By Erika Morey
With stories of sexual misconduct in rehearsal halls making international headlines, conversations are happening across the globe about how we can create safe creative spaces for our artists. Here in Canada, this conversation has been especially lively in the stage management community. We’re asking ourselves difficult questions about our own complicity, how we can support artists in coming forward, and how we can contribute to making rehearsal halls the sacred spaces they ought to be.
Among the many proactive measures we’re discussing is the practice of encouraging our engagers to hire Intimacy Directors when sexual or intimate contact is required of the actors. By bringing on a third party to explore this material, we hope to avoid the potential discomfort of navigating power dynamics with the Director, which are known to cloud consent. We also hope that by having a trained expert in the room, we move away from the dangerous alternative of expecting actors to “go away and figure it out for themselves.”
To learn more about the work of an Intimacy Director (and how stage managers can support this work), I met with Siobhan Richardson of Intimacy Directors International.
When asked how her career led her towards being an Intimacy Director, Siobhan says her interest grew out of her passion for being on stage. “I’m an actor/fighter/singer dancer. I’m a performer first,” she maintains. With a background in musical theatre and martial arts, Siobhan went back and forth between acting and stage combat workshops with Fight Directors Canada early in her career. In 2009, when she was awarded the Chalmers Art’s Fellowship, she started to delve deeper into the concept of stage combat as part of a more complete methodology. “I realized that there was a big disconnect between the language of fight directors and the language of the actors. I wanted to find a way to help the two art forms actually connect.” Her work was then to explore how to move away from “the branding of stage combat as the fighty bit” and towards the acknowledgement of it as a part of a complete actor’s training. With this goal in mind, Siobhan started exploring how to ascribe action to impulse in a way that actors could connect to. “Like the idiom in musical theatre where you sing when words run out, you fight when words run out – that’s a part of the storytelling”.
At this point in the conversation, I’m already starting to make connections about how these principles might be applied to intimacy. Siobhan reveals that she had her own lightbulb moment when she came across an article called “Safe Sex: A Look at the Intimacy Choreographer” by Tonia Sina in The Fight Master magazine. “I thought, how have I never heard of this before?” Once introduced to the concept, the transition to choreographing intimacy was relatively natural. “I’m just looking to put a physical expression to that thing you already want to do. From there, we create a scaffold, and then we do some physical dramaturgy.” I take this to mean that like with fight direction, the goal is choreograph safe, repeatable movements that the actors can rely upon to tell the story. Siobhan nods and adds, “It’s about heightened emotion. You’re practicing being in a heightened state with the background app running [saying] ‘I don’t want to hurt my partner’”.
As a stage manager who has never worked with an Intimacy Director, I was keen on learning about how they are brought on to a project, and what they might do to prepare.
In Siobhan’s experience, inquiries have come from Directors and theatre companies, and sometimes even actors. “I haven’t had a lot of stage managers reach out to me yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they started to as we start to think about [how] this is a part of psychological health and safety – or maybe even physical health and safety.” After the initial conversation and a read of the script, Siobhan will recommend where she thinks her services could be useful, and how much time she thinks you’ll need. The next step is organizing an intimacy workshop with the company to get a feel for what she’s walking into. This is a non-negotiable as far as she’s concerned.
“I always start with a workshop. I want to meet them early in the process. At this time, I’m unwilling to come in and choreograph intimacy without meeting the cast ahead of time.”
If the workshop is a success, the Intimacy Director can then start the work of creating safe structures in which to explore the material. *This begins educating the performers on the Pillars of Intimacy, a document created by the founders of Intimacy Directors International (Tonia Sinia, Alicia Rodi, and Siobhan herself). The five pillars include context, communication, consent, choreography, and closure, and are the foundation of their practice. I pay close attention as Siobhan breaks it down for me.*
“We always start with the context. What is the context of the scene, and what kind of story are we looking to tell here. And then we can all agree on, well, what does that mean? This is meant to be sensual touch – for one person, that’s a stroke on the chin. But maybe you’re insecure about your chin. So it could be a stroke along the jawline, as well. We tell the story without asking someone to feel violated.”
