Love scenes on stage are about to change forever.
It’s been decades since theatrical productions first turned to fight choreographers to safely stage battles and other scenes involving violence. Now a rapidly spreading movement insists that intimacy — everything from a hand caressing a face to a simulated sex scene — should be choreographed just as carefully. And never without upfront discussions about consent and physical boundaries.
“You would never leave actors alone in the rehearsal room to stage a slap,” said Lauren Keating, intimacy consultant for the Guthrie Theater’s “Frankenstein — Playing With Fire” last fall and next month’s “As You Like It.” “The same thing is true of a kiss.”
In the Twin Cities, there’s a resident fight and intimacy director at Dark & Stormy Productions, whose recent “Blackbird” depicted the physically charged meeting of a woman and the man who abused her as a child. An upcoming production of “Hair” has volunteers on hand to ensure cast safety and comfort through rehearsals and the provocative musical’s two-week run. The Guthrie’s “Frankenstein” didn’t include any sex scenes, but there were romantic moments involving physical contact, staged with the same attention to detail as a swordfight. The movement to hire intimacy experts is even sweeping the world of TV and film, with HBO now requiring intimacy consultants on all projects.
Keating and others on the front lines say the results are healthier for performers. And they’re better for audiences, too.
“When people feel safe, they take more risks,” said Keating, also a director and associate producer at the Guthrie. “You know exactly what the boundaries are for the actors, and they know their boundaries with each other. You know you can go to a deeper place because you have had that conversation.”
Another early adopter is Doug Scholz-Carlson, artistic director of Winona’s Great River Shakespeare Festival. He’s working toward becoming a certified intimacy director.
“The training has completely transformed the way we work,” said Scholz-Carlson, who choreographed an assault for Minnesota Opera’s “Dead Man Walking” last year. “The rape scene we created was much more brutal than what we could have created if we hadn’t used these techniques. Everyone has a tendency to be careful around this stuff, but this gave us a way to set boundaries, know what they were, and then, once we had a very clear box, be free within that box to create something really powerful.”
Better workplaces, better art
Among the first to champion intimacy training were Tonia Sina and Alicia Rodis, both trained actors and fight directors. They co-founded Intimacy Directors International (IDI) in 2015, based in part on their experiences as performers.
Speaking by phone, the Chicago-based Sina recalled a 2015 performance where she was groped in front of an audience of theatergoers. “My partner didn’t stick to the choreography and started adding moves without my consent,” she said. “I was supposed to stay in character while I was being sexually assaulted onstage.”
Sina had been thinking about the pitfalls of staging sexuality since her grad student days at Virginia Commonwealth University. “I was learning the technique of swashbuckling, quarterstaff and all of these weapons, with so much discipline, and found there was a gaping hole when it came to intimacy,” Sina said. She wrote her thesis, in 2006, outlining why sensual scenes demand the same care as choreographing fights.
After the onstage assault, though, Sina wanted to ensure the safety of other actors. So she helped create four “pillars” for choreographing kisses, sex and other close physical encounters and launched IDI. Now she makes a career of teaching the approach in workshops around the world, including one this March at Minnesota Opera.
At the Guthrie, Keating became certified last spring in Mental Health First Aid, just one component of the IDI method. She attended her first intimacy training last August. Stressing that she’s still in the early stages of studying the techniques, she thinks the approach arrives at the perfect moment, with more theater artists examining power and abuses within their industry.
“We’re getting to a place where women, in particular, feel like they can advocate for themselves without risking their entire careers,” said Keating, who argues the principles are helpful even in shows that don’t require intimacy consultants.
Scholz-Carlson can envision a theater world where intimacy directors are as common on creative teams as fight choreographers.
“That’s the thing that is so brilliant about what Tonia proposes. You read it and think, ‘Oh, of course that’s what we should be doing. Why have we not done this before?’ ” said Scholz-Carlson, who learned of Sina’s work from a 2017 New York Times story. “Everyone sees that it’s going to make the workplace healthier and that it makes better art.”
‘Excuse for predatory behavior’
Emotional health is a big part of intimacy training, Sina said. She recalled a “showmance” she had with a co-star. They sparked to each other because of a phenomenon actors often describe: Creating the illusion of passion, their bodies respond as if it’s real.
“We had been asked to kiss and rehearse in the lobby because we didn’t have enough chemistry and suddenly — boom! — we had a real attraction,” Sina said. “We were both in relationships at the time, and we ended up breaking them off during the run, which was a really bad idea.
“We’re human,” she added. “Actors are not exempt from having emotions.”
That’s why IDI training also includes work in closure, to ensure everyone’s on the same page in terms of the illusions that are being created.
