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Playing the unplayable: From 'Barely Proper' to 'Disrobed'
A look at the play’s 90 year history and a chat with Disrobed's director & lead actor about the cult, controversy, and adaptation of 'Barely Proper'
Updated 8/23/2023: More details were added about the Seminole Health Club performances and a second filmed version of the play made in 1974.
When Tom Cushing first had his play Barely Proper published in 1931, the playwright already understood that his one act’s ability to be actualized in a live theater setting would be severely limited, leading him to subtitle it “an unplayable play.”
The following plot summary from a 1933 nudist magazinewill help the uninitiated understand why the satirical farce was so unplayable:
An extremely shy and proper young Englishman with an appropriate Oxford accent, visits the home of his fiancee in Germany and finds to his unutterable horror and amazement that the whole family are nudists, and that he is expected to join them!
When Barely Proper was first being written as an “armchair exercise” in 1929,Germany’s sprouting naked culture had not yet taken root in the United States. Tom Cushing, who was not a nudist—merely an enterprising American cashing in on a European trend—decided to set his meet-the-parents comedy in a nudist camp, inherently requiring its cast to perform their parts sans costume.
‘Barely’ produced barely
Being unplayable did not stop some from attempting to play Barely Proper. It was produced occasionally using nude costumes as early as 1934, in Chicago.It would also be performed in bedazzled undergarments.*
September of 1932 may have been the play's very first performance featuring actual nudity. The production was held by a collective of open-minded New York artists and academics who had access to 1200 acres of rural land in Connecticut, a property dubbed “The Hill” which they apparently shared as a secluded environment for summer leisure.
This groundbreaking performance may have been the nude premiere of Barely Proper. However, it would be actual nudists, not your typical theatre elites, who would find a niche for the unplayable play, and who would ultimately be responsible for its longevity as a cult classic for more than 90 years (and counting).
1933 was perhaps the first time that Barely Proper was ever performed in a bona fide nudist club, when it was produced by the Auchmoody Out-of-Doors Club in Highland New York. The performance was cast by amateurs, including the club’s director and prominent nudist author/filmmaker Jan Gay in one of the leading parts. The production was open to nudist club members only, closed to the textile public, but still managed to draw national newspaper coverage.
During the 40’s and 50’s, the play all but disappeared. It wouldn’t be performed nude again until 1961, when a California nudist travel club called The Pacificans performed the play at Oakdale Guest Ranch, during a national assembly of the American Sunbathing Association. This iteration was adapted and directed by the successful American author John Ball, officially under his lesser known nudist pseudonym Donald Johnson.As an avid researcher and collector of nudist history and culture, Ball was surely aware of Barely Proper’s nudist legacy, and decided to reprise what by then had become a forgotten play.
Over the next few years, The Pacificans showcased the play a handful of times, notably during another ASA convention at Sycamore Hollow in Kansas in 1963,and during the Western Sunbathing Association Convention at Olive Dell Ranch in 1964. This time, they staged multiple shows for both nudists and non-nudists, successfully performing to an audience of 150 people.
This event marked a certain awakening among nudists. ASA Public Relations Chairman Paul Arnold remarked that he saw the play as “an ideal vehicle for presenting nudism favorably to a largely unknowledgeable public.”
Intrigued by the apparent success of the Donald Johnson production among textiles, Lucille Hanson and her husband Earl began staging their own version of the production in the outdoor amphitheater of their relatively new New Jersey nudist club, Circle H Ranch, in 1965.Their concept was that the play could be an effective way to invite the clothed public into their gates, begin the production with information on the ethical tenets of naturism, and then after the performance invite the audience to tour the club’s grounds and enjoy the pool.
Lucille would later recount, “On July 20, 1965, five thousand people converged on Circle H Ranch. By popular demand we presented the play again on August 20 . . . and five thousand more came! Each year since then we have been presenting this play to a large audience.”
By 1972, Circle H Ranch had been performing the play annually in the summers for the past six or seven years, and had incorporated the play into their marketing,collaborating with a travel tour agency in New York to offer bus tours that included a visit to their nudist resort. After the performances, everyone including the audiences would be invited to partake in the nude-mandatory pool, and the club would reportedly be packed “from wall to wall.”
Broadway critics ‘Grin and Bare It’
By the early 70’s, the world was of course a very different place than it was when Barely Proper had first been penned, in the prohibition era. It was now a post-Woodstock world. Hair and Oh, Calcutta! had recently established a precedent of nudity in a popular stage production, and the world seemed far more ready for the unplayable play.
In 1970, Lucille Hanson was approached by a producer named Barnett Wolfe Plaxen, who was interested in taking the play to Broadway. Under the name Grin and Bare it, a newly updated version of the play adapted by Ken McGuireand directed by Ronny Graham, would become Broadway’s first ever nude play. It ran just eight weeks, and was not very well received by critics. One remarked, “Nudity will not save a bad play, unless it is also a dirty play, in which case it might find its audience.”
