With cameras on every phone, will Broadway's nude scenes survive?
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With cameras on every phone, will Broadway's nude scenes survive?
Jesse Williams performs a scene from “Take Me Out,” at the Helen Hayes Theater in New York, March 9, 2022. Audiences are increasingly asked to lock their phones in pouches at comedy shows, concerts and some plays. But what happens onstage doesn’t always stay onstage. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- Jesse Williams was nominated for a Tony Award last month for his work in “Take Me Out,” an acclaimed play about baseball and homophobia. But when his name trended on Twitter the next day, it was not because of the accolade; it was because someone had surreptitiously taken a video of his nude scene and posted it online.

In a recent interview, Williams, who became a star through his appearances on “Grey’s Anatomy,” said he was undeterred by the incident. “I come here to do work. I’m going to tell the truth onstage. I’m going to be vulnerable,” he said. But he also made it clear that he was not all right with what had happened to him, saying that “putting nonconsensual naked photos of somebody on the internet is really foul.”

Mobile phones have long disrupted live performances by ringing at inopportune moments and have irked artists when people use them to illicitly film their work. Now the ubiquity of smartphones with ever-better cameras is leading some actors, particularly celebrities, to reconsider whether to appear nude onstage, given the risk that what is intended as an ephemeral moment can be live online forever, out of context.

“Ten years ago, I don’t think the first thing out of my mouth would have been, ‘Are you OK knowing that there is a decent chance that this will be filmed or photographed and be out there on social media?’” Lisa Goldberg, a publicist who represents actors in Broadway, television and film, said of the discussions she has when a performer is asked to appear nude. “That would be one of the first things I would bring up to a client today.”

Nudity has grown common onstage over the past 50 years, and major stars including Nicole Kidman and Daniel Radcliffe have performed scenes without clothes on Broadway when their scripts have called for it. But the chances of being photographed au naturel have grown considerably. Being Broadway royalty offers no protection: Audra McDonald, who has won six Tonys, noticed in 2019 that someone had snapped a photo of her during a nude scene from “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune.” “Not cool at all,” she wrote in a tweet.

The recent videos of Williams surfaced despite the extraordinary steps that Second Stage Theater, the producer of “Take Me Out,” has taken to protect the privacy of the actors who appear nude. Audience members are required to switch off their phones and place them in pouches that are kept locked until the end of the show. The pouches, made by a company called Yondr, have grown increasingly common in recent years, especially at stand-up shows, since comedians are both fiercely protective of their jokes and concerned that some, taken out of context, could cause blowback.

Roughly 1 million Yondr pouches were used at live events in April, nearly five times as many as were used the same month in 2019, the company said. Other shows with nude scenes are now trying them: At the end of May, Penguin Rep Theatre announced that it would deploy Yondr pouches at its upcoming off-Broadway production of “Mr. Parker” because the show contains a brief moment of nudity.

Graham Dugoni, who founded Yondr in 2014, lamented that many people still have difficulty figuring out how to “be a human in the world with a computer in your pocket.”

“A nude photograph is obviously one very far extreme,” Dugoni said. “But a comedian’s bit being taken out of context and repackaged on social media and reinterpreted — all of these things don’t enhance the art form. They kind of nibble away at it in a way that makes people go into hedgehog mode.”

But the precautions are not foolproof. A night of comedy at the Hollywood Bowl last month was supposed to have been cellphone-free, but when its headliner, Dave Chappelle, was tackled onstage, video emerged from a few people who had managed to skirt the rules. And earlier this spring, when Chris Rock had his first public stand-up set after Will Smith slapped him onstage at the Academy Awards, attendees at the Wilbur Theater in Boston were required to put their phones in Yondr pouches, too. They were only allowed to use them in a designated space near the lobby, where one ticketholder sheepishly asked for his phone back because he had forgotten to text the babysitter. Video of that show emerged, too.

The ease of recording and uploading video has given pause to people thinking of disrobing in other situations, including some college students who have reassessed the wisdom of traditional naked campus runs and habitués of nude beaches, who are increasingly on the lookout for cameras. But it is becoming a particular issue in the theater, where actors who are asked to appear nude must consent to it when they sign their contracts.

Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, said in an interview that many actors believe that live theater is “meant to be participated in within four walls” and that “if that sanctity is compromised, the work suffers.” Recording from the audience, she said, can feel “like a violation — even if you have all your clothes on.”

Advance written consent is required for any filming or photography that involves nudity, union officials said. That includes any video that will appear in Theater on Film and Tape Archive at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, said Patrick Hoffman, director and curator of the archive, which holds more than 4,400 video recordings of live theater productions. Most agree. But over the years, some actors have declined to have their nude scenes recorded for the archive. In some cases, understudies have gone on in their places, and in others, their productions have simply not been recorded. Some videos of shows featuring nudity in the archive are specially formatted so researchers can watch them but cannot pause, rewind or fast forward.

Surreptitious photography posed a challenge to actors appearing nude onstage long before the iPhone debuted in 2007.

The theater environment today, where nudity is a regular feature on Broadway and even in some productions at the Metropolitan Opera, is a far cry from what it was like in 1969, when Margo Sappington, the choreographer and a cast member of the original production of “Oh! Calcutta!,” which featured extensive nudity, was among those arrested on charges of indecent exposure after a performance in Los Angeles.

Even in that pre-smartphone era, cameras were a nuisance, Sappington said. So the company decided on a low-tech mitigation measure: If someone spotted a camera from the stage, they would stop the show, break the fourth wall and call for the ushers.

“Now it’s impossible in a Broadway theater in the dark to see cellphones,” she said. “People are so disrespectful. It amazes me.”

And the leak of the video featuring Williams had an all-too-familiar feeling for Daniel Sunjata, who played the same character, Darren Lemming, when “Take Me Out” first ran on Broadway in 2003. Photos of his nude scenes leaked too, but were somewhat more contained in the era before Facebook and Twitter made social media so pervasive.

“The main difference between now and then is amplitude,” Sunjata said, “the speed, the rapidity with which things like this can be spread.”

But the leaks troubled Sunjata, who had found the nude scenes a challenge to begin with. He said he consulted his lawyers and had “wanted heads to roll.”

For Sunjata, the main difference between performing naked onstage eight times a week before a live audience and having a photo taken of the nudity is less about the photo’s permanence than about the lack of context surrounding it. “Someone who hasn’t seen the play just sees naked guys onstage,” he said.

The current revival of “Take Me Out” has taken further steps to keep people from filming its actors. As a backup to the Yondr pouches, Second Stage Theater has installed an infrared camera with the ability to pan, tilt and zoom so that security officials can see if any members of the audience are trying to film the nude scenes.

At a performance of the play last month, two theater staff members were stationed at the front of the theater at either end of the stage. They stood up during scenes that included nudity. For all the precautions, a phone rang five minutes into the first act. The crowd audibly groaned.

When Williams was asked whether he would sign up again for a show in which he must appear nude, he demurred. “I don’t know,” he said. “My reaction is never as hot or loud or miserable as everybody expects it to be.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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