scenes. Moss is an executive producer on “The Handmaid’s Tale’’ and Gyllenhaal is a producer on “The Deuce.’’ Notes Long: “Most actors don’t have the power of an Elisabeth Moss.’’

‘I don’t think there’s anything wrong with nudity in the theater as an abstract concept. But . . . [it] has to serve a purpose.’

Moreover, there are obvious challenges presented by nudity to stage actors in particular. “Nudity is rife on the Internet and Hulu and Netflix and HBO, but there’s something different about being in the same room with it,’’ says Long. “The process of making theater is uniquely intimate and asks for a vulnerability, particularly from actors, that you don’t get if you work in a bank.’’

“Theaters haven’t had either the tools or the incentives to really manage it,’’ she says. “But one thing I’ve really observed in the last year is the way the industry is thinking and talking about ways to protect the safety and creativity of performers, that their consent is an essential part of the process. That’s a big change.’’

Indeed, hoping to do her part to accelerate that change, Long now intends to pursue certification as an intimacy choreographer.

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter@GlobeAucoin