Simon Kaplan (L) and Aaron Boles (R) as psychiatrist and patient in NRACT’s 'Equus.' Photo by Sean Brosnahan.

Equus | North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre  |  Through Friday, May 7 

One thing is clear: in North Raleigh Arts and Creative Theatre’s (NRACT) production of Equus, one scene will be performed in the nude.

If it is not, NRACT will be liable for a $20,000 fine from Concord Theatricals, the licensing agency for the show, on behalf of the estate of playwright Peter Shaffer.

“They’re not joking,” says artistic director Tim Locklear, who signed a rider stipulating this when he secured the rights to the controversial play at the start of the company’s 20th season. Two other riders demanded that the play be performed without any change in text and that its roles could not be cast cross-gender.

The estates of playwrights Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee are both well known for stringently administering production rights to protect the artistic integrity and intent of their authors’ works. Both have closed down productions when companies have taken unauthorized liberties with their texts. Still, a $20,000 penalty puts new and sharper economic teeth into these practices.

“I’d never heard of such a fine before this,” Locklear says.

Though it’s rarely produced, Equus has long been a well-known work in the theatrical community. Shaffer’s psychological drama, which took the Tony Award for Best Play in 1975, remains a regular staple in college theater curriculums.

“I read it first as an undergrad in a script analysis class,” says actor Bridget Patterson, “and I loved it so much that I decided to make it my final project for the year.”

After a mentor encouraged actor Aaron Boles to read it, the work became the actor’s favorite play “for a very long time. I’ve been waiting around for five years plus for it to be produced locally.”

The iconic drama, loosely based on a true crime, follows the psychiatric treatment of Alan Strang, a teenager who’s been institutionalized after he blinded six horses that were under his care as a stableboy in the countryside of England. Martin Dysart, a psychiatrist assigned to his case, had misgivings about his profession before meeting Alan. These only increase as he probes what could cause a boy who loves horses to so violently disfigure them.

The plot makes Equus an unconventional mystery—not a whodunit but a whydunit instead—as it journeys into the maze of a human psyche. In the course, the play becomes an inquiry into the transience of social norms and the ethical treatment of mental illness. And when Alan’s dodges and defenses are finally stripped away, Shaffer’s work is adamant that the actors in the scene physically follow suit.

“This is no B-movie where the woman takes off her top because, hey, we need to sell some tickets,” notes director Sean Brosnahan. 

Indeed: a naked and vulnerable boy, surrounded by six hurt, blind, and deeply frightened horses, is not an erotic tableau; it is a disaster, one in which his life is in immediate peril.

But how does a theater company do nudity now, in a world where, emerging from the pandemic, the artistic community has scrutinized the ethics in a number of the art form’s fundamental practices?

“Ten, 20, 30 years ago, it was ‘I need this role,’” says Brosnahan. “We censored ourselves and didn’t say, ‘I’m not comfortable in this moment.’ People aren’t scared to do that anymore—which is excellent. It’s where we should be.”

To protect its actors, NRACT will employ current tech, in the form of Yondr pouches, which Durham Performing Arts Center and other venues have used to lock up patrons’ cell phones prior to performances by comedians and other artists. Patrons’ phones will be kept in specially locked pouches during the show; company personnel unlock and release them afterward.

“No photos, no video, no streaming—no nothing,” says Locklear.

But the main way this production protects its actors involves intimacy direction and choreography.

In 2015, the Chicago theater community developed a series of safeguards in response to the revelation that a number of productions had, over decades leading up to the 2010s, presented shows where depicted sexual harassment and abuse were not simulations but real and ongoing, both onstage and off.

Many artists and companies in the Triangle community also adopted these guidelines, known as the Chicago Theater Standards, in the wake of allegations involved in the shuttering of local companies in the past. Intimacy direction and choreography are a fundamental part of these standards.

“When you step into a show that features physical vulnerability on top of emotional vulnerability, it is incredibly important to make sure space has been created in the rehearsal room to give the utmost care and respect to any artist that needs to step into that moment,” intimacy director Heather Strickland says.

In intimacy direction, the actors have agency throughout the process, and consent is constantly monitored. Intimate scenes are thoroughly choreographed; each moment and specific movement is mapped out and set, so there are no surprises in the performance. The process is inclusive, collaborative, and—according to the participants—liberating.

“I’ve been performing since I was, like, 10 years old,” says Boles. The production of Equus has “created the safest space I’ve ever been in as far as a show.”

“It takes a lot of trust,” Patterson says. “Having this much care and thought put into caring for the intimacy portions of this show has been the most incredible and most supportive process.”

Since intimacy figures into most human relationships, even when sex isn’t a part of the story, Patterson thinks that intimacy direction should be a part of all theater productions.

“We need this to emotionally care for the actors in this community,” she says. “When we are met with this level of accountability for ourselves, our bodies, our emotions, and our art, we all grow.”

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