For years, actors were expected to portray intimate situations on stage with little or no preparation or training. For some, the experience was a fraught minefield, stirring uncomfortable memories or throwing unequal gender dynamics into stark relief.
Angela Timberman, a veteran Twin Cities stage actor and director, recalled times when intimate scenes made her fellow performers uncomfortable – but they felt like they had no alternative other than to muscle through.
“A lot of people used to say, ‘Get over It,’” she recalled. “But I’ve always been uncomfortable kissing someone I don’t know. And I know I’m not alone. Everyone has different comfort levels about sexual or physical intimacy or being touched. Today’s actors are more comfortable speaking out about that.”
In response to a growing number of calls for assistance navigating intimate scenes in productions, many Twin Cities theater companies are turning to intimacy coordinators, individuals who work as choreographers of sorts, advocating for the physical and mental health of actors, training casts and crews and coordinating scenes that involve intimate physical contact.
This month, the Minneapolis-based Jungle Theater sponsored an eight-hour workshop for theater professionals featuring Chelsea Pace, co-founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education, a consulting group specializing in researching, developing, and teaching best practices for staging theatrical intimacy. Participants learned and practiced tools for building a culture of consent in rehearsals, establishing boundaries and choreographing physical intimacy.
The workshop, said Timberman, a member of The Jungle’s artistic cohort, was a good opportunity for theater professionals to air issues that in the past were too often pushed aside. She said that evolving leadership in theater companies in Minnesota and around the nation means that more attention is being paid to these kinds of issues.
“More BIPOC people and women are moving into positions of leadership in theater. This means that there is change in how we view these kinds of issues. In the past, the room was run by white men,” Timberman said.
Christina Baldwin, Jungle Theater artistic director, said that in most established theater companies, intimacy coordinators now play a central role.
“I liken it to fight choreography or dance,” Baldwin said. “When you have great practitioners who are involved in talking about and implementing the tools needed to have a great performance, you are going to see and feel it. Just having that psychological-emotional connection of a team of actors and directors that feels taken care of and properly educated –the audience benefits from seeing that on stage. It makes a huge difference.”
The power to speak out
Much of the movement toward having moderated and informed discussions around how theaters approach intimacy has been spearheaded by younger actors and directors, Timberman said. These professionals did not grow up with the same “get over it” expectations that she faced when she was coming up in the profession.
Many younger people have been raised knowing that they have the right to object to behavior that they find offensive, Timberman added. Intimacy training empowers actors and other theater professionals to speak up when they experience questionable behavior – and then offers suggestions to help individuals work toward creating healthy change.
“If the kiss goes longer than needed or the hand goes somewhere it shouldn’t go, you can call that out,” Timberman said. Intimacy coordinators give people a vocabulary and a framework for emotionally healthy interaction, she added. “It’s just like a fight scene: If you do something you aren’t supposed to, someone is going to get hurt.”
Some detractors have worried that too much moderation or control over actors’ impulses may make for stifled performances. Baldwin disagrees. She believes that advancements like intimacy education help put all members of a production on a level playing field, rather than the historical world where directors and leading actors (usually white males) ruled, with everyone else subject to their whims.
“When we give equity and empowerment to all people in the room, all people feel free to be their best selves, and the work is better,” Baldwin said. “That’s the goal.”
Discomfort with intimate scenes isn’t limited by gender, Timberman added. “There are women who feel very comfortable doing those kinds of scenes, who enjoy them and aren’t afraid to do that. And I know men who are terrified of doing that.” Intimacy coordination, she explained, “is not just to protect women. It is to protect all people involved who have to do things physically on stage that you usually only do behind closed doors in the privacy of your home.”
Baldwin said that “a mix of folks” participated in the workshop, members of The Jungle’s cast and crew, and professionals from other Twin Cities theater companies. “There are people with whom we’ve collaborated in the past that we think would appreciate this training. Then there are people who we have reached out to in the larger community of collaborators at other theaters.”
While larger theater companies like the Guthrie now routinely hire intimacy coordinators for their productions, making this workshop available to staff from smaller, less-funded groups is a good development, Timberman said. “The more workshops we have like the better.”
Going forward, Timberman added, “I think we are doing to see more and more theaters budgeting for this. Actors are starting to demand it. The climate has changed and they want to feel safe.”
Room for spontaneity
Many Minnesota theater companies looking to navigate the murky waters of intimate scenes in their productions have turned to Shae Palic, an actor and intimacy director based in the Twin Cities. She’s worked on a number of shows, including most recently the Guthrie Theater’s production of “Sweat” and “The Rape of Lucretia” at An Opera Theatre.
When a company hires Palic to work as intimacy director on a production, she explains that she starts with a careful reading of the script.
“I mark the script and make intimacy notes for the cast, where we note where all moments of possible intimacy are,” she said. She then runs the notes by the director. “I say ‘Here’s what we think. Is there anything your vision needs to add or take away from this?’”
The process is intentionally designed to make sure that all potentially objectionable situations are addressed. “We talk about every single detail,” Palic said. “We get consent from the actors.” Then cast and crew establish a set choreography for the highlighted scenes that is adhered to throughout the run of the show. “If something needs to be changed, then I or an intimacy captain makes sure it gets done,” she said.
This careful, watchful approach is a radical departure from the way intimate scenes were handled in the not-so-distant past, Palic said. Though she’s still relatively young, she recalls times when she’s been part of a performance where she and her fellow actors were given no guidance through intimate scenes.
“Often, young performers or even adult professionals were told, ‘This is the make-out scene,’ and left to our own devices,” Palic said. “Because we didn’t have the language for it, people got hurt. Now we do have the language, and I think people who have experienced this in the past are better able to advocate for themselves.”
Portraying intimate scenes can stir up complicated emotions for all involved, and because of this Palic said her work has a clear mental health component.
“As intimacy directors, we do tons of mental health first-aid training. It is really important because stuff can and will come up,” said Palic.
She has had some criticism from people who think that too much attention and protection can dull the edges and make a performance feel artificial. Palic said she actually thinks it can have the opposite effect.
“If I do get pushback, it’s, ‘Where’s the spontaneity?’ What I tell them is, ‘Believe me, it’s amazing what actors can do when they have true consent to execute an action.’”
If there is not an intimacy director on set, she explained, actors can feel awkward touching one another – and it shows.
“When an actor knows for sure that their colleague’s whole lower back is a green area, meaning, ‘I totally give you permission to grab me there at a level 8,’ This gives a bigger spark to the performance.” Just like a dance choreographer, an intimacy director’s job is to make “the intimacy on stage believable – while making sure everyone is kept safe,” said Palic.