Intimate Exchanges

Originally published in American Theatre magazine
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Adam Noble had been teaching an advanced scene study class for just one month when he faced a startling encounter with sexual assault in acting. A student came to him asking for a new scene partner, saying she thought the man she had been working with, on the final scene between Stanley and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire, had tried to rape her. 

Noble immediately offered to serve as a mediator for the two students, who had been rehearsing alone in the young man’s dorm room, in order to clarify what had happened. The situation was resolved as a misunderstanding, and the two were able to continue working together. But for Noble, who had staged his first theatrical fight in 1992, the incident served as a wake-up call.  

“We were sending these kids off on their own devices with no foundation for how to approach this stuff,” he recalled. The lack of resources for both students and teachers regarding the staging of intimate scenes was apparent.

Noble developed a method called Extreme Stage Physicality to provide students with a framework to address what he called in an article for The Fight Master magazine “scenarios of intense physicality” with comfort and confidence. He began teaching ESP to high school, undergraduate, and graduate students across the country. He found that the methodology was effective for all ages, and the number of reported incidents and problems dropped to zero. 

“For me as a director, it had to work for aggression, and it had to work for intimacy,” Noble said. “It had to work across the board for those moments when the body steps in to fill the void, whether it’s violence or intimacy. There’s a point where the text and the words are no longer enough and the body steps in. There had to be a way for them to work on it safely.”

That way would later be referred to as intimacy choreography, a term first used in 2006 by Tonia Sina, creator of the Intimacy for the Stage method and co-founder and executive director of Intimacy Directors International. While studying movement pedagogy, including clowning and mime, Sina was helping to choreograph intimate scenes in student-directed plays and found what she described as “a hole” in choreography and no resources to help with her work.

For her thesis she created a technique to help actors improve the conditions of their work as well as the results. Published in 2006, “Intimate Encounters; Staging Intimacy and Sensuality” drew from her own experiences as an actor. While attending graduate school at Virginia Commonwealth University, Sina’s personal life was disrupted due to the lack of structure provided for staging intimate scenes. While rehearsing Picasso at the Lapin Agile, she and her acting partner staged a love scene together, alone—a standard practice for such scenarios—with unnerving results.

“The second our lips touched it was not rehearsing,” Sina recalled. “It was just kissing. We both felt it. We both knew. It ended up spiraling. We ended up leaving our partners for a month and we had a showmance. It caused a lot of mayhem in our personal lives because we couldn’t let these characters go. We didn’t have a safe way to do the intimacy, and we didn’t have a safe way of coming out of it.”

The two dated for a month, but their romantic relationship ended shortly after the show closed. And while Sina’s experience was consensual, there are many cases in which an intimacy director could have prevented non-consensual encounters and abuses of power, especially for young women in the industry.

“While I was in grad school I was also an actress, so I was experiencing it firsthand—situations that had been completely inappropriate from co-workers, people who had been onstage with me, directors who didn’t know how to handle these scenes, so they didn’t handle them,” Sina said. “You have an older director and there’s a sex scene and they say, ‘You guys just do it. Just try something.’ So you’re improvising a sex scene with your partner. That’s extremely uncomfortable and very victimizing at times.” 

Alicia Rodis, co-founder of Intimacy Directors International, witnessed and was a victim in such scenarios throughout her career. After almost chipping a tooth when a scene partner decided to intensify a kiss onstage, she was told, “That’s part of the profession. Get used to it.” Knowing there were hundreds of other women who would gladly take her spot in a show if she left, Rodis thought she had to accept that kind of behavior for the rest of her career. 

“We sort of learned that’s not the case, and we don’t have to just take it. We can actually be part of the process and work together,” Rodis said.

Sina and Rodis, along with co-founder Siobhan Richardson, created the Pillars, the core protocol of IDI’s work and teaching. A codified process, the Pillars consist of Context, Communication, Consent, and Choreography. (They recently established a fifth pillar, Closure, to assist actors in walking away from a character after a performance.) Not having this process, Sina said, can be damaging and dangerous.

“None of it’s real—it’s theatre,” said Sina. “It’s a fake story that is being portrayed by actors, and we have to keep remembering that. You shouldn’t be losing yourself. You need to have some semblance of yourself and some awareness of what you’re doing. Yes you can commit to the character, but you need to come out again.”

IDI currently recommends six* certified Intimacy Directors, with 16 candidates in training to become certified. Currently only established movement teachers, choreographers, and directors who have worked directly with a founder are able to apply for training. The organization also offers workshops for actors, directors who want to learn basic consent and choreography, and for stage managers and choreographers wanting to learn more about intimacy direction. In August 2018, a 10-day International Intimacy Pedagogy workshop was held in Illinois.

Along with the Pillars, another crucial aspect of intimacy directing is recognizing and respecting traumas in one’s colleagues. All IDI-certified choreographers have completed state-offered mental health certification courses.

