Somehow I’ve made it to the age of 27 before appearing in underwear on stage.
I realize this may sound like a laughable statement to the greater population… “underwear on stage” sounds like a textbook stress-nightmare, right? (Just before the surprise exam, the flood, and the tiger who looks like your mother.)
But for young ladies pursuing the stage and screen, skivvies in public is something of a hazard of the trade.
It’s just a fact of popular entertainment, especially television and movies. Women get naked, or least get down to their bras. Somehow the collective world audience has decided that the shedding of layers is a necessary plot device to any story in any genre.
- Family drama? You’re the troubled older sister who overdoses on prescription pain pills and runs out into the Minnesota snowstorm… in her underwear.
- Psychological thriller? Forget the predictable shower scenes: You’re the hard-hitting reporter who’s unlikely friendship with a serial killer takes a turn for the worst when he breaks into your house… as you’re getting ready for bed.
- Romantic comedies? Please. Without even delving into the entire sub-genre of sophomoric “sex-comedies,” be prepared to spend at least 30 minutes onscreen in a combination of satin, sequins, and skin as you look for love in all the wrong places.
Each time a young woman reads a script, she has to look for that scene(s) and decide if she cares and if it’s “worth it.” And sometimes it is. Sometimes partial or full nudity really is necessary to tell the story. If it’s well-written, the audience won’t get distracted from the story and the lives they are witnessing.
Now I say women getting naked is a fact for “especially television and movies,” but it’s a big part of live theatre too… and it can especially nerve-wracking to be the girl in underwear on stage. After all… you’re not only running around a film crew in your skivvies, but you’re right there in front of dozens of people, who are all just sitting there.
Ingenues in bath towels, bikinis, and bras are a regular fixture in most modern plays. Add the centuries of scripts that are continually produced as “period pieces,” and now you have skivvies through the ages to contend with!
I’ve wriggled into my fair share of corsets, bustiers, padding, slimmers, and any number of scary, stretchy contraptions under my costumes. But so far, those contraptions have yet to be the actual costume.
So far. You see where I’m going with this?
“Keep yer shirt on”
I say I’ve avoided underwear on stage and on screen so far, and that much is true. But I’m in the minority, I know… I’ve seen nearly all of my actress girlfriends on stage in lingerie, swimsuits, flimsy towels, and many many corset/garterbelt combos. At 19, even my mother wore a white cotton bra and panties onstage in the first and only play she ever performed in (she still blames the underwear).
So how have I made it to this ripe old age with all of my assets covered?
Partly because of the characters I play. Yes, I play ingenues, and usually of the sweet-and-put-upon variety… but neither of those are guarantors of onstage modesty. Partly it’s because directors in the venues where I have worked (in educational and community theatre, particularly) have deemed their audiences too “conservative” and have preferred to show intimacy with kissing and “the afterglow” rather than undressing. Sometimes I’ve agreed with the editorials, sometimes not.
Partly, I’ve avoided the skivvie-show by pure coincidence. F’rinstance, in college, I was double cast in Pippin as part of The Company and as Catherine. Nearly all my female Company cast-mates were outfitted in elaborately, amazingly decorated bras and tutus… for variety, the costumer put me and one other girl in lace-up leggings and long, low-cut, flowing tunics. Even as Catherine, who is physically stripped of her costume, wig, and jewels during the play, I was still in a full length, nude-colored slip.
And then –again, in a traditionally risque show– last year I was costumed in The Rocky Horror Show as a man (ooh, I loved the mustachios!).
By pure coincidence, I found myself in more “conservative,” and certainly more masculine attire then the actual men in the show… In fact, as with Pippin, I was quite literally the most modestly dressed person onstage.
So far –as far as I can remember, anyhow– the most risque things I’ve worn on stage were pretty darn tame. A “nude,” full-length bodysuit covered with vines when I played Eve in Up From Paradise (at age 15) and a traditional “man’s shirt over skivvies” when I played The Girl (the Marilyn Monroe part) in The Seven Year Itch.
Both left me completely comfortable, and mostly covered.
But an equal part of how I’ve maintained my mystique (such as it is)–especially recently– is because of conscious decisions I’ve made about what is and isn’t “worth it.” A couple of years ago, after about a week of agonizing and polling other actor- and director-friends whose opinions I respect, I turned down a part I auditioned for that would have required me to take off my bra on stage.
See? It happens, and not just in teensy little indie theatres, or midnight shows.
The show was a modern thriller / black-comedy at a reputable theatre where I really wanted to work. The “reveal” was actually a very funny bit in the script, and probably would have been fairly well concealed, and there would be a lot of funny confusion happening, and maybe it wouldn’t have even shown that much… those were all the arguments for taking the part.
