RTP and 5th Wall Theatre’s ‘Body Awareness’ raises questions, challenges concepts of art
Plays are often written about conflict and relationships, and Body Awareness, which opens this week at the Richmond Triangle Players Theatre, is no exception.
The story follows a lesbian couple living in a college town – Shirley, VT. Things are pretty normal and politically correct as the play opens, but when a controversial photographer, known for photographing nude models of all ages and body types, comes to town, things get complicated and questions around how a female-lead family handles a range of male intruders, as well as a possibly-autistic son, lead to mayhem in this quiet town.
“There’s two kinds of plays you read and want to do- you fly through one and say, ‘I have to do this’ but other plays you have to read through carefully and see how it’s gonna work,” said Carol Piersol, Artistic Director at 5th Wall Theatre who is co-producing this show with RTP. “But this one was a first read through and I said, ‘this will be a fun play to do.’”
Body Awareness, written by Annie Baker, had been on the company’s back burner for some time. Piersol figured the story would do well at RTP because of the lesbian main characters. And when Noreen Barnes, RTP’s interim artistic director, came on board, she showed a lot of interest in making this production happen. “The time was right for us to do this together,” Piersol said about Barnes’ enthusiasm.
The play started production about a month ago, and Piersol said the play’s ensemble cast have been working hard to bring the story together. While it tackles a number of issues, actress Melissa Johnston Price said the complicated premise gets smoothed out pretty easily.
Johnston Price, who identifies as a straight woman, plays one of the lesbian lead roles, and while she knows the sexuality of the character is key to the plot, she also thinks the character’s arch is relatable to any kind of love.
“I like the character… being conflicted and trying to figure out where her happiness is,” she said. “That, to me, is the more essential thing about her character, rather than her being gay or straight.”
Johnston Price said she was very comfortable in the role, and used her high school years, as well as insight from her lesbian daughter, to help better understand the how to portray herself.
“[My daughter] said go for it mom, have a great time,” she said with a laugh. “I know that I could turn to her if I had any difficulties with anything… I also went to an all girls school, so this is nothing new for me.”
The play’s morals around coming to terms with, and being proud of, who you are really stuck out to Phil Crosby, RTP’s Managing Director. Between the questionable diagnosis of their autistic son and the the lesbian relationship being tested by the straight photographer, as well as the controversy around nude photography itself, Body Awareness aims to stir up all kinds of possibilities for the viewer.
“Nothing’s black and white in life, right? We live in the grey area,” Crosby said.
Crosby was particularly excited about the added dimension of real nude photography to the production as well. Local photogs Hayes & Fisk shot and donated nude photos for the play, and all the photos feature members of the Richmond community.
“The audience is surrounded by nudity and the very images they’ll be referencing in the play,” said Crosby about how the photos are integrated into the production. One particular moment in the play has the couple looking at the photographer’s exhibit and Crosby said “you’ll get a sense of what they are talking about in a very real way.”
He said working with Hayes & Fisk was eye opening for all those involved. He spoke with some of the photo’s subjects and they called the experience of being photographed in the nude freeing and empowering.
“The minute the clothes came off, the relationship between the model and the photographer became different,” Crosby said. “Particularly the couples… they all talked about what an incredible bonding experience it was.”
But real photography isn’t the only eye opening addition to the production, the folks from Red Dahlia Productions will perform a burlesque review following several of the Saturday night productions of Body Awareness.
“One of the things one of the character rails about is burlesque performers stripping for themselves and not for the viewer,” said Crosby about why the real life burlesque performances fit so well into the show, and how gender roles are pushed throughout the play. “She brings up the issue that it isn’t about pleasing men in the audience, it’s about the dancers being in total control of what they reveal to everyone else.”
Per usual, don’t come to the show expecting clear cut answers, Crosby was steadfast in saying nothing’s cut and dry, and there’s enough in the play about feminist, sexuality and family to challenge any viewer. “It’s all a matter of perspective,” he said.
So if controversy and conflict is what you seek, Body Awareness might be just the show for you. It opens this Thursday and runs through May 14th. You can scoop tickets here!
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