Darren Sextro’s “In Theory” series discusses various theater topics with artists who are living and breathing the work.
Being Naked with Will Fritz
“I enjoyed using my body as a costume for the characters…much like a designer would create for you a piece of art.”
When you see Will Fritz in his most recent acting project, NOT WITH A BANG BUT A WHIMPER by Jesse Ray Metcalf (through April 30 at Just Off Broadway Theatre), he will be fully clothed all of the time. In fact, for more than a decade, Will has been fully clothed all of the time for the majority of his roles at venues like Heart of America Shakespeare Festival, Kansas City Actors Theatre, Unicorn Theatre, Starlight, Fishtank, The Living Room, The Barn Players, and so many Fringe Festival shows.
But when I considered what to discuss with you, one thing that I wouldn’t really be able to explore with many other actors is being naked on stage. It’s a somewhat unique perspective with which you have experience. How many shows have you done in which you’ve basically been called upon to be fully or partially nude?
I have done two shows where I was full-frontal: PIES FROM THE PORN KITCHEN by Natalie Licardello in the old Fishtank space in 2011, and EQUUS at The Barn Players in 2015. The former was a ridiculous comedy in a space that was close and intimate, a house of about 30 to 40 people at most, and they were mere feet from me, leaving nothing to the imagination. I had a robe on…it was just open enough to see me full-frontal at one point in the play, and then later I turned towards the back, took off my robe and put my jeans on, again exposing myself. At The Barn, it was a serious, dramatic moment, and the house was much bigger and the audience was further away. In that play, I was completely naked and fully exposed to the audience, but the lighting was dim. I was naked for a much longer time for the final scene. I ended the play in an emotional, naked heap on the stage, then another character came to my aid and covered me with a blanket. The lights went down at the end, and I had to run offstage in nothing but a blanket and put all my clothes on backstage in time for my curtain call.
It sounds like you had support from your fellow artists in both cases?
The casts and crews of both productions were gracious and respected my privacy throughout the rehearsing and performing. I lucked out, as I found both moments to be extremely empowering and gratifying. I enjoyed using my body as a costume for the characters in those scenes much like a designer would create for you a piece of art. I did not feel one hundred percent confident with my body either time I was called to expose myself, but the vanity of those thoughts didn’t matter. The point was to be naked to represent these characters at these moments in these worlds. In PIES FROM THE PORN KITCHEN, it was a funny, awkward moment for the audience to see that my character didn’t care who saw him naked in the world of the play. In EQUUS, it was a more shocking display as the audience witnessed my character reenacting the blinding of six horses while he is naked and raging. Both exhilarating and dynamic experiences where being naked helped me as an actor serve the moment for the characters.
I don’t actually think of you as the “exposed actor,” Will, but when I do a quick survey of your roles, I realize that you seem fearless in that regard.
I have been in other productions where I was scantily clad or exposed by risqué physical behavior. Most recently, [the Charles Busch play] DIE, MOMMIE, DIE! with House of Deville Productions, where I wore a speedo. In KINGS OF ISRAEL [a Fringe Festival play by Schaeffer Nelson], I had to simulate mutual masturbation with a scene partner. In Heart of America Shakespeare Festival’s ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, I wore a beautiful, light costume that exposed my midriff and harkened to something Britney Spears might wear, but it looked and felt fabulous! In a UMKC Theatre production of THE MOST FABULOUS STORY EVER TOLD by Paul Rudnick, I started the play wearing only nude-colored briefs and nothing else and simulated being on the receiving end of anal sex on a rock.
And even I contributed to this resume of yours!
Of course. In your 2012 production of Wendy MacLeod’s THE HOUSE OF YES at the Fishtank, I only wore boxers in one scene. And during one performance, I forgot to wear the protective white briefs underneath and accidentally flashed the audience. Maybe it’s the exhibitionist in me, but although all of these instances seem uncomfortable and awkward to enact in front of people, I honestly would rather do any of these things again than other simple actions that are uncomfortable to actors’ bodies. Such as silently holding a picture frame to pose as a window for a scene for fifteen minutes straight, or cramming under a small table with three other actors and staying completely still and quiet for a ten-minute scene. Both of which I have done.
Some of what you’re saying points to a disconnect between an audience member’s perspective and the artist’s journey. I mean, maybe there’s an actor somewhere out there who just wants to be exposed on stage because he’s got exhibitionist tendencies, which would be pretty reductive to the work that we do. But taking the plunge to be that exposed has so much to do with effectively telling the story. Did you ever go through a period of self-doubt?
Absolutely. For me, there was an initial trepidation, but then it would quickly change to excitement over the thrill of it, kind of like getting excited to ride a roller coaster. But in the preparation and then realization of it, there are naturally insecure and scary moments.