“None of us are therapists, and none of us are counselors,” Rodis said. “But we know what to do if someone is having a mental health crisis, and we know what resources to give them. Because of the nature of the work we’re doing, and because some of us are so new, we’re getting further education on trauma.” 

While recognizing that theatre professionals are just that—professionals hired to tell a story—the founders also understand that that job can involve actors putting themselves through traumatic experiences night after night. “We know what you’re doing is different than going to the office every day,” Rodis said. “If you’re playing Lady Macbeth every night, after a while it’s going to wear on you. So we also offer resources on how to close out at the end of every night.”

One such resource is the ability to discuss sexuality and sexual experiences openly and without discomfort—a shift from the norm in American culture, which, as intimacy director and IDI liaison Claire Warden observed, has little problem with violence but tends to balk when it comes to sex, leaving directors feeling uncomfortable and embarrassed.

“We’ve got this really skewed view of sex and sexuality and intimacy, and an obsession with it,” Warden said. “A lot of shame, judgment, power, and confusion lies around it, which has made it uncomfortable and awkward to talk about openly.” The root problem, she said, may be that “sexuality and intimacy have kind of blurred into one.”

Intimacy direction was never mentioned when an actor we’ll call Emily (not her real name) was performing in a dramatic two-hander and struggled to choreograph a love scene with her female scene partner. Having never performed a same-sex love scene before, Emily found herself at a loss, and her director—whose only technique was to yell the stage direction “Rolling heat!” repeatedly—was no help. The two actors were unable to stage the scene on their own and found themselves onstage at the end of rehearsal with the director yelling, “Just do it. It’s time.” 

Emily recalled that “when it came time to do it in performances, fight director friends of mine who came to see the show said, ‘That looked incredibly uncomfortable for you both. You looked like you were in pain and it was obvious.’” Her friends asked her where the intimacy director was. Emily had never heard of such a director, saying, “I wish I’d known about it at the time when all the yelling was happening.” 

Emily, now a director herself, said she is careful to ensure that her actors are comfortable when staging intimate scenes. “I am hyper-aware of my actors’ sensitivity and I’m constantly checking in with them: ‘Are you okay? Are you comfortable with this? Let me know if you’re not comfortable. We don’t have to do this. We can do something else.’ And my actors thank me for it. They’re not used to that.” 

Uncomfortable situations can present themselves with or without directors in the room. Often scene partners are encouraged to stage the scenes on their own, outside of rehearsal, a practice that can lead to feelings of fear and helplessness. Sina was kissed inappropriately—a kiss that hadn’t been choreographed or rehearsed—in front of an audience of 500 people and had to be in character as she received it. 

“There are times where it’s, ‘Kiss, but don’t kiss until previews.’ It’s the worst,” Rodis said. “At best it’s a bad story, at worst they start grabbing you, ‘be in the moment.’ That’s the definition of assault.”

Along with establishing the definition of assault, IDI training also defines consent in clear, unquestionable terms that differentiate between that and permission. A director can give permission to touch another actor, but only a fellow actor can give consent. 

“The conversation is always very professional and technical, so when we’re talking about parts of the body, it’s the biological name of the part of the body,” said Warden. “And we as intimacy directors never ask anything about and never inquire about the actors’, directors’ or anyone else’s personal sexual life, history, story, proclivities, etc.” 

The language doesn’t change when the workshops contain students, Warden said, though she may move more slowly.

“A lot of what we’re saying for adults is still, ‘This is not real. None of this is real,’” said Sina. “In rehearsal, we do the scene and we don’t add acting to it until the very last minute. We choreograph it like we do anything else. Just do the moves so everyone knows what’s happening. Then they can add the emotion to it when the actors are ready and they feel they know the choreography well enough.”

The inability to treat intimate scenes as simply choreography is a problem Sina has observed at numerous drama competitions, where students without sexual experience or knowledge, let alone the ability to separate themselves from the characters they were playing, have performed sex scenes. These situations can be traumatizing for people without the knowledge or resources to handle it. 

“If they’re not being led through it properly, it can be very, very dangerous,” she said. “It’s illegal in our country to do anything sexual with a minor or have two minors do something sexual in front of an adult. It’s a very thin line between choreography and a crime when you’re dealing with minors.”

Demand for IDI services and training has spiked in the past year, since the #MeToo movement has exposed abuse in the entertainment field, including theatre, and the issues of consent and empowerment in the workplace (not to mention outside of it) have become central.

“At the moment, there’s so much need and demand and only so many of us to go around,” Warden said. “I cannot be in every single room and play out there, but what I can do is empower actors or directors or even stage managers to go into a room and say, ‘I would like to offer a way of talking about this. I would like to offer an approach to this.’”

Also encouraging to Warden is the increased awareness among young students.

“My hope, my intention, and my dream is that the next generation of actors, writers, and directors come out with a very different understanding of respect and consent with their bodies and each others’ bodies,” Warden said. “And that leads us into an even more free and safe way to create deep, authentic, risky stories.”  

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