Nudity or Crudity: a conversation with Mary Tuomanen about THE BODY LAUTREC

Dear Phindie readers,

Because of inappropriate comments I made in my introduction to this interview with Mary Tuomanen, we have chosen to add a disclaimer to this interview.

By making my interview about Debra Miller’s opinions of the play, I invited readers to attack her and posed see her as an exemplar of censorship—which is not in the least bit properly representative of her review. By acting without considering my actions or my prejudices, I did damage.

Dr. Miller pointed this out to me, and I did not believe her. [Please read Dr. Miller’s comment on the piece, below: click here] It was only after multiple people had either approached me about this, or else made inappropriate comments on the article, that I realized the cruelty of my piece.

Particularly as an editor of Phindie, an independent criticism website intended to improve the theater community, this was not only unprofessional of me and unkind, but also damaging to Dr. Miller and to a worthwhile discussion.

This does not reflect Phindie’s perspective on the issue nor Ms. Tuomanen’s. The concepts which Ms. Tuomanen discussed are still pertinent, but because of my inappropriate framing of them, we have decided that we must add a disclaimer to the article. We are not interested in removing the interview from the website, but we cannot host it without admitting my error.

Yours apologetically,

Julius Ferraro, Phindie theater editor

Kate Raines in THE BODY LAUTREC © Jacques-Jean Tiziou /”

Kate Raines in THE BODY LAUTREC © Jacques-Jean Tiziou /”

Phindie writer Deb Miller got the first word on The Body Lautrec, Aaron Cromie and Mary Tuomanen’s dance/drama about the life and livelihood of French post-impressionist painter/bohemian Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Lautrec, famous for his unusual body and his paintings of prostitutes and their unglamorous lives, died of syphilis in his thirties.

The play uses clowning, burlesque, some surprising realism, as well as nudity and crudity to investigate the themes of Lautrec’s work and the somewhat depraved life he and his friends lived. Miller’s review suggests that the “crudity” in the piece “repels,” existing in order to create “a convincingly debased tone.”

Having seen the piece myself (admittedly on a different night) I felt that Miller’s perspective, though exquisitely worded and careful not to disparage the work of the performers, skewed the piece’s intention. By putting filth first, she misses out on what seems to me an intricately rendered and in fact smartly feminist play.

Her review opens the door on an important conversation about nudity on stage, a conversation Philly’s feminist theater-makers have been struggling to create.

I asked Tuomanen, who directed the piece, to talk about The Body Lautrec. On extremely short notice, she agreed (“Aaron called me, said someone was upset about Lautrec and you wanted to ask me some questions.”) We talk about filth, exploitation, agency, and other uplifting stuff.

Julius Ferraro: So Deb’s review came out, and she was kind of disgusted, and you find that fascinating.

Mary Tuomanen: Yeah, definitely.

JF: Why?

MT: It’s interesting that we’re making a show about a painter who, when he exhibited his paintings in Paris, he had to have them covered with velvet cloth, like certain paintings in the brothel series, they weren’t just displayed, you’d have to go into a different area and lift up a cloth to see his paintings.

They were found very offensive at the time, so I think maybe . . . I’m surprised we’re offending someone because I certainly don’t think the show’s offensive. But if we are, maybe we’re doing something right.

JF: I saw the show last night, really enjoyed it. But Deb’s review displayed disgust with everything from the explicit nudity to the conversation about nipples.

MT: I’m surprised that a woman can’t talk about her nipples on stage without offending somebody. Especially when she’s playing a prostitute.

JF: The piece is pretty explicit, it’s more explicit than most people are used to.

Charlotte Ford's Bang, presented as part of the 2012 FringeArts festival, discussed female nudity and women's agency

Charlotte Ford’s Bang, presented as part of the 2012 FringeArts festival, discussed female nudity and women’s agency

MT: You’d think in this town . . . Charlotte Ford did Bang, and people, especially women, are constantly trying to re-appropriate nudity on stage. It seems to be a major struggle, and certainly we did a lot of negotiation with it in our rehearsals. We did a lot of naked rehearsals where everyone, the stage manager, everybody, I was, everyone was nude. And we would just do a bunch of crazy stuff, at one point we used paint to see if that was interesting. We smeared paint all over each other.

We really wanted a moment in the show when everybody was nude. And certainly I hope the show does have a continued life and if it does have a continued life it’s something I want to figure out a way to do.

And because of the organic way in which we explored the nudity, and the . . . line in the scene where Kate [Raines] talks about her nipples, the lines in the scene were improvised by the actors. Most of the text comes out of either improvisations that the actors did or writing they did about their characters individually.

Like, I curated it and edited it and stuck it together, but it’s . . . I’m surprised. It’s interesting though. It’s also good to strike a chord with people. I do think we are a little backwards in America. Everyone has the right to be offended. But I do think that we’re much more cagey with nudity than other countries. One of the actresses in the show is Polish and she was a classmate of mine at the Lecoq school. And when I approached her about the play I said there might be nudity and she was like, yeah, uh huh, yes? She was nonplussed by the idea. And it’s still a little scandalous in America in a way that it’s really not in Europe.