My polled responses were so varied… most of the women said “It seems scary, but it’s really not a big deal, once you get used to it.” And “If it makes sense in the script, you’ll find a way to make it work.” And, “It’s a really fun part at a good theatre… you don’t want them to think of you as a picky/difficult actor.” And “Just tell them you’re concerned and they’ll treat it really carefully so you’re comfortable.” All true.
(My sister, by the way –not an actor– said, “Oh, just go for it! You’ll look so cute!”)
Others –men and women– cautioned me to be careful. “Make sure you really think it’s important to the play, otherwise you’ll never get used to it.” And “You don’t want to be the go-to girl when they need someone to take her top off.” And “You’re still starting out… you need to make sure you know what you are and aren’t willing to do.” Also, all true.
In the end, I made up my own rule. At this point in my life, I’m just not ready to do anything on stage my Dad would be embarrassed to see. He’s pretty open-minded, but there are situations that might weird him out to see his youngest daughter in.
So I turned down a part for the first time in my life. In cases like that –as many of my girlfriend’s know– sometimes it seems so much easier to “take off your top” than to “pull on the big-girl panties” and really represent yourself. But a year later, I was cast in a different show at that same theatre and have since worked there several times (so much for being branded a “difficult actor!”).
The “Daddy Rule” is also the one I followed when I auditioned for and was offered a part in my first film last summer. I immediately read the full script before accepting, found that scene, and called the director to negotiate. It wasn’t about the clothes (or lack of them) in that case, but about what I’d be doing in them… I didn’t feel like it was the only way to tell the story, and yes, I decided it was a deal-breaker for me. She (the director / writer) was willing to be flexible, we figured out an alternative option, and I signed on.
Sometimes I think I was really lucky to find someone willing to accommodate me–I’m sure many of the other girls who auditioned who might not have found the scene a big deal. The director could have easily decided not to change a thing except the actress.
On the other hand, I wonder if people just don’t speak up often enough… In either case, I’m glad I took the risk and I’m still pretty proud of myself for sticking to my own rules.
Take it Off!
So, now we come to it. Here I am, at 27, in my first role that requires me to undress (within reason) on stage.
I’m playing Stella in A Streetcar Named Desire and Mr. Tennessee Williams writes a scene that begins with Stella dressing for an evening out with her sister. And it fits within all my rules and guidelines.
- Will my Dad be embarrassed? Nah… I’m wearing a vintage 50s “cone-bra” and high-waisted girdle with “granny panties” underneath (to cover my tattoo). All of that gets covered with a slip in a matter of 2 or 3 minutes. Several layers really, and all more modest than the fairly modest swimsuit I wore all summer
- Is it important to the play? Yes, because it’s important to see Stella & Stanley in their “natural environs,” being comfortable with themselves and each other in their lives, their home, and in their skin. It emphasizes the strain they feel on their space and their relationship by having Sister Blanche stay for months.
- Am I comfortable doing it? Well… I am now.
I’ve been wearing the whole under-get-up in the rehearsal hall for two weeks now, ages before all the other costumes were ready.
I figured I’d build up my resistance, as it were, if I could just get used to stripping down in front of people (including the small pack of 10-12 year-old boys, all of whom I forgot would be in the room until the first time I turned around sans shirt… their mothers were all there and all the boys were very respectful well-behaved… if slightly saucer-eyed at first).
And besides… apart from the “ack! I’m in my underwear!” aspect, there’s also the practical necessity of rehearsing in the right zippers and snaps… I have to actually get the dress on before the scene is finished, without falling over, getting stuck, or forgetting my lines.
Ok, so all this may strike you as my being unnecessarily apprehensive, but remember! This is my first time! If it weren’t for the gift of coincidental modesty, I’d have gone through this 8 or 9 years ago with the rest of the ladies!
Anyhow. All justifications aside… after our opening weekend and three shows in front of an audience full of total strangers just sitting there and looking at me, I am finally, finally confidant when I walk out of the dark wings and into the bright lights in just my girdle, my bra, my thigh-high seamed stockings and, oh yes, the blonde wig.
(I have to say… the wig helps. Even if it is my natural color, it’s been awhile and I still get the “total transformation” buzz going. Definitely helps!)
And lo and behold, aside from a week’s worth of self-induced agonizing (is there any other kind?) over my thighs and an actual “ack! I’m in my underwear!” moment on our preview night, I am ok. I really feel fine about it. Even better, I feel like the moment is totally fitting with my character in that scene and the whole incidence passes quickly, naturally, and in context. It really, truly is, as they say, “no big deal.”
And I got to be the one to decide that.
Skivvies Status Update: I guess I must really be comfortable with the undress-code by now… last weekend, I forgot to even put my slip on for several minutes, and just waltzed around stage in the dreaded girdle and bra! Guess we’re all ok now.