Ultimately Grin and Bare it was only performed on Broadway sixteen times.Still, despite its disappointing performance amongst the textile public, nudists continued supporting the play.
Florida’s Seminole Health Club (SHC) began staging the performance in 1971 produced by an actor named Ted Budgeon, and like Circle H it became a highly promoted feature of the club.They were soon producing two more nude plays regularly during the summers alongside the Cushing classic.
In 1974, there were two films made of Barely Proper.
The first was a filmed version of the SHC performance, That film took the title Properly Bare,and premiered at the Four Seasons nudist club in Ontario. It screened only a few times at traditional theaters around Toronto, Ft. Lauderdale and Miami.
The other version was produced by the Seminole Health Club and kept the name Barely Proper, and was produced by Brad Grinterand Charles Youngman, and written by Manny Diaz. Their adaptation framed the plot about a nudist teacher who goes on trial before a school board and must defend her nudist way of life.
Seminole Health Club continued staging their very popular performance until 1981, after key cast members had left.Firsthand stories about the Seminole Health Club’s performances of Barely Proper and other plays were wonderfully written about by Jelaine Lombardi (a one time cast member) in her 2023 memoir, Running Around Naked. Jelaine recently donated her copy of the film to the American Nudist Research Library for preservation and posterity.
In the years since its peak in the 1970s, the play has been revived numerous times by nudist groups, including multiple times in the early 1990s at The Naturist Society’s Eastern Naturist Gatherings.
The popularity of Barely Proper at Circle H Ranch and Seminole Health Club—not to mention its initial support and later revival by key nudist figures like Jan Gay and Donald Johnson—helped the play grow to cult status in among nudists, and today has been performed dozens of times in nudist environments, at varying scale.
Disrobing a cult classic
It was perhaps due to this cult status that Rolf Holbach, a co-founder of the Southern California Naturist Association (SCNA), sought to bring the play to 21st century audiences. Rolf, a nudist history buff and board member of the Western Nudist Research Library, was well familiar with the 90 year old play when an SCNA member named Brian Knudsen, an actor/director, had decided to stage a production of the one-act play Love The Body Positive by Johnna Adams at the Hollywood Fringe Festival in 2016.
“Outside of the nude Comedy shows that we had been doing requiring the audience to be nude also,” Holbach told Planet Nude, “[Brian] decided to present the same [nude mandatory] requirement for this run of the play also. It was very successful and was nominated by the Festival for Best Immersive Play.”
Afterwards, Rolf suggested Barely Proper to Brian Knudsen as a potential full length play to similarly do before a nude audience. After some consideration, in 2018, Knudsen collaborated with playwright Steven Vlasak to modernize and re-title the play to Disrobed: Why So Clothes-Minded?
In 2019, Disrobed made its debut at the Hollywood Fringe Festival under Brian's direction, with SCNA sponsoring the production. The play was well-received by audiences, earning an extended run beyond the festival.
Filmmaker Troy Peterson attended one of these 2019 performances, and was struck with the desire to get involved with the play. A few months after, with the Covid pandemic in full swing and live performances halted, Troy started to see potential in the play for adaptation into a virtual format. Collaborating with writer Steven Vlasak and SCNA, he created Disrobed: The Virtual Event, a filmed version of the play which took the format of a family Zoom call. The film itself actually was filmed like a video call too, with the main actors all living and performing from different time zones, and Troy directing their performances via teleconference. The unique film debuted at the 2021 Hollywood Fringe Festival with scheduled online live streams, and subsequently screened around the world at various Fringe Festivals like Blue Sky and Edinburgh.
With pandemic restrictions eased, the live play is now coming back to the stage for the 2023 Hollywood Fringe Festival, performing in Los Angeles during the month of June. Troy Peterson is again directing and starring in the newly-readapted production, which is again being sponsored by SCNA.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this 90-year-old play’s remarkably remarkable history, is that its success is due largely to its longevity and appeal within the somewhat insular culture of the nudism movement. The play’s many performances in nudist environments have drawn it press and attention which, had the play been set in a religious convent, for example, would have made it quite playable, but perhaps unremarkable. Due to its droll use of full frontal nudity, it was mostly unplayable in typical clothed culture, at least until it no longer was, and by then the lack of sex in its nudity arguably limited its marketing appeal. If it wasn’t for nudists carrying this play forward from generation to generation, it’s quite likely that it would have been summarily forgone and forgotten. An unplayable play indeed. 🚀
Our interview with Troy Peterson, director of ‘Disrobed’
Disrobed is returning to the stage this June for the Hollywood Fringe Festival, with four slated shows which will require nudity of participants, including the audience.
Interested? Tickets can be purchased for $30.
