Intimacy choreographer Chelsea Pace carefully designed every detail of a passionate embrace on stage between two young actors, down to the way they tilted their heads.
"First, there's a short three-count kiss," Pace told Hannah Kelly and Clay Vanderbeek during a rehearsal for the “The Diary of Anne Frank.” The two twentysomething actors portray teen sweethearts in the production that opens April 26 at the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company.
"Which way do you tip your faces?” Pace asked. “My impulse is to tip to the right.”
She beat out the rhythm on a wooden table:
"One, two, three, there's a teeny-tiny mouth open. Now, break apart and come back for a longer, five-count kiss.
“Try it with your hands first before you try it with your faces."
Nothing about the moment is remotely romantic, and that’s the way Pace wants it.
If actors can consent to having a giant piece of steel swung at their heads, they should also be able to consent to being touched intimately.— Kyle Rudgers
When every aspect of a sexual encounter on stage is rehearsed in advance and nothing is improvised, there’s little of the ambiguity that provides such fertile ground for erotic misunderstandings — and a much smaller possibility that one actor will feel taken advantage of physically by the other.
“I really like working with an intimacy choreographer,” Kelly said. “The technique that Chelsea has worked out is so technical and specific that it makes rehearsing intimate scenes more comfortable. I’m confident that I know Clay’s boundaries and he knows mine.”
Intimacy director or choreographer (the title varies between organizations) is a new job in an ancient profession.
In 2006, then-graduate student Tonia Sina outlined a step-by-step method for safely rehearsing sex scenes for her master’s degree thesis at Virginia Commonwealth University. Ten years later, Sina co-founded Intimacy Directors International, the first U.S. program to train and certify these professionals. In 2017, Pace established her own organization, Theatrical Intimacy Education, which shares some goals with Sina’s group but takes a different approach.
“For thousands of years, giving consent for a kiss on stage has not been high on the list