An image from Romeo Castellucci's THE FOUR SEASONS RESTAURANT, featuring nudity.

An image from Romeo Castellucci’s The Four Seasons Restaurant, featuring nudity.

I don’t know if you’ve seen the Castellucci. It was really gorgeous but there was also a lot of nudity in it. And . . . it’s part of the gorgeousness of the piece, but certainly I’d heard about the piece earlier from people who had seen it in Avignon, and they were American, and they all mentioned the nudity. Even though it’s not a major part of the piece. But everybody mentioned it. And people think it’s still wild in Philadelphia. Or because it’s a button, people think it must be pushing buttons.

How do we women speak to other women on stage, how do we have fun with our bodies and be silly about our bodies and speak to other women and not feel the male gaze in the way all the time? It’s a major question.

JF: Tell me about Lautrec.

MT: Lautrec was such a different painter than Degas and a lot of his contemporaries. Because when you look at a person he’s painting you recognize her as a person. You recognize the character. You’re like, oh, it’s that lady Carmen. He painted her again. You know what I mean? And he often paints them in their context and you see their lives. And he lived in a brothel with these people, these were his friends. And some of his friends died, and he died early as well. People were selling their bodies and people were dying of terrible diseases.

This was his reality and it’s certainly what we’ve tried to bring to bear on the piece. And that’s certainly why it’s as gory as it is and as nasty and medical as it is. I don’t meant to imply that all medicine is nasty, but I just mean to say that the particulars of a dying body are not pretty.

I think she totally has the right to be offended. I’m sad if she felt that male gaze between her and the women on stage. Because I had the outside eye on that and I’m a woman. And so I’m the intermediary between that stage picture and her, the viewer, so she in some way either mistakes me, or it’s just hard to let go of the vice grip of the male gaze on all our brains. I don’t know why, but I’m curious about it.

JF: I think one of the problems is people are sensitive to nudity on stage. People get the idea of trying to reclaim nudity on stage but I don’t think they understand how that can be done, how you can show naked women, and show naked sexualized women, and have that not be exploitative.

MT: Yeah, it’s funny, when you talk about the word exploitative we’re talking about teleological nudity, right? Nudity for the sake of something. Art is intrinsically non-exploitative. It doesn’t fit into a capitalist model. We get in trouble all the time because we’re trying to do a thing that doesn’t work in a capitalist economy. And the word exploitative carries capitalism with it. And yes, sexuality, particularly female sexuality is used to sell everything. You can sell a chair with a scantily-clad woman. You can sell any damn thing with a naked lady, or with a scantily-clad lady, or a woman implying in any way that she might be sexually available.

But art intrinsically . . . you buy a ticket and you’re on a ride and it can’t sell you anything else. The transaction’s over. The transaction part is over, and now you’re on the ride. It can’t sell you anything else. It’s not teleological. That’s the end. It’s an end in and of itself.

What I’m saying is . . . it’s sad that it’s hard to make people feel that a woman getting sexual on stage and nude—although incidentally in the nude scenes in Lautrec people aren’t being particularly sexual. They’re usually talking about their diseases. Their rashes and bleeding and pussing and having catheters put up them. So it’s not really sexual. Unless you’re into that. So that a woman being sexual on stage and nude necessarily carries money with it, carries the idea of money with it, that’s so sad.

The Body Lautrec, Mary Tuomanen, Aaron Cromie

Lautrec’s Medical Examination

JF: I think when people see nudity they ask why it’s done. It’s like anything else that’s not done often, then we ask why. It’s not like when someone bounces a ball on stage, because that’s just their character. If someone walks naked onto the stage we want to know why they’re naked. And one easy answer is that it’s edgy and it sells tickets. So why show nudity on stage, particularly female nudity, and why in this particular context?

MT: Certainly if you look at the body of work of this particular man there’s a lot of nude women. In order to accurately represent the painter we should talk about what he painted. And he did paint a lot of nudes. A lot of half-dressed women, women getting dressed and undressed, and usually in the context of a particular trade which has to do with selling one’s body. And he also painted them—the most fascinating Lautrec painting I found in this process is the one called Medical Examination. Which is, at the time, Paris was trying to control syphilis by actually sending public health workers to the brothels to check on women and to take them out of the rotation if they were found to have syphilis in them. If it was a high class brothel it would get individual visits with the doctor and it was a private sort of thing. If it was a less expensive brothel, the women would line up like cattle and hold up their dresses and the doctor would check the women. Lautrec painted the women marching in line—it’s in D.C., it’s in the National Gallery—marching with their little shifts above their crotches. 

Lautrec paints non-sexual female nudity, and like, brutal non-sexual female nudity.

There’s a whole series, called Elles, which is the female version of “they,” which was supposed to be this big scandalous thing. He was going to paint women in a brothel. And people were really excited about it, it was going to be super salacious.