What inspired you to adapt Disrobed for the stage after 2021’s film run?
I always wanted to act in a stage version of Disrobed ever since I saw it first performed at Hollywood Fringe in 2019. While I was all too happy to have created a virtual version of the play that was able to take advantage of the premise in a way that only an online version could, my end hope was always to translate that production into a live run at Hollywood Fringe. I didn't attempt it in 2022 because I had another show I was producing to get my feet wet and because we were still too close to the pandemic for general audiences to be willing to take the chance on being in a naturist audience. However, with both of those experiences behind us for now, I thought the time is ripe to bring this unique theatrical experience back.
How did you become interested in the themes of the original play, Barely Proper?
I actually didn't get a chance to hear or read Barely Proper until we were deep into rehearsals on the virtual version. I responded mainly to Steven Vlasak and Brian Knudson's update for the 2019 Fringe Festival version, which I think ironed out a lot of deficiencies in the original play and brought a much more playful spirit. What this updated version brings to the table is a more exuberant, 21st century vision of a naturist family as fully rounded individuals. Instead of being hidden behind resort walls, these characters participate in the real world and have thoughts about art, music, history, and science. Instead of just talking about how great naturism is, they bicker and banter based on who they are as people and show that naturists aren't just people who get naked to talk but are fully rounded people with lives outside the philosophy. It manages to put the time-honored naturist messages of freedom, acceptance, and body positivity in the words of people who are recognizable to the audience and who perhaps they can see themselves in as well which hopefully makes the messages hit even better.
How do you feel this stage adaptation of Disrobed differs from its previous versions?
Steven's 2019 update cut out a lot of the meanness of Barely Proper and added more individuality and kindness to it which made it sing much better. For instance, at the end of Barely Proper, our female lead renounces her naturist family in a way where she insults them all personally and we don't see the fall-out of that because her fiancé gives in with a cheeky one-liner. In the 2019 update, Steven actually made Skye's decision more heartbreaking and allowed Eric to actually deal with that fallout. I won't say how it ends though! This attention to character psychology was something we amped up even more in the 2021 version with each character receiving a job and hobbies that helped "flesh" them out more. We've also done several re-writes this go-around to make the characters even more sympathetic with our biggest change being the textile fiancé inviting himself over to his partner's naturist family unannounced instead of her perhaps unsympathetically inviting him over without telling him they're naturists. We think it's the most likable production so far so we hope people agree!
How did you go about adapting Disrobed for a virtual audience during the pandemic, and what unique challenges did that present?
Adapting Disrobed for a virtual audience at first seemed like a slam dunk. Contemporary setting? No costumes? An inability for anyone to infringe on anyone's personal space? It all seemed just too easy and the original premise of a man being invited into a naturist happy hour unaware almost seemed more plausible on zoom than in real life. The biggest challenge was making sure the virtual cast gelled as one unit despite being in separate time zones. I was worried that all the jumping between talking heads would make it hard to follow who was talking to who until I realized that it was more like putting together a comic book than editing a conventional film. Luckily, other pandemic films came out that proved audiences could easily follow everything. I was also worried about the comedic timing but our stellar cast and a little film editing kept the screwball comedy energy tight for what I think is a durable piece of pandemic entertainment.
How will the upcoming stage performance differ from the virtual adaptation? Did you draw from Barely Proper to bring it back to the stage?
The upcoming stage adaptation was largely a challenge of trying to integrate all the great changes people responded to in the virtual version back into Steven's original script. We wanted to preserve all the great character traits and expanded relationships while moving us back into the realm of physical comedy that the original lived in. Steven once said the big difference between the two versions was that the stage version was about Eric not wanting to be seen nude while the virtual version was more about Eric didn't want to see others nude so some set pieces definitely needed to be reworked. We actually didn't go back to Barely Proper that much because Steven's update had already retained everything good about it and so we just focused on streamlining what we had and preserving the newfound characterizations we had found.
How has audience feedback from previous performances of Disrobed influenced your approach to the upcoming stage production?
Audience feedback is always something one has to be judicious about when revising one's work. Some people just want to imprint their views of what something should be on to a show regardless if it makes sense. I'm convinced there's some viewers who wouldn't be satisfied with a naturist story unless it involved all the characters sit down and having a pleasant conversation about how great naturism is for an hour and nothing happens. However, we did listen to a lot of feedback to better accomplish the goals of our script. For instance, the love story between Eric and Skye has always attracted criticism for how Skye takes him to her parents' house and forces him to strip down without letting him know first. That gnawed at me and while the previous zoom version ameliorated part of that aspect, I knew that was an aspect that needed to be looked at in a stage update. Suffice to say, the resulting events are almost completely Eric's fault now for better or worse. That said, we also were responsive to any criticisms that neither the textile Eric nor the naturist family should appear too unreasonable in their actions and we've strove to make a better balance there as well.