What has made you insecure or scared?
“I’m not as toned as I’d like to be.” “There’s a pimple on my ass right now.” “What will my parents say?” But as with other actions you are required to play for a production or character, your fears about how the audience will perceive your work have to melt away so you can focus on the truth of the moment you are trying to portray. For PIES FROM THE PORN KITCHEN, that character had to be completely comfortable with being naked to set up the comedy of the other characters’ discomfort. At a certain point, you have to focus your energy on the task at hand no matter how outrageous it may seem. You have the script as justification at the end of the day, especially if it is well written.
I get that, but I know a handful of actors who have either turned down roles, or not pursued roles, because of that type of exposure…or have kind of renegotiated it with a director. And it usually has nothing to do with a poor script…more to do with their own body issues.
To be completely fair, it might be easier for me to be naked on stage because I am a bit of an exhibitionist. That is not the reason I do nude scenes, and I do not actively pursue situations to make people see me naked. But I am very comfortable with my naked self and wish there were more opportunities in our world to honor and appreciate the beautiful, human naked composition. So I see it as part of my role as an artist: to move the Midwestern or American mindset toward being more comfortable with the sight of a naked person. You would not believe the number of people that have seen me naked on stage, that were so uncomfortable with the sight of me naked. I view that more as a systemic result of social conditioning…that we should feel shamed or embarrassed by nakedness. But I am encouraged and empowered by my naked presence and others’ naked bodies as well.
What does happen when you have to consider family and friends showing up? I did a production of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW more than 15 years ago. I was playing Brad Majors and spent half the show in just a pair of underwear…and my mom showed up to one performance with a bunch of her church friends. What’s hilarious is she was blinded by being a mom, very proud of me, and I could tell her friends were very “What just happened there?!”
Trying to anticipate how my family reacts to shows that I am in is pretty much pointless. Many times when I assumed that the subject matter or visual depictions might be too much for my parents, in particular, I am surprised at their enjoyment of the show or even their lack of acknowledgment of moments that worried me. I am very blessed to have a very supportive family, and more often they tend to tell me, “Great job. We’re so proud of you.” Even if I can tell they might not have enjoyed this show. And I have to say that includes projects where I have been nude or close to it.
We know that you shouldn’t be, but are you aware of audience members like that when you know they’re at a particular performance?
A project like EQUUS, the show and the role entailed so much that I believe my family had even forgotten the nudity when congratulating me after the show. I imagine being my parents…the sight of seeing me naked isn’t that thrilling because they had to change my diapers. But a show like PIES FROM THE PORN KITCHEN, at the old Fishtank performance studio, I could see my family while I was exposed on stage. The space was so intimate, the fourth wall was almost nonexistent. It was pretty much impossible for me not to feel a tinge of awkwardness when chatting with them after the show.
There’s obvious psychology behind that actor’s nightmare, and I literally mean that thing that plagues your sleep, of being completely naked on stage and not understanding why you’re out there on stage, naked, and everyone else is clothed. Although is that truly as scary as the other actor’s nightmare…?
The scariest moments for me on stage are those unfortunate slip-ups in memory, “going up” on a line during a performance or forgetting what comes next, whether it be a quick change, transition, dance step, whatever it is. We are all only human, and the inevitable fuck-up is bound to happen. But it still really sucks when it does.
So memory problems are scarier to you than being naked on stage?
Last November, I participated in The Living Room’s NO SLEEP NOVEMBER, which is their annual 24-hour theater project where playwrights are assigned an actor, a prop, a production assistant, and a line of dialogue one night and have to present a ten-minute scene the next day, memorized and as polished as humanly possible. Well, as happens with the concept of the project, I did not get much sleep the night before the show, and turns out I had the beginnings of laryngitis that lasted two and a half weeks after that. At some point in the performance, I forgot a whole paragraph in the script. It was terrifying. The, at most, 30-second pause felt like hours. And I just awkwardly looked at my cast mates with a veiled “help me” look. Then my cast mate Curtis Smith generously and smoothly jumped to his next response, which seemed to fit the moment regardless of what I had forgotten. So it didn’t mess up the plot of the piece. But the bit I had forgotten was funny, a delight to play in rehearsals and one of my favorite moments in the show. I felt so bad afterward, but thankfully the playwright, the gracious and talented David Wayne Reed, was understanding. It still doesn’t change the fact that it happened. And those are the moments I’m scared of and dread, but I’m glad it happened, because it forced me to face that fear. I think every time I mess up on stage, it’s always due to a lack of focus. It’s when I check out and am not present to my environment. It’s a shame when it happens, but it helps prepare me emotionally for the inevitability of another on stage fuck-up in my future.
Read more of Darren Sextro’s In Theory series here.