An immersive introduction to intimacy direction
Intimacy onstage can be extremely polarizing. As actors, these moments can feel like unique opportunities to completely immerse in the storytelling, or they can be the scenes we dread most in rehearsal and performance. As audience members, intimate staging can either draw us in to the performance, or, executed poorly, cause us to pull away. When director Coleman Ray Clark, a friend and fellow recent graduate of Marymount Manhattan College, approached me to do “Intimacy direction” for Bare the musical in Spring 2019, I had only briefly heard the term in passing. However, a quick internet search convinced me that I needed to jump on this opportunity and learn as much as possible. I had personally experienced everything from awkwardness to anxiety in the staging of intimate scenes, and it felt like a long-overdue relief to discover that these situations could be transformed by employing a specific methodology.
The practice of Intimacy Direction was introduced more than a decade ago but has been growing rapidly in the theater and film industry over the past few years. An intimacy director, or intimacy coordinator is an individual responsible for the staging of intimate scenes, simulated sex, or performance nudity. The role is comparable to a fight director and their work choreographing onstage violence as a member of the artistic team. Intimacy Director’s International, a not-for-profit organization pioneering these methods, defines the job of an Intimacy Director with the “5 C’s”: context, consent, communication, choreography and closure.
In Bare the musical, a group of Catholic boarding school students explore their budding relationships to sex, love, religion and identity in a sung-through pop opera score. We follow the two main characters, roommates Peter and Jason, as they navigate the consequences of their secret (and eventually not-so-secret) romantic relationship. This production was staged in St. John’s Lutheran Church in the east village, and the site-specific work occurred in and around the audience. As an intimacy director, these factors lead to considerations beyond the movement itself. I had to think about the audience’s proximity to these moments (because in many cases they occurred in the same pew as audience members), the logistics of dressing and undressing in a non-proscenium theater space where all angles are visible, and how the heightened state of musical theater should affect the choreography.
Before the first day of rehearsals, I embarked on my own research, and attended an amazing workshop with Claire Warden of Intimacy Director’s International. I also encountered a 2006 master’s thesis by Tonia Sina, founder of Intimacy Director’s international, called “Intimate Encounters: Staging Intimacy and Sensuality”, and it became my most interesting and enlightening resource. More than a decade ago, Sina laid the foundation for this work by detailing the conception and creation of her thesis project, a 5-scene piece called Reflections of Red in a Mirror of Desire and analyzing of historic examples of staged intimacy. She documented her process which involved constant reevaluation of the piece and actor needs, and this evolution proved to me that perceptiveness and flexibility might be my most useful tools. The workshop with Warden introduced me to the more technical elements of the practice, and specific exercises I could utilize in establishing the desired rehearsal atmosphere (one which fostered trust and respect for boundaries), and in staging. While I am not a certified intimacy director, I felt confident entering the rehearsal room with the new language I’d acquired and codified practices to begin the work.
In rehearsals, I worked closely with the director (Clark), always beginning each session with a ritual I’d learned from Claire Warden called “tapping in”. Actors made some sort of physical contact, such as a high-five, and took a shared breath with eye contact, which they repeated to “tap out” when we had finished working. The idea was that this routine separated actor from character, a reminder of the mutual agreement that all intimacy which occurred between tapping in and out was exclusively part of the work.
Because Bare is a musical, the intimacy blocking looked a lot like choreography: this touch needs to happen by this lyric; the musical interlude is being used for this extended kiss…etc. However, the techniques we used to establish this choreography were new to me. For example, we choreographed each kiss using technical markers and measurements. Instead of the “just go for it” method I’d encountered in the past, we discussed when and where different body parts would come into contact, the duration, and used a 1-10 scale to describe intensity. Perhaps most significantly, we incorporated the actors’ own boundaries and journeys with their characters. At the start of the day’s work, actors were asked to share if they had any boundaries on where they were okay to be touched, which were allowed to change day to day without judgment or explanation. We also involved them in the specific details of intimate moments. This meant that I came in with an idea of what the movement would look like, but my actual job was to facilitate conversation between the actors and director (Clark). This is where the 5 C’s came in, and discussion ranged from analysis of the script and character arcs to reminders for all parties to continually ask permission as they explored and developed the physical relationships.
The result was a medley of my vision and the creativity of my peers, which I believe was fostered by the environment I worked to create. I was thrilled with how my work manifested on stage: in the aesthetic of the choreography, but also in tracking the evolving relationships based on conversations we’d had in rehearsal, and in the knowledge that the intimacy reflected a collaboration in which I tried my best to encourage artistic exploration and an awareness of personal boundaries.
I’m also very grateful for what the role of intimacy director required of me. This is a new field and I was working with peers, so I had to establish a sense of credibility and confidence in helping the cast to understand my role and the philosophy I introduced. I also had to confront the fact that talking about intimacy can be uncomfortable and intimidating for people, myself included. To relieve some of this tension, actors and directors often joke around and laugh off these moments, but I’ve learned that it’s important to recognize the seriousness of the work. It seems so obvious now, but a huge takeaway for me was the idea that you can’t fake a kiss or a touch onstage: unlike a staged punch, a staged kiss involves one actor’s lips actually meeting their partner’s, and therefore the expectation that actors engage their bodies in intimate scenes shouldn’t be taken lightly.
Beyond my role as intimacy director, this experience was hugely impactful in shaping my understanding of intimacy work. I can proceed in my future acting endeavors knowing that it is not only acceptable but imperative to state my boundaries and discuss the specifics of each moment. Being a flexible, generous scene partner does not mean you need to be okay with “surprises” or “new choices”, and in fact, agreeing on specific physicality can allow actors the freedom to explore by alleviating pressure and guesswork.
I keep returning to what I learned about intimacy and control: in life, one partner is always in control of intimacy at any given moment. Instead of asking an actor to submit to that control, we can use to principles of intimacy direction to shift that locus of control onto an external source. Through conversation and agreement, that one outside person establishes the blocking, which allows everyone to have agency, regardless of the portrayed power dynamic. Something as simple as conversation can create radical change in the theatre industry, and I feel a new sense of empowerment and responsibility to share this work and contribute to that evolution.