Arts

How do you take nudity on stage to the next level? Make it the play's least interesting element

In Salvatore Antonio's "Sheets", performed with nearly all of its cast members partially or fully naked, nudity takes a backstage to intimacy — and that's the point.

In Salvatore Antonio's 'Sheets', nudity takes a backstage to intimacy

Sheets. (Dahlia Katz)

It goes without saying that nudity is very present in playwright Salvatore Antonio's Sheets, with nearly all of its cast members partially or fully naked for much of the performance. But one of the main priorities for Antonio was the idea of rendering nudity something it rarely seems to be on stage: the most boring part of the scene.

"Whenever I saw nudity in plays," he tells CBC Arts, "it always felt like it was saved up, like for the end of a scene. If you got through the writing, there's someone's ass. It always felt like this thing where I was like 'Okay, great. Who gives a shit? Who cares?' So how do you do that without the point of it being daring?"

Well, if you're Antonio, you do that by making a play that's about both the search for intimacy and our innate need for it.

"The play is about witnessing each other," he says. "Allowing yourself to be seen, and really looking at the other. The act of mutual regard might be the ultimate connective offer. Nudity is not synonymous with vulnerability. Sex is not synonymous with intimacy. The space between two people is not necessarily distance."

Taken literally, the space between two actors in Sheets is rarely more than a few feet. Set entirely in a single hotel room, it observes the experiences of its various occupants — from a recent divorcee considering sex with an escort to a disabled man coming home for a funeral.

Sheets. (Dahlia Katz)

The play's first iteration was in 2012 as part of the HATCH residency at the Harbourfront Centre, where participants submit a proposal and are given a week in their theatre with full tech to just try something out. Antonio was just coming off a year where he spent a lot of time in hotel rooms, so they were at the forefront of his mind.

"I was filming around the world in some really nice hotels that just came as part of the contract," he says.  "It was very lonely and disorienting. I imagine it's something, you know, rock stars go through all the time, but for me it was very unusual. And I realized how much I defined myself by my trappings. I became very aware of how different I was in a space that was neutral and had been built to look homey but actually wasn't mine."

Over this year, Antonio spent a lot of time not being able to sleep in these rooms.

"I would do this math," he says. "I would sit in the room and look up when the hotel was built, and then would start doing laws of averages — like, 'If it's been open this long, how people have come through?' Like you're ever going to get to sleep doing that. And then from that I'd wonder how many people had sex in this bed or how people had killed themselves in this bed. What else happened in this room?"

Sheets. (Dahlia Katz.)

When Antonio came back from his jet-setting stint, he did a workshop called "Intimacy and Performance" with the late Adrian Howells, a performance artist from England.

"He shared with us the exercises and the steps and the ideology around exploring intimacy with an audience," Antonio recalls. "Like, how do you achieve shared privacy while making sure to tenderize and not terrorize an audience with it? Which was a really mind-blowing thing for me to think about."

Nudity is not synonymous with vulnerability. Sex is not synonymous with intimacy. The space between two people is not necessarily distance.- Salvatore Antonio, playwright

Out of those thoughts came Sheets, which, after it hatched at HATCH, had the honour of being the final production at Toronto performance space Videofag. And now it's in the midst of a run at The Theatre Centre, the first in a traditional theatrical space. Of course, the play is getting a lot of attention for its largely naked cast. But even though that was never Antonio's point, he doesn't necessarily mind.

"I don't shy away from it," he laughs. "It's in all our marketing and everything — because I also don't want anyone surprised. I'm not here to terrorize anybody or to trap the audience. I want them to know what they're coming into, so that they're a willing participant. And it's still too much for some people."

Sheets. (Dahlia Katz)

Even after all the warnings and notes, the play may still cross a line for some. 

"The audience doesn't know how far we're going to go with anything," he says. "And once you go over a few invisible lines, I can feel people being like, 'I signed on this, this and this, but I don't know if I'm still okay if it goes to that.' And that really excites me as an art maker — to know that we're taking care of an audience, but not holding their hand and not feeding them pablum. Let them do some work, you know?"

Sheets. Written and directed by Salvatore Antonio. Until April 9. The Theatre Centre, Toronto. www.theatrecentre.org

About the Author

Peter Knegt has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada) and playing integral roles in the launch and production of series The Filmmakers and Canada's a Drag. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also a stand-up comedian, the filmmaker of numerous short films and the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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