Once a decade, it seems, a debate erupts among theatre practitioners, critics, and audiences about the merits and hazards of stage nudity. Creative teams weigh the metaphorical values of baring it all against the concern that actors’ bare bodies may distract from a play’s themes.Tim Firth was aware of such potential sensationalism when he wrote Calendar Girls, based on a true story.
In 1999, when her husband John died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Angela Baker enlisted her friends to raise money for a sofa for the visitor’s lounge in the hospital where John was treated. They created a calendar they thought might sell better than the usual landscape scenes. And sell it did: a half-million copies within three years. Four more calendars and a cookbook have followed, and the modest amount they’d hoped to raise for furniture has become, to date, more than five million dollars for UK’s Leukemia and Lymphoma Research foundation.
Calendar Girls is a fictionalized account of the venture, but the play’s use of nudity reveals more about the characters than merely documenting the deeds of their real-life counterparts. People have appeared nude on stage since time immemorial, for very different reasons. In the 1960s, stage nudity gained political potency, as agitators like The Living Theater bared it all to protest status quo values. Peter Shaffer’s 1973 Equus (which Mary Finnerty directed for Park Square in 1995), used nudity to represent freedom from religious oppression. In the 1980s and 1990s, plays about AIDS, including Angels in America, turned naked bodies into political bodies. In 1999, Wit (which Linda Kelsey has directed) used nudity to represent freedom from the same disease that took John Baker.
Calendar Girls is part of this modern theatrical phenomenon, in which characters lose their clothing but gain much more. Annie responds to her husband’s death with a benevolent act that strips her and her friends bare, literally and figuratively.
“The story wouldn’t be as powerful if we did not see them pose nude,” director Mary M. Finnerty says. “They do it to memorialize one friend and give hope to another. Each must become vulnerable and expose her flaws and recognize her strength. When the women see themselves pictured nude, they accept themselves in a new way and become a stronger community. Watching them confront their fear helps us to love them more.”