Making Stage Magic with Intimacy Direction
Sex and violence have been a part of dramatic works forever. Think Shakespeare’s bloody “Titus Andronicus” with the rape and mutilation of Lavinia, the hand-to-hand combat in “Macbeth” or the final climatic fencing match in “Hamlet.” Even the musical “West Side Story,” inspired by Romeo and Juliet, hung its story on gang rivalry and teen romance.
But while battle scenes, sword play and fist fights are carefully staged, often with the help of a fight choreographer when it comes to scenes involving intimacy and sex — from kissing to a simulated rape — actors have often been left on their own to figure it out. And that can lead to problems.
What is Intimacy Direction?
This is changing though, thanks to intimacy direction which was virtually non-existent until a few years ago. And it is much more than simply making actors relaxed within awkward scenes.
Also called intimacy coaching, the practice brings consent, boundary exercises, technical language and structure to staging scenes that by their very nature can be highly uncomfortable to discuss, much less perform.
“It’s our job to make stage magic seem truthful and at the same time safe for the artists involved,” said Kelly Quinnett, head of acting at University of Idaho’s Department of Theatre Arts.
For a long time, these intensely intimate moments weren’t given careful attention…the pressure was primarily on the actors to make it work.Professor Kelly Quinnett
“For a long time, these intensely intimate moments weren't given careful attention. Perhaps out of discomfort or embarrassment, the pressure was primarily on the actors to make it work. Intimacy direction is directing scenes with consideration for the actors in a scene. Like stage combat, they get specific directions, so each moment is choreographed, and that choreography is repeatable for the entire production.”
Quinnett was introduced to intimacy direction two years ago at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF) where she attended workshops taught by Laura Rikard, a co-founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education and a theatre professor at University of South Carolina Upstate.
It’s something Quinnett had thought about. She’s acted for TV, film and stage and as a young performer was concerned with being labeled as a problem or difficult to work with if she asked questions or expressed unease with certain situations. “You know, there’s always someone waiting to replace you,” Quinnett said.
#MeToo Movement Influence
Tanya Thompson, a Master of Fine Arts candidate in performance at U of I, agrees. She took an intimacy direction workshop at KCACTF in 2020 and says it’s a powerful tool. “This is theatre’s answer to the #MeToo movement,” she said.
Thompson said actors are taught to say ‘yes, and….’
“Your job is to do everything you’re told to do,” she said. “Before this (intimacy direction) came out there was no mechanism to say ‘No, this makes me uncomfortable.’ You’d be labeled as difficult. It’s something that has been a long time coming.”
With intimacy direction, sexually-charged scenes will look hot and heavy to the audience but for the actor, the intimate moment is choreographed with such specificity that the personal part is removed. At the beginning of each rehearsal, boundary exercises establish consent between the actors initiating and receiving the action and provide the actors with the agency to withdraw consent at any time. Frequent check-ins are encouraged. At the end of an intimate scene, the actors develop a closing moment to signify the end of the work.
“It allows the actors to understand the other’s comfort level,” Thompson said. “It becomes like any other choreography.”
Intimacy Direction at U of I
In 2018, intimacy direction officially made its way into U of I productions with “The Open Hand” by Robert Caisley. Quinnett served as the intimacy coach for an under-the-covers bedroom scene. In 2019, she provided intimacy and fight direction for the cast of “Drowning Ophelia” by Rachel Luann Strayer.
The drama deals with abuse, rape and sexual violence. For Alexa Lamers, who played Ophelia, it was her first experience with intimacy direction.
“It was tough content from day one” said Lamers, a double-major in theatre arts and elementary education from Kalispell, Montana.
“The intimacy direction opened my eyes to consent and setting boundaries,” said Lamers. “I can’t imagine going into a production like that without it. You need to know what’s happening at every point.”
In rehearsals she would work with her scene partner to keep communication lines wide open. “We would talk through it, asking how we could make each other feel safe and lift each other up,” she said. “It was similar to how we block dance or fight choreography.”
Graduate Research in Intimacy Direction
Graduating in May from the U of I Theatre Distance Program, Elaine Daugherty’s graduate research has been focused on intimacy direction.
“It’s absurd that we would expect our actors to figure out fight choreography on their own,” she said. “This is no different.”
She began exploring intimacy coaching at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education conference in 2018 at a workshop taught by Chelsea Pace. Following more training, Daugherty now leads workshops. As a theatre professor at Central Michigan University, she brings it into her classrooms and she and Quinnett led a packed intimacy workshop at KCACTF.
In the past two years Daugherty has served as the intimacy director for several works, including “In the Next Room or the vibrator play” and “Punk Rock.” The intimacy coaching gave the actors grounding and confidence in difficult scenes.
“The students were so thankful for the support and guidance,” Daugherty said, “and knowing that there would be specific attention paid to difficult scenes made the students feel more comfortable.”
By setting boundaries and creating a physically and emotionally safe place for exploration, actors can experience the trust and vulnerability they must demonstrate in their roles.
“In charged, emotionally hard scenes, we have to be really careful,” said Quinnett. “What this work also does is give pause. It gives time to breathe and process and figure out a way to make a scene work.”
Ultimately, intimacy direction provides an empowering tool for actors. The structure and boundaries allow for deepened connections, said Quinnett.
“There is absolutely a demand for this,” Daugherty said. “Once you’re exposed to this, you can’t go back.”
Article by Kelly O'Neill, Department of Theatre Arts
Published May 2020