By setting up the context together to ensure that the intimacy is always in service of the story, we’re already starting to explore the second pillar of communication. “This is our foundation of safety,” Siobhan affirms. Ongoing conversations between stage management, the director, and the performers in rehearsals – as well as proactive check-ins throughout the run – are a must. Performers must always be made to feel comfortable to voice their discomfort at any point in the process. “It’s also essential to make sure the avenues of reporting harassment are made clear to all members of the company,” she adds.
Communication is of course also the primary tool used to establish clear boundaries and ongoing consent. It’s important to remember that all performers must consent to the proposed action – not just the one on the “receiving” end. Siobhan illustrates an example: “This actor is OK with a hand on their breast, and this actor may not be comfortable with doing it – it’s these dynamics that we don’t always think about.” She also stresses here that consent is directly linked to context. “Just because you consented to kissing in this scene, doesn’t mean that you consent to kiss in another scene. And certainly not to a kiss outside of the rehearsal hall.”
Once consent is established, the Intimacy Director can collaborate with the performers to create safe, repeatable choreography that supports the storytelling. As with stage combat, the stage manager is responsible for ensuring that this choreography is performed as intended in rehearsal and performance. Siobhan notes that this is especially important in the run, as actors tend to deviate from the choreo after they become comfortable with the moves. “If it’s fight stuff, people want to make it more difficult. If it’s intimacy, they want to make it sexier. That’s when extra groping happens, that’s when a tongue slips into a mouth.” She clearly speaks from experience, and offers that “the solution isn’t to change the moves, it’s to dig into the acting homework. Remind them that is happening for the first time, and that this is the movement we’ve agreed on.”
Once the moves are set, we lock in the final measure of safety – closure. An Intimacy Director aims to set up a play space where the personal and professional are clearly distinguishable. This might be achieved by building in a closing moment or ritual to signal the end of the intimate contact. “Closure can also be practicing self-care outside of rehearsal”, Siobhan adds. She’s quick to clarify that this is an important practice for stage managers and directors, too.
After we get through the five Cs, I take a peek at my cell phone and notice the 30 minute conversation we scheduled has extended well past an hour. I haven’t asked all the questions I’d planned to, but I don’t need to. I’m sold. Why wouldn’t you want to advocate for an Intimacy Director in rehearsals? Stage managers already advocate for fight directors in our prep weeks because of our vested interest in health and safety. Why would that not extend to intimacy, especially when the extent of sexual misconduct in our industry is now being revealed?
Of course, we all know that budgets are limited, and that some companies/directors may resist hiring an Intimacy Director even when one is warranted. In the event that engagers cannot or will not hire one, I think stage managers can still encourage Directors to use the 5 pillars as a foundation when staging intimacy. SMs can also make sure that performers know who their allies are, and that all parties are clear on the engager’s harassment policies. Protecting the rehearsal space from sexual misconduct is not our sole responsibility – but we can’t ignore that we’re often the first point of contact.
We can also pay special attention to the maintenance of the intimacy during the run. If you’re starting to notice a shift in the choreo, Siobhan offers a really useful movement-as-text analogy to bring forward.
In the same way it’s not acceptable to change the words of the scene because the text is feeling stale, it’s not acceptable to change the movement.
It’s up to the actors to fill the prescribed movement with intention – encourage them to do their work! Likening the intimate contact to fight choreography can help, as well. Let your actors know that changing the intimate contact in the moment is the same offense as throwing in an extra punch or slap. That should get the message across.
Bearing all of this in mind, I’m still (of course) very troubled by the size and scope of sexual misconduct being reported in our workspaces. But I’m also beginning to feel encouraged by the conversations that are happening as a result. Early in our meeting, Siobhan reflected that, “One of the exciting things about being in this time and place is that we are being more explicit and specific about what are violations, and what is our play space.” I tend to agree, and am excited to see how this will help us create safer spaces – and better art – together.