By By Kim Hartman
I first encountered Anam Cara Theatre Company a little over two years ago. I wanted to do something bold and empowering, so I walked into a run-down-looking storefront on Haywood Road in West Asheville to audition for a show called Naked Girls Reading. Little did I know this would be the start of many significant relationships in my life, including my relationship to the theatre itself (I am now its Development Director) and to co-founder and Executive Artistic Director Erinn Huntley (we tied the knot June 15th of this year).
The flyer I saw downtown proclaimed Naked Girls Reading to be just what it sounded like: naked women reading on a stage. I was intrigued; this sounded like autonomous, woman-centered public female nudity, something entirely different from the more common “Live Nudes” variety. Nevertheless, before auditioning for Naked Girls Reading I contacted Erinn through email. I wanted to make sure this show was what I was hoping it would be — a forum for challenging taboos and stereotypes about female nudity. Erinn confirmed my hopes. “We want the women in our production to be representative of Asheville, so we are not looking for any particular body types,” she wrote. “Piercings, tattoos, shaved or unshaved legs, underarms, etc. … anything goes. I just want to see someone who is confident and comfortable nude and has a good reading voice.”
Naked Girls Reading is now an international phenomenon, but back in early 2011 we were the first city in the American South to produce the show, which arose out of the Chicago burlesque scene. In celebration of this fact, the theme for the first Asheville Naked Girls Reading show was “Southern Women Writers.” Subsequent themes have included “Music,” “Taboo,” and “Mischief, Magic, and Mayhem.”
Truth be told, at its inception we were not quite sure how audiences would react to the show. We knew that our intentions were, in part, to defy socially-imposed restrictions on women’s bodies (i.e. what size and shape they must be in order to be permitted to be visible, particularly in the nude), but what if the only audience members we attracted were just looking to gawk at some naked ladies? Thankfully, the Naked Girls Reading Asheville audiences have been completely on board with our vision for the show, and their responses have been encouraging and affirming. “One thing I often hear from audience members is that the show is so entertaining, after a few minutes they completely forget the performers are naked,” Erinn explains. “We love the idea that we’re taking public female nudity out of the hypersexualized context in which it is normally seen. Sure, these women are sexy, but they are also intelligent, talented, funny and so much more. We really feel like we’ve done something special and unique here by challenging audiences to view female nudity in a different way.”
In February of this year, we put on our 2-year anniversary “Best of … ” show. By this point, Naked Girls Reading had attracted a loyal Asheville following. In fact, our audiences had grown to the point that we had to move the show from our own venue (no longer a run-down storefront, but small nonetheless) to a larger one (a great venue south of downtown called Toy Boat Community Art Space). At the time, we had no inkling that this Naked Girls Reading performance would be our last.
For those of us involved in the show, being a part of Naked Girls Reading has been a powerful experience. “Naked Girls Reading opened me in ways I never could have expected,” says Bridgitt Belanger, a former cast member. “Before Naked Girls Reading I was entirely engrossed with modern society’s definition of beauty, something I felt I’d never live up to. After only a few rehearsals I learned that this wasn’t about me; I was part of something bigger. I stripped off not only my clothes but a lifetime of negative self-imagery. I felt confident, brave and beautiful.”
Other cast members felt similarly. Naked Girls Reading provided a forum for us to be naked in a way that gave us power. Most of the time, nude women are seen as objects; their nakedness is for someone else. Naked Girls Reading allowed us to be naked publicly in a wholly autonomous way; we were reclaiming our bodies for ourselves, snatching back ownership from a society that tries to impose its designs and evaluations on our bodies, while at the same time moving society forward by challenging other people’s views of female nudity. As a bonus, we had a blast performing and got to develop meaningful, lasting bonds with the women with whom we shared the Naked Girls Reading experience. We loved it.
Nevertheless, it recently became clear that Anam Cara Theatre Company could no longer produce Naked Girls Reading shows. Not long after our February performance, Erinn and I had a Skype meeting with representatives of Naked Girls Reading’s international headquarters. They were trying to streamline their branding and update their marketing resources, among other things, and wanted to meet with each Naked Girls Reading producer to fill us in on the updates. Most of the meeting covered nuts and bolts about policy and other administrative changes, but toward the end of the conversation one of the representatives added a caveat. “The girls need to be beautiful,” he said, and then went on to explain that the women in the shows should look “put together.” He mentioned that they could be wearing stage makeup, pearls and high-heels.
This wasn’t really our style, but we think our performers look beautiful in neckties or cowboy boots, so we figured we had it covered. At the close of the meeting, they asked us to send along some photographs for use in online marketing.
