Nudity Turns 'Cuckoo's Nest' Into Hornet's Nest At Boston Children's Theatre

It would seem, on the face of it, that art is imitating life at Boston Children’s Theatre (BCT) in the wake of what happened after the run of its production of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

You probably remember that in the Ken Kesey novel, as well as in the movie and play adapted from it, that Randle Patrick McMurphy, a patient in a psychiatric hospital, antagonized Nurse Ratched to the point that he was punished with electro-shock treatments.

A scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Boston Children's Theatre. (Courtesy BCT)
A scene from "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" by Boston Children's Theatre. (Courtesy BCT)

As the Boston Globe reported Saturday, BCT executive artistic director Burgess Clark antagonized the board of directors to the point that he was punished with getting laid off, though whether that's permanent or temporary remains to be seen.

The antagonism centered on a nude scene in the play, which ran April 15-29, in which the character playing McMurphy bares himself to the evil nurse. (There were signs in the theater warning about nudity and a notice on the website that no one under 14 would be admitted.)

Is Clark, who’s been in his position for nine years, a victim of censorship, as he charged in the Globe story? (Clark’s Facebook page was down and attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.) Many of the young actors who have worked with him thought it was censorship and signed an online petition admonishing the adults in charge.

Clark has won kudos for expanding the boundaries of children’s theater, garnering high praise for “The Diary of Anne Frank” and “Reflections of a Rock Lobster,” in which a young man brings a same-sex date to a high school prom. Charles Baldwin, former marketing and operations director for Wheelock Family Theatre, who now works with the Massachusetts Cultural Council, said, “I really appreciated what he was doing, pushing the envelope. ‘Reflections of a Rock Lobster’ was fantastic.”

Speaking about “Cuckoo’s Nest” he continued, “Teenagers are hungry for that kind of work. He’s created a safe place for young people. I’m really proud of them for saying [in the online petition] ‘This is what we want.’ ”

Not so fast, say others. Larry Coen is no stranger to pushing the envelope himself. He’s one of Boston’s most distinctive actors and is a frequent collaborator with Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans. In fact he’s currently directing and appearing in “Greece,” in which “Grease” meets “Clash of the Titans” with the company’s usual gender-bending sensibility. No one will be surprised if a toga or two is dropped.

Coen, though, does not see nudity as a black and white issue when it comes to theater and doesn’t see the problem with Clark as censorship. After all, the show completed its run with McMurtry in the altogether each performance. (There were contradictory claims about whether a board member tried to, sorry, cover up the situation.)

“You can put up all the signs in the world," said Coen, "but for people going to an institution that they are invested in — they’re not going to stop and read all the signs. I don’t see it as censorship, but a conversation they should have had earlier, about male nudity on stage. It’s an appropriate conversation to have. Institutionally, everyone should be on board.”

Burgess Clark. (Courtesy Boston Children's Theatre)
Burgess Clark. (Courtesy Boston Children's Theatre)

He added, “When you’re Boston Children’s Theatre, nudity is a big leap. The last show they did was 'Velveteen Rabbit.' For families with children, they make an alliance with the institution. The institutional brand is what they’re showing up for … I would not want to appear nude in front of children. Doing it for adults is a very different thing ... I don’t see it as censorship. It’s an appropriate conversation that came much too late. It's a good time to talk about ‘Is this where you want to take Boston Children’s Theatre?' "

Personally, I’m a big fan of on-stage nudity, but not for prurient reasons. And I’m not going to posit the usual “It’s only the human body” line.

I think theater is an increasingly endangered species, particularly among the young. Why go to the theater to see work that is often less compelling or provocative than you can get on television? Not to mention the internet.

The answer has to be that on-stage art is bracing in a way that on-screen art and entertainment is not. Theater should shake you in some way and on-stage nudity is almost always bracing, no matter what your age. Which isn’t to say that nudity should be used without thinking about why. A naked King Lear might say something utterly degrading about the human condition; in “Equus” nudity might say something quite nuanced about sexuality.

I didn’t see BCT’s “Cuckoo’s Nest,” but my guess is that the drop of the towel teaches those in attendance to question authority in a way that words cannot convey. That it also does so irreverently meets young people where they live.

Maybe Burgess Clark didn’t dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s, or have all the conversations that he should have. But BCT should make it clear very quickly that they stand for artistic freedom, and adventurousness. There may be internal reasons for disciplining Clark; there may not be. In any case, the fact that as of Saturday night Clark has not been reinstated is sending the wrong message to the children, and the families, they aim to serve.

Headshot of Ed Siegel

Ed Siegel Critic-At-Large
Ed Siegel is critic-at-large for WBUR.



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