Modesty can be a very beautiful quality, especially in an actor. It does not necessarily imply fear, or lack of social competence, but often suggests a finely tuned sense of ones own worth. A well integrated person will know their borders and feel no shame in defending them.
The first thing to remember is that attitudes to nudity are culturally determined, dependent on context, and cyclical. The second thing to remember is that attraction and repulsion to the naked body has a biological basis, but within wide limits can be learned, conditioned and controlled. Attraction, both physical and romantic, is part of our evolutionary baggage, as persistent as hunger and thirst. The misalignment of society's attitudes with the individual's biological imperatives has forever been a source of great comedy and great tragedy.
I was lucky enough to be raised in a home environment where the human body was considered to be inherently beautiful. My mother, a pioneer of Modern Dance in the 1930's and 40's (Margaret Morris Movement - bare footed at Cap d'Antibes, Ballet Jooss - dancing on Green Tables, Rudolf Laban - efforts and icosahedra), had spent her professional life in progressive and bohemian company. She taught us that there was nothing to be ashamed of about our bodies. As children, casual nudity was accepted but not flaunted. As my sister and I entered puberty the household became more discrete. This is a natural and wise evolution, probably with deep biological roots. One has heard actors say "I don't mind being naked in front of an audience; I just don't want my parents sitting there."
In our work backstage we are constantly on top of each other. Cramped dressing rooms and quick costume changes in the wings mean close physical contact in various stages of undress is inevitable. We are too busy to care about nudity. As for the rigger up in the flies peering down into an actor's cleavage? Well that's always going to be his problem. Perhaps one day he will fall.
And onstage, is nudity necessary? As Peter Brook says of theatre, "Of course it is not real." We are masters of suggestion, inference and illusion.
There are very few cases where total nudity is essential to carry narrative or aesthetic values.
An undergarment tossed over a screen, a shaking ceiling, or the look in the beholder's eyes can suggest nudity in a way that stimulates the audience's imagination and promotes their more active participation in creating the illusion. A deliberately evasive camera angle can open up possibilities for visual metaphor.
The sad truth though is that nothing sells tickets like full frontal nudity. There are market forces at work, and audiences come with greater and greater expectations. The Industry excuses and depersonalizes itself by referring to itself as just that: "The Industry." It has a nice macho ring. Not the Biz, not the Branch, not the Profession, not the Field, not the Milieu, and, heaven help us, not the Art. Actors are soon made to understand that they are just cogs in an industrial machine and their bodies are at its service. Industry. There is so much evil power in the choice and acceptance of that word.
As a teacher of acting I find it very much an open question as to what extent student actors should or even can be trained to feel comfortable with nudity. It seems that some teachers think it useful to try.
Clearly there are two issues to consider. There can be nudity in the professional work situation and so the need to prepare the student for it; and there is the question of nudity as a catalyst for personal and professional growth.
Actual production circumstances are so individual that it is hard to teach much in the way of specific techniques. It is up to the unions to establish policy (such as numbers of crew present at rehearsals and shootings) and preferred methods (such as employing "intimacy choreographers"). The unions need to help the acting schools communicate this knowledge to their students and they need to insure that the young actors feel respected, protected and listened to.
It is often said that the first task of an actor is to know oneself. An understanding and acceptance of ones own body would obviously make a large contribution to that process. But there is no reason to believe that a weekend workshop in nudity will further that end.
However, purely for the sake of argument, let's assume that familiarity with nudity is considered to be an educational requirement for an actor. How might one then approach it?
The most fundamental agreement must be to allow freedom of choice. This is far from easy to assure. There will always be peer pressure, and what may be intended as gentle encouragement might easily be perceived as insistence and manipulation. In the specific case of actors this distinction becomes even more problematic because of both their suggestibility and their courage.
As Ariane Mnouchkine has said, the actor's ability to temporarily take on board a set of beliefs, to enter into a fiction, is an essential quality.
Actors, like all artists, are courageous, and the danger of taking off ones clothes can present a seductive challenge. And having gone through with it, the actor is bound to feel positive feelings of relief and accomplishment.
It is easy to see how vulnerable a student actor is in a situation where he or she is expected to undress for their classmates. It is not hard for a person in authority to manipulate an actor into doing something they don't really want to do, and then for the actor to actually feel good about it immediately afterwards.
If it is no big deal, why do it? If it is a big deal, should I do it?
The choice to undress or not should be presented to the student quite simply as a professional choice, with either choice being equally valid, and with either choice considered to be full participation in the exercise. It should not be presented in a light or party atmosphere. The atmosphere should be serious, even clinical, as it tends to be in a real production situation. There should be two unrelated responsible guides, one of each gender. There should be a clear format, such as: strip backstage, enter, cross the stage, exit and put your clothes back on backstage. The exercise should be conducted fully within the walls of the institution and not "off campus."
Our society is going through a period of radical self-examination. There is a lot of house cleaning to be done within our field of work, much of it associated with issues of nudity and exploitation. But we must take great care as we examine these questions. We need to evolve new modes of conduct, and I say modes, not codes. If we don't get it right we risk instilling a fear of expressing affection and play and physical contact and so end up creating the kind of puritanical, emotionally impoverished societies that engage in mass shootings, suicide bombings and vote for the likes of Donald Trump.
I am reminded of Gino, a brilliant Italian cook whose culinary skills were recognized by all, even the Roman gods. Endless dishes of ambrosia can get quite boring, and the gods used to drop by his simple trattoria, suitably disguised of course. The quality and variety of his cooking pleased them so much that they decided to reward his talents and grant him one wish. One wish and only one wish, for anything he desired. Gino knew immediately what he wanted: to gaze upon Venus' naked body. The gods were horrified. Venus? Naked? Such a request would be completely out of line, and probably fatal to a mere mortal. But our cook insisted. After all, if the gods started breaking their word, the Universe would become unhinged. So they flew Gino up to a small temple on the top of Mount Olympus. The entrance to the temple was barred by a massive wooden door. There was no handle, just a keyhole. Our cook was instructed to peer through the keyhole, and what he saw, pressed up close, framed by the far end of the keyhole, was not just sufficient, but extraordinary beyond his wildest expectations, and completely satisfying; a sight of incomparable beauty. A very happy man indeed flew back to his humble kitchen amongst the mortals and proceeded to invent the tortellini in honour of Venus' navel!