One of the most exciting developments in the way people create theater that has happened in the course of my career as a professional director is a shift in professional standards around how we talk about and work with actors’ bodies.
I’m old enough to remember a high school director telling a boy who was playing a violent man to “just haul off and hit her.” I know that sort of thing still happens, but it’s rare. Back then, it was much more expected that actors would endanger their bodies and spirits for the sake of storytelling. But fight direction has been developing as a field for quite some time now, and most theater practitioners at all levels know that “just hit her” is a terrible and dangerous piece of direction.
I’ve watched with some fascination as our industry has expanded that concern for actor safety to include moments of intimacy. Intimacy direction as a field is not even five years old, but the people involved have done such a great job of spreading their tools and their framework that they have changed the conversation, even in theaters that don’t have access (due to budget or geography) to a certified intimacy director.
Interestingly, my first introduction to intimacy direction was in a workshop at the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival (Region 2), in 2014. Mel Michel, from Clarion University, led a workshop on intimacy direction that blew my mind (and ended up saving a production I directed a couple of years later). Mel wasn’t part of Intimacy Direction International, the group that first formalized these principles. She told me later that she just knew that she wanted to care for actors better, and had figured all this stuff out for herself, through trial and error. Mel is no longer with us, but I wish she could read Chelsea Pace’s new book and see how much her ideas aligned with the ones that the industry has settled on as best practice. I think of Mel, and her kindness and care, every time I stage intimacy.
Everybody who is directing anything at all, at any level, should read Staging Sex, by Chelsea Pace. Stage managers should read it. Actors, give it a look as well. It’s not intended as a replacement for formal training as an intimacy director, but it is acknowledges that having a certified intimacy director isn’t always practical. It’s a toolkit to cover those gaps.
I preordered the book, and when it arrived on March 4, I texted playwright TJ Young this picture, with the note: “I’m ready to stage your babymaking play now!” Less intimacy direction is necessary for a Zoom reading than what we had originally planned.
Everyone should read this book (it’s short), but here are the big takeaways:
Create a culture of consent
Give actors permission to say something besides, “Yes, and…” Sometimes we need to hear “no.” We need to be better about naming the power structures that make people feel like they have to be agreeable. Pace offers simple tools for this, including rephrasing how we ask for permission. One that I immediately tucked into my mental toolbox was to say, “What do you think about X?” instead of “Is it okay if X?” “Is it okay” has the expected answer embedded in it.
Desexualize the process
In the same way that stage combat takes the violence out of it by breaking down every movement to its constituent parts and carefully planning every movement, contact, reaction, and sound, we can (and should) desexualize staged intimacy. Pace gives a lot of examples of ways to use desexualized language in discussing movement (“open and close distance” instead of “thrust”). Using desexualized, specific, noneuphemistic language allows precision. You can say, “Let’s make that more of a level 2 contact” instead of “Okay, but this time be more passionate!” It’s also easier, then, to write choreography notation, because we have language for it. When an actor deviates from the choreography, we have a record of what was supposed to happen.
Choreography means making a plan. Every time someone is going to touch someone else’s body, the person receiving the touch knows where to expect it, how much pressure there will be, what else is going on in parallel, how long it will last. I think this section is the one that made me feel the cringiest, because I could think of specific examples of times when I didn’t do this.
In one production I directed quite a long time ago, a large group of people were mourning a dead character, reaching for her, touching her face, her clothes, in one case, flinging their body over her. The actors all were very comfortable with each other and had worked together many times. I don’t think anybody felt that there was a risk of being touched in a sexual way. But just last summer, the actor who was playing the dead person told me how unnerving it was to have to remain perfectly still, with her eyes closed, knowing that she was going to be touched all over her body and not knowing where or when or how. It was different every night, because we didn’t choreograph it, exactly. The mourners had blocking (at this line, you go to this spot and join the lament), but I didn’t give them specific choreography, nor did I set what they were doing at some point to be repeatable. I remember asking her one night, “Are you okay in that scene?” and she flippantly said, “Well sure, I just have to lie there.” So that’s two things I wish I had done differently: Choreographing the whole thing, and not asking a question with the answer in it.
I’m grateful to Pace for writing this book, for giving me a new way to examine my practice as a director and as an educator. She’s named and solidified a number of shifts I’ve been growing into in the past four years. I hope that the actors I have worked with in the past don’t begrudge me the knowledge I lacked. I hope that now that I know better, I will do better.
If we’re ever allowed to touch each other again, which…?