“When Tonia did a workshop at Great River Shakespeare Festival [last summer], we ended up applying a lot of the principles,” said Scholz-Carlson, who played “a jerk” in David Ives’ “Venus in Fur.” “Everywhere that we did, everyone felt a lot freer. The intimacy work helped us say, ‘This is what the character is doing, and I know I’m violating what would be your personal boundaries, but we’ve discussed this, so I know I’m not violating the character boundaries we have set up.’ ”
He said some theater professionals have resisted intimacy work, just as people in all walks of life can be slow to accept that consent is an ongoing negotiation.
“There are people who believe that if you have to ask for consent every step of the way, there won’t be interesting sex,” Scholz-Carlson said, adding that younger actors seem quicker to accept the idea. “Some will say actors have to be free to explore their sexuality onstage and that is what will make the best scene. But that doesn’t prove to be true, which is also the case with stage combat. The truth is, it ends up looking terrible and it’s dangerous.”
Sina has encountered similar skepticism. “A lot of actors have problems with this because their training is always about experimenting and saying yes,” she said.
But intimacy work isn’t about policing theater or watering it down, Sina said. And, like Scholz-Carlson, she rejects the argument that performers need to go with the flow.
“You don’t lose yourself. That’s called schizophrenia,” she said. “If a guy is so into his character that he doesn’t care about my boundaries and he changes choreography, I wasn’t part of that choice.
“I don’t believe in, ‘He was just really into that moment.’ That’s an excuse for predatory behavior that we have allowed in this industry for far too long.”
Rethinking classic scenes
In addition to theatermakers reconsidering their techniques, IDI principles could change what audiences see. Scholz-Carlson said he doesn’t think that the approach will affect what shows he chooses. But it definitely changes the way they’re staged.
Take William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” appearing this summer at Great River Shakespeare Festival.
“It’s a pretty straightforward love story, where two people do some terrible things and then forgive each other in the end. But how we tell that story will be very different,” Scholz-Carlson said.
The way it’s usually staged, “Cymbeline” implies that the female lead’s virtue is “owned” by the male lead. “I have a gut feeling we will want to make sure we show it’s mutual, that she is as much in love with him.”
Some shows need consultants for the entire rehearsal period. Others need intimacy experts to pop in as needed, with IDI members also available for extra consultations by phone. Scholz-Carlson is excited to see how the training changes theatermakers’ attitudes. He’s trying not to worry about the cost. After all, he said, “It’s cheaper than lawsuits.”
With its volunteer actors and creative teams, Theatre 55 can’t afford an intimacy consultant for its upcoming production of “Hair” at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. But cast members asked director Richard Hitchler about using one anyway, since the rock musical generally contains nudity and frank talk about sex.
“We started talking about what it would mean to have someone, specifically not myself or the choreographer or music director, who could act as a liaison for the cast if there are issues,” Hitchler said. “So I asked for volunteers.”
Raising their hands were cast members Brenda Starr, a retired vice president of human resources, and Dave Eckenrode, an advocate during recent charges of harassment at Minnesota Renaissance Festival. “I’ve dealt with employees across the spectrum as it relates to creating safe environments, making sure everyone has the tools they need,” Starr said.
That’s why, if “Hair” does include nudity, it will be a group decision. Starr thinks the approach is consistent with the spirit of the musical, a Broadway trailblazer when it debuted 50 years ago.
This production of “Hair” won’t be performed by 20-somethings, either. Instead, these performers were youngsters back when the musical premiered. They’re concerned that things haven’t changed much in the intervening decades.
“We still find ways to treat women negatively today,” Starr said. “Women are still disenfranchised. Lots of people are. The message coming through in ‘Hair’ is: Don’t you stop fighting. Don’t you stop living. Don’t you turn a blind eye to these things.”
That’s Sina’s message, too. It’s why she and her colleagues started IDI: They could no longer turn a blind eye to bad behavior.
“Once you open your eyes and start seeing it, you think, ‘I can’t. I’m not going to just sit here and watch someone be assaulted in front of me onstage.’ As a choreographer and a teacher, I could no longer ask actors to do this kind of work without some technique behind it,” Sina said.
“I didn’t want actors to ever feel the way I felt.”
Four pillars of intimacy consulting
Some guidelines from Intimacy Directors International:
Context: Explain the story being told by the intimate scenes, establish its tone and agree with teammates on the goal and objectives of the movement.
Communication: Provide a safe place to ask questions, as well as boundary and consent check-ins throughout the entire rehearsal period, making sure that anything communicated is kept private.
Consent: Open discussion, with no assumptions, is key. Any move that contains intimacy requires prior consent, and anyone can retract consent at any time.
Choreography: A third party should be present while intimacy choreography is created and rehearsed. Actors should be warned in advance of any scenes requiring intimacy. Choreography should not be changed without permission of the intimacy director.