Later, we sent along several professional photographs along with some snapshots, but each was rejected for reasons which remained unclear. After several interactions with Naked Girls Reading headquarters in which we tried to ascertain exactly what types of photographs would be acceptable, it became apparent: none of our photos would be acceptable. “Take a look at the pictures on the website,” they told us. “That’s the kind of thing we’re looking for.”
This was the kind of thing they were looking for: thin, large-breasted women posing seductively in the nude with only a book covering their privates. Women who fit the socially imposed mold dressed in only high heels and pearls, their faces caked with makeup. We were stunned.
We knew the way we did Naked Girls Reading was a little bit different than the way other groups did it—we are in Asheville, after all. However, this series of interactions let us know that further participation with Naked Girls Reading would be incompatible with our organizational goals, which include promoting equality and social justice. Naked Girls Reading’s organizers had caught on to the mismatch as well; they started sending us emails telling us they’d like to Skype with us again to “get us up to speed,” and that this time they’d really like to make sure we had a webcam. Presumably, getting us “up to speed” would involve changing our image (and maybe even our performers) to fit into the narrow limits of what Naked Girls Reading’s international organizers consider “sexy.”
As Erinn and I discussed the issue with Anam Cara board members and others who had participated in the show, it was evident that we all felt similarly: as saddened as we were by the thought of ending Naked Girls Reading, we knew we had no other choice. I sent a letter to Naked Girls Reading’s headquarters explaining why Anam Cara Theatre Company could no longer produce the show. It read, in part, as follows:
A core part of Anam Cara Theatre Co.s mission is to put on performances that are not only eclectic and envelope-pushing, but support social justice in a variety of forms. We were drawn to Naked Girls Reading initially because of the potential we saw for these performances to challenge taboos and empower women.
Our performers are dynamic, intelligent, entertaining, and talented. We’ve gotten incredibly positive feedback from our audiences and reviewers, who love our shows for a variety of reasons. Among our favorites, many women have told us how validating it was to see women naked on stage who “look like them” (i.e. small breasts, stretch marks, not traditionally “feminine,” etc.) looking confident and sexy.
Furthermore, our shows are excellent. They are hilarious, moving, thought-provoking, and generally entertaining. We spend weeks choosing materials, cutting our readings, formatting an arc that flows and keeps interest, and rehearsing, and we use costumes (i.e. cowgirl boots for a country western reading, or a top hat for a Frank Sinatra piece), songs and other fun inclusions (like Mad Libs) to round out each show.
We wish that this could be the standard for Naked Girls Reading generally. We feel that the kind of forum that Naked Girls Reading Asheville has been is important and necessary for women in our society; however, we find the new branding to be sexist and limiting. It has become clear to us that we cannot be “on brand” without betraying not only our organizational mission but ourselves as women. To suggest that our performers are not “sexy” unless they are in high-heels, pearls, and layers of makeup runs utterly counter to our purposes in producing the show. We are about empowering women, not fueling the fire of women’s sexual objectification. Furthermore, as a queer-run company, the implication that only feminine women are sexy is offensive and alienating to many of us. It seems our view of what is “sexy” — real, intelligent, empowered women — is not compatible with the latest manifestation of the Naked Girls Reading brand. Not only would conforming to these new expectations violate our principals as an organization, but it is unlikely that our loving Asheville audiences would continue to support us if we were to betray their interests and values in this way. So, sadly, our February show will have been our last.
“I joined the cast of Asheville’s Naked Girls Reading because I believed so strongly in Erinn’s message — to take the female body out of the hypersexualized context in which it is usually seen,” says Michelle Grasty, another former cast member. “Having other people tell me what to do with my body and giving me guidelines to be ‘sexy’ — especially in a show that has given me so much strength — is just another way to marginalize women and tell me that I’m only as good as what other people think of my body. That’s not why I joined the show, and that’s why I’m standing by my cast-mates and directors as we protest Naked Girls Reading’s atrocious rules.”
Although Anam Cara has discontinued its Naked Girls Reading series, we remain committed to our mission of creating eclectic performances that promote social justice in a variety of ways. For details regarding upcoming performances and events, as well as photos and information about past shows, check out our website (below).
Kim Hartman is the Development Director of Anam Cara Theatre Company and has performed in many of its productions, including Naked Girls Reading and We Are The 99%. She is also a Sociology instructor at A-B Tech and a singer/songwriter, playing with Alma Hartley & The Fellow Strangers and The Wootones. She can be contacted at email@example.com.