And the women are looking exhausted, tired, disappointed with their lives. They are very striking, depressing, drawings. And there’s one called Alone, where a woman is just done with her life. She is laying back on the bed and she’s so tired. And we quote it several times in the show as well, that particular painting.

The Body Lautrec, Mary Tuomanen, Aaron Cromie, Julius Ferraro

Lautrec’s Alone.

Why Lautrec is fascinating is because he was painting the female nude and showing women, who were usually friends of his because he lived in the brothel, in positions of despair, in positions of exhaustion, women whose jobs it was to provide sex feeling entirely unsexy in really unsexy times. In times where they were sad, alone, exhausted. And they’re beautiful! But they’re super depressing.

So in the case of this particular play we would be remiss were we not to try to capture all of that.

JF: How about male nudity?

MT: We definitely, in there are future versions of this show, we would love to maybe add more nudity and hopefully have male nudity as well, if we can find room for it. Because like, I can understand people thinking, I wish there was more parity. Because obviously there’s baggage. There’s terrible baggage with female nudity more so than there is baggage with male nudity. And there’s much less a history with the male nude in painting than there is a female nude. And so of course you’re allowing for some parity. Probably there should be more ass. There should probably be some more of the naked man-butt. A little more of that the next time we do the show. I’ll ask Aaron to throw in a little more.

The Body Lautrec, Mary Tuomanen, Aaron Cromie, Julius Ferraro

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec having some good clean fun on a beach.

JF: I don’t think Toulouse-Lautrec ever painted himself naked?

MT: He definitely took pictures of himself naked. There’s a very famous photograph of him defecating on a beach. He’s like, “Check this out, guys!”

There are several photographs showing the whole process of his defecation. It’s really scatological. He was nuts. There’s actually a photo of him entirely nude standing up in a boat. So he definitely loved being naked.

JF: The women portrayed in Lautrec’s paintings are doubly removed from control. they have no agency in their lives and then they don’t really get to choose how Lautrec portrays them. When women are nude on stage, which is traditionally a patriarchal trope, we want to see that those women have agency. How do you use agency in the play?

MT: The female characters in this play have little to no agency over their bodies. Gosia, the Polish actress in our show, makes a good point: “To speak about Belle Epoch women as having agency is complete anachronism.” She’s right, even a middle-class woman in this place and time had little to no choice about the fate of her body, particularly in the context of a marriage. And the women we are showing are 19th century sex workers—their choices are practically nil. We show women struggling through their infirmity to complete sex acts, we show women jumping around to create a “party atmosphere” in a brothel and as soon as the male characters leave, they collapse with exhaustion. At the same time, we make an effort not to moralize. There was a concern amongst the cast that was brought up during rehearsal—”Are we saying that sex work is wrong?” And certainly, that is not our intent in creating the piece. The fact remains, however, that there is a major difference between sex work today and the profession as it existed in 19th century France—this is a country where a woman could not have a bank account of her own without a male cosigner until 1968. So you can imagine how it was in 1901! 

The Body Lautrec, Mary Tuomanen, Aaron Cromie, Julius FerraroThis loss of agency is something the Lautrec character can understand because of his complex medical history. He had a congenital bone disorder that left him bedridden most of his childhood and handicapped as an adult. His body has also been an object; the whole show centers around the idea of human body as medical object, sex object, art object. We show Lautrec as a child trying to fight off the doctors who are about to break and reset his legs, they cover his face with a cloth smothered in ether. We see prostitutes made to hold up their dresses to the audience as examples in a medical lecture—they’ve become objects. (This is an image that Lautrec captured in his painting Medical Examination, something only Lautrec would paint because among his contemporaries, only he was interested in showing these brutal aspects of prostitution.) Later, a grown Lautrec watches his friend in the paranoid throes of tertiary syphilis begging not to be left alone with the nurses, screaming that she needs to protect herself, moments later she is autopsied. Disease itself robs a body of power—it can rob us of mobility, of cogency, of memory, of dignity, of the will to live. One of the most powerful moments of the play, for me, is when Lautrec and the character played by Kate Raines—amongst the cast we call this character Jane, inspired by Jane Avril—sit on a bench, look at each other and say simultaneously, “It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.” They say it in French, which always felt right, because of the vowel sounds in “ça fait mal,” which are so mournful and sad. This is an actor-guided moment. We never set how many times they say “It hurts” to each other. They just say it for as long as it takes. And this is the part that hurts me, too. This is what it feels like when your body gets taken from you. It hurts.

Thanks, Mary! You can see The Body Lautrec at the Caplan Studio Theatre, University of the Arts, 211 S. Broad St., 16th floor. September 12-21, 2014;

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About the author

Julius Ferraro

Julius Ferraro is a journalist, playwright, performer, and project manager in Philadelphia. He is co-founder of Curate This and editor-in-chief of thINKingDANCE. His recent plays include Parrot Talk, Micromania, and The Death and Painful Dismemberment of Paul W. Auster.