What challenges have you faced in bringing Disrobed to the stage, especially considering its nudity requirements for both the cast and the audience?
The challenges of doing a nude show for a nude audience was always going to raise its head with this production. When I first pitched the idea, my gut was wondering if the venue or any talented actors would be interested in being a part of it. Luckily, through a very transparent communication system built on waivers and security monitors, we were able to build a talented team that’s able to build on that trust and safety. Of course we did have cast members who lived in other states so that posed a challenge but once we were all in the same space, it all fit together pretty perfectly.
Your 2021 film cleverly took the format of a video call, which worked perfectly for a virtual audience in that specific moment in time, in which we were all still socially distanced, quarantined, and limited to communicating with many of our loved ones over zoom. Do you feel that the stage version of Disrobed fits into the current cultural climate in a similar way? If yes, how so?
In a post-pandemic world, I think Disrobed retains just as much relevance if not more so. We all got a chance to see what the world would be like without being around people who are close to us or not be able to explore new ideas and new places around the world. I think a lot of people in the pandemic tried to find an honest version of themselves and bringing that version back into socializing with others always poses it’s unique challenges and rewards. For an audience member who’s brave enough to come to this show and be in a nude audience, I think they’ll leave with not just a once in a lifetime entertainment experience but also a chance to see new point of views of looking at the world and a realization that maybe they can lighten up on themselves. After all, we’re only human. 🪐
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“Barely Proper: An Unplayable Play”. Sunbathing Review. Vol 1, No 3. Autumn 1933. Page 29.
This excerpt was changed from past to present tense for readability.
Filichia, Peter. Barely Memorable. Jan 8, 2006. Theater Mania. https://www.theatermania.com/new-york-city-theater/news/barely-memorable_7429.html/
De Young, Ruth. Arts Club Play About Nudists Brings Laughs. Chicago Tribune. May 2, 1934. Page 17.
Gardner, R. H. Nudist Play at Hilltop. The Baltimore Sun. May 12, 1954. Page 15.
*The play may have been occasionally billed under the alternate title Tails You Win, according to at least one source:
Kanour, Gilbert. On the Stage. Baltimore Evening Sun, May 12, 1954. Page 54.
Storey, Mark. Barely Proper: For Nudists, This Play’s the Thing. Nude & Natural. 24.4. Summer, 2005. Page 49.
Author note: Mark Storey’s 2005 history of Barely Proper for Nude & Natural is the most comprehensively researched one that I’ve yet found. Not a surprise if you’re familiar with Mark’s work.
Watson, Morris. Barely Proper—It’s a Nudist Play Not for Gotham. The Fresno Bee. Aug 31, 1933. Page 9.
Hanson, Lucille. A History of Barely Proper. The Bulletin, Feb/Mar 1973. Page 21.
Johnson, Donald. The Traveling Club. Sundial No 14, 1963. Page 18.
The Los Angeles Times. Aug 4, 1966. Page 42.
The Tulsa Tribune. Aug 9, 1963. Page 38.
The 32nd Annual ASA Convention. Sundial No 15, 1963. Page 5.
Hotchkiss, Bruce. Nudism, Anyone? The Courier-News. Apr 12, 1968. Page 5.
Weatherly, Max. “Barely Proper” at Circle H Ranch. Nudism Today. Jan, 1970. Page 29.
The Memphis Press-Scimitar. Mar 27, 1970. Page 42
The Bulletin (n 9)
Nudism Today (n 15)
Glen Eden Sidelights. Feb 1972. Page 6.
‘Barely Proper’ Role. New York Daily News. Jun 5, 1968. Page 65.
Gussow, Mel. Broadway's First All‐Nude Play Due Next Week. New York Times, March 2, 1970, Page 44.
The Bulletin (n 9)
Nadel, Norman. The Naked Truth About ‘Grin and Bare It’. The Memphis Press-Scimitar. Mar 27, 1970. Page 42
Jennings, Robert. Intermission: Society Votes to Extend Ballet Director’s Contract. The Commercial Appeal. Apr 8, 1970. Page 25
Aurther, Robert Alan. Esquire Writer Visits Seminole Health Club. The Bulletin, Vol 22 No 3. Jun/Jul 1973. Page 13.
Seminole Health Club: The Positive Approach. The Natural Life, Jan 1977. Page 6.
Nudist Life-Style Goes on Trial in "Barely Proper''. The Bulletin, Vol 23, No 5, Jul 1974.
Nude & Natural (n 7)
Florida Nudist Club Owners Decide it’s Time to Cover Up After 37 Years. The SCNA Naturist Review, Vol 2, No 10, Oct. 2006. Page 12.
Deja Vu Barely Proper. Nude & Natural. 11.2. Winter, 1992. Page 8.