Dancing Bare

by Rigby Taylor

Chapter 19

Touring on

We were a strange mob. Alwyn in love with his Company and Edgar; Edgar in lust with me; Agnes at war with the world; Hal in lust with Margaret; Margaret in love with her rugby-playing psychologist fiancé back home in Guildford; and Terry in love/lust with himself.

Apart from one unpleasant week in which I shared a double bed with Hal, who showered and brushed his teeth only occasionally, and placed a row of pillows between us - threatening murder if I crossed the line. Usually, I shared a room and double bed in our cheap but clean theatrical digs with Terry. The rooms were always too small for twin beds but okay for doubles. In those days it was considered perfectly normal for men to share a bed.

Terry was handsome on stage because his features were larger than life – nose, chin, mouth, pores.... He was clean and didn't smoke or snore, and kept fit by using the local gymnasiums. In front of a mirror before bed he'd stroke his nipples, kiss his shoulders and massive biceps, then lean forward to kiss his reflected lips before masturbating.

I saw nothing sinister in this, which was a great relief to him. I was the first person in whom he'd confided his secret and the first he'd allowed to witness his 'lovemaking'. My easy acceptance assured him he wasn't a monster. He was attracted to neither men nor women, did no harm, and I liked him.

It was the end of an era. TV was enticing away even the few theatregoers the cinema had left us. Within twenty years, a small number of theatrical companies backed either by public money or wealthy entrepreneurs would have control of theatres, providing blockbuster sure-fire successes at the expense of daring, experimental diversity. Professional actors could work in TV or film, but that has none of the allure of the stage. I would rather tread the boards of a high school stage every day with two hundred adolescents applauding, than act in front of the Cyclops eye of a camera and an irritated neurotic director, while half a dozen crew members chat amongst themselves, uninterested in what's going on.

To perform the same play many times is not boring – it's stimulating. Every audience is different, and you adjust performances to suit them while trying to make each one better than the last. It was very hard work, despite the plays being shortened versions. We had to keep five Shakespearian plays in separate compartments in our heads, present them five afternoons and sometimes one or two mornings a week, and switch to Sweeny Todd on three nights.

The Midlands was a far cry from the "Black Country" I'd been expecting. One could easily walk from red-brick terraced-house towns to woodlands, lakes, hills, and countryside. When the sun shone it was delightful; when cold, bracing; when wet, horrible. At home I was used to endless suburbs sprawling over the land, but in England, houses were stacked closely and even towns with large populations seemed small, ending abruptly at a fence and fields.

Nor were the provinces devoid of culture. In Wolverhampton I saw Joan Hammond in concert. I'd been in love with Joan since the age of twelve when, as a babysitter for the local doctor, I'd always play a 78 r.p.m. recording of her and David Lloyd singing 'Lovely Maid in the Moonlight' from La Boheme. Saddlers Wells brought an excellent production of Mozart's Magic Flute to the city opera house, and also a selection of ballets. The London Symphony Orchestra gave two concerts, and Sybil Thorndike appeared in a drawing room comedy.

Alwyn accompanied us to the 'Roland Petit Ballet Company's' performance of The Rites of Spring in which the most perfect and sexy specimens of manhood, naked apart from posing pouches, 'fucked' bizarre stuffed dolls during the last orgiastic scene. Alwyn was strangely silent afterwards. [In 2007, at the age of 84, Roland Petit choreographed a ballet for the Paris Opera based on Proust's Temps Perdus, in which a totally naked man appears.]

It was a trip to Stratford-on-Avon that cemented Alwyn's determination to 'sex up' the rest of our costumes. We saw Peter Hall's King Lear, in which Lear's 'fool' was naked during the final scene; and a production of The Tempest, in which Ariel wore only a pouch, and Caliban's sole garment was a phallic bone dangling between his thighs.

On our return, Alwyn called a meeting and said that as our sets were minimal, exactly enough to suggest the scene, so our costumes should be minimal; suggesting the period and style rather than trying unsuccessfully to recreate it. We were all sick of the pantaloons and thick cotton hose that wrinkled at the knees, velvet jackets, and frilled blouses worn for The Merchant of Venice and Twelfth Night, so were delighted when they were replaced by waist-length jerkins, felt boots and the 'new' stretch-nylon tights – one size fits all, guaranteed never to wrinkle. They were immensely strong, so we attached braces front and rear and dragged them up until they fitted like a second skin; deep into bum cracks, splitting balls, and squashing cocks against our bellies.

That looked pretty horrible, so as he didn't want exterior codpieces that would draw attention to the bulges, Alwyn made snugly fitting flesh-tinted pouches that bunched our cods into a smooth lump under the tights; like ballet dancers.

From the auditorium with the stage lights on, the effect was magical. We looked as if our naked bums and legs had been sprayed with slightly luminous paint. At first, Hal had balked at exposing his bulge, but after being mobbed for autographs after our first appearance he changed his mind.

In Merchant, Edgar, who played Antonio, insisted Shakespeare had intended a homosexual relationship between Antonio and Bassanio, because only a lover would put his life on the line for another man. Fortunately, his tastefully subtle interpretation went over the heads of the students.

I loved being Bassanio, wearing nothing but turquoise tights that stopped a hand-width below my navel, a tiny embroidered waistcoat that ended a hand-width above the navel, soft felt pixie boots, and a cheeky little cap with a feather. Audiences always became audibly excited when Bassanio wins Portia by artfully choosing the correct casket, and when Shylock is foiled by Margaret's coolly efficient Portia. Her 'Quality of Mercy' speech was the best I've heard.

Twelfth Night was great fun with Hal superb as both Sebastian and Viola. He lightened his voice to a husky contralto for both parts, and when playing Viola, simply pulled his jerkin down to conceal his cods. I was the randy Duke with a hugely padded codpiece; Alwyn a hilarious Malvolio, Terry played Sir Toby, and Edgar played everyone else. As usual, Agnes played all the minor female roles. We managed the final scene in which both brother and sister appear, by dressing Edgar in the same clothes as Hal, while keeping his back to the audience. It worked well. The kids were certain we'd used identical twins.

The weather turned cold. The van wasn't keen on continuing to go so far; once refusing to turn right when a steering rod gave up the ghost. I had to navigate right-hand turns by first turning left, then backing around in a circle until we were facing the direction we wanted to go, then setting off again. We were never late, never lost, and I remained respectable, which Agnes still could not forgive.

I usually accompanied Terry to the town swimming pool and gymnasium, and while he lifted weights I swam or took a Turkish bath, once finding a handsome local lad with whom to share a cubicle. In Stoke-on-Trent I was wandering around the bath house sans towel as usual – they charged extra for a second towel so I wasn't going to waste it by sitting and sweating on it - when the fellow in charge of the place, a hefty guy of about fifty, belligerent in black woollen togs, came up and tapped me on the shoulder.

Everyone else was modestly swathed in towels – staring. They were an ugly bunch – as ugly as only North Country English can be. Doughy white flesh, red-necked, pot-bellied; I had clearly offended their sense of propriety and was about to be ejected. I was ready to go anyway. He took me by the arm and led me to a room with an altar-like slab of marble in the centre, and a freezing plunge pool on one side.

He's going to throw me in the water, I guessed. Instead, he led me to the 'altar' and said he'd give me a free massage. He was a hulk so I didn't dare refuse. We had been followed by a dozen of the be-towelled occupants of the steam room, who gathered in a tight circle around the 'altar' and watched as the flesh of my back and buttocks were separated from the bones, legs bent to breaking point, arms hoisted up beyond bearing and muscles pummelled to pulp.

Then I was turned over and kneaded, pressed, stroked and intimately interfered with until, accompanied by a great sigh from the audience, I ejaculated. The audience drifted away, I dived into the freezing water, and as I emerged was offered free entry on any third Wednesday of the month.

While in Stoke, Terry and I visited the Royal Dalton potteries. Very old, dusty wooden buildings on multiple levels; unchanged since first built. All these old potteries have now gone. Cheap imports have closed them down and the few potteries that remain are automated factories. I was hoping to see throwing and other traditional stuff, but everything was slip cast and the decorations only transfers until in one area I found guys skilfully hand painting designs on 'one-off' vases and plates.

A handsome fellow of about my age let me paint a stroke on a plate while hovering over me. "I'm off in twenty minutes. Wait at the front entrance," he whispered, breathing mint-flavoured air down my neck. Terry left me with dire warnings about sexually transmitted diseases. My artistic paramour shouted me to fish and chips, then back to his place for a shower and cuddle.

Agnes was type cast as the vicious Mrs. Bardell in Sweeny Todd the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, but the houses had been disappointing, and we'd barely broken even financially until a slight costume change let us post 'house full' signs every night. Alwyn didn't alter the eighteenth-century costumes… sailors in bell-bottoms; lawyer in black with stovepipe hat; policeman red-faced and blustery, heroine in billowing muslin; he merely removed most of mine in the final scene.

During the play, after sending unconscious young men through the hatch to Mrs. Bardell's, Alwyn, as the malicious and evil Sweeny, would race next door and hoist them onto a huge meat-hook before ripping off their shirts and plunging a stage knife into their hearts, releasing great gouts of blood and screams from the audience – then blackout.

When I, as the sailor hero, was lifted onto the meat hooks, Alwyn ripped off my trousers as well as the shirt. His original intention was for me to be naked. Nudity on stage had become almost an obsession with him. I asked if it was to distract from my bad acting. He just smiled and explained that I was the only actor he knew who'd not only look good naked on stage, but would enjoy it, so it seemed a pity to waste the chance when the times were demanding it.

The others voted against it from fear of contravening the law, so we compromised with a posing pouch of optically white butter muslin so soft it clung like a skin, and so brief it barely covered my bits. Sweeney had to 'sharpen' his butcher's knife for a full minute before audience excitement subsided.

What followed was carefully choreographed mayhem! The door was smashed in; I was revived with a bucket of water that rendered the muslin transparent. There was a dagger fight with Sweeney and a wrestling match with Mrs. Bardell. I revived the fainting heroine, then was shoved from policeman to lawyer, to girlfriend to Squire and back until the whole mad caper was resolved, my identity ascertained by a star-shaped birthmark on the right buttock that everyone, including the by now thoroughly involved audience, had to inspect, inheritance assured, marriage planned, and lovers' kisses planted. My naked bum appeared in the Bilston Weekly Advertiser.

Ten weeks passed too quickly. Every day was exciting; every performance a challenge. Although we spent a great deal of time together we remained on good terms by deliberately not getting to know too much about each other. I only remember once discussing private thoughts, when Margaret's psychologist fiancé came to visit and used us as guinea pigs for a personality test. After analysis of dozens of personal questions that I, at least, had answered honestly, he declared everyone except me to be some sort of social misfit.

My activities since arriving in England were common knowledge, thanks to Agnes, so there was some disbelief when I scored 'normal' in every category. Unlike Agnes, the others were amused and didn't consider it an insult that I was openly ordinary among theatrical folk. But I wasn't surprised – I've always known I was completely normal.

When Margaret announced she was leaving to marry, Alwyn decided we'd become a traditional Shakespearian Company – all male. He wrote to the kids from the drama schools we'd played at who had asked to be contacted if we had a vacancy, telling them we needed a young male to play female roles. The sole response was from a fifteen-year-old from the bizarrely named village of Tittensor.

Jeremy came to our digs with his parents, who interviewed us over tea in the boarding house parlour, then watched as Jeremy was auditioned. He was nothing to look at; medium height, slim, light brown hair, and no distinguishing features apart from a disarmingly candid gaze through one green and one brown eye. His voice, projection, and quick understanding, though, were impressive.

Alwyn told them bluntly that it was not a glamorous life; Jeremy would have to share a bed, ride in the back of the van, and help with everything, as well as act. After a whispered conference with his son, the father said he approved on condition that I took him under my wing.

Babysitting a fifteen-year-old was not on my list of desirable activities. I often needed to be alone to do what I wanted. How could I go to a Turkish bath? I let my annoyance show.

The mother smiled disarmingly. "We saw you in Sweeney Todd; you were excellent."

As she intended, I began to melt.

"I've been kicked out of school, so I have to have the job," Jeremy pleaded. "I'll be no trouble."

Alwyn frowned at me, I shut up, and it was arranged. Jeremy would join us, unpaid, until the end of the term to learn as much as he could from Margaret, then take over next term.

That afternoon Agnes disappeared, leaving a tear-stained note saying she knew when she wasn't welcome. We all cheered, and Jeremy had a baptism of fire playing Agnes's roles of maids and gentlewomen with heavy makeup and wigs for the last week of the run. He was unflappable, had a blotting paper brain that learned lines after two readings, did everything asked of him unquestioningly, and was universally liked.

Terry moved in to Hal's room, which had two single beds. Jeremy watched as I undressed and diplomatically threw his pyjamas back in his bag before joining me in the double bed. With the light out, he confessed he'd told his father to insist I became his mentor because after seeing me in Merchant and Sweeney I was the main reason he'd joined the Company; I looked so sexy.

I felt sick. A hero worshipper was the last thing I needed! And I've never been interested in youths! When I was his age, I fell in lust with a couple of older men, but since then only with guys my own age.

Suddenly I realised how my physics teacher must have felt when I used to lean against him while he checked my workbook. He was about twenty-five and I was sixteen. He'd snap at me to stand up straight. I once took hold of his hand and pretended to look at his signet ring. He pulled his hand away and frowned disapproval. He was duty teacher when I was hit in the nuts with a cricket ball, so drove me to hospital and attended while a doctor examined me. I helped him with laboratory equipment on Thursday lunchtimes, and one day he cut his hand. I guess I fussed over it too much – showed too much concern - because he said tersely, "I don't know what's the matter with you, Taylor. You're tough enough but sometimes you act like a lovesick schoolgirl! Cut it out!"

My guts froze. Thank goodness I hadn't given him one of the love poems I'd written! I began to sweat. I wasn't acting like a girl! Why should only girls feel sexy about men? Wasn't I also allowed? I'd have preferred to die but settled for pathetic silence. After that I discovered I was too busy to be his Lab assistant.

To my relief, after off-loading his secret, Jeremy curled up and slept like a kitten till morning. The following night, however, he suggested it would be easier to act a woman if he knew what it felt like to be one. I protested, but he was persistent, so I kissed him. He wanted more. I said no way. He produced a pot with some margarine he'd pinched from the kitchen, threw his legs in the air, shoved a dollop up his bum and rubbed the rest on my erection. What was a man to do? To my astonishment the entry was easy and instead of squeals of pain, he emitted grunts of pleasure.

"This isn't your first time, is it?" I asked; angry at being fooled.

"A prefect's been shagging me twice a week since I turned fourteen, and the guy I was caught with in the cupboard was in the same position you're in now. That's why we were kicked out."

I felt like hitting him, but he guessed my problem and said with a laugh, "Don't worry, I'm not in love with you. I just think of it as a pleasant massage. Don't be such a prissy puritan. Relax and enjoy it."

I couldn't. Even though the law considered sex between two adult men exactly as evil as between a 23 year old and a 15 year-old, I couldn't convince myself I'd been a trustworthy guardian. I certainly didn't do it again – we'd be living far too close for that sort of relationship; and anyway, I preferred to be friends with this intelligent and self-willed adult in a youth's body.

Over the Christmas/New Year break he went home, and I assisted Alwyn and Edgar to move to a larger but cheaper flat in Chiswick. I asked if we'd have to change the name of the company, but was assured that Edgar's mother's friend had a daughter in Westminster who was willing to attend to all our mail, forwarding it when we were away etc. so Westminster Shakespearian Company was still a legitimate appellation. A more pressing need was a replacement for Agnes.

A call to Hazel resulted in a summons. She needed a nude butler for an upcoming 'Katherine Mansfield' weekend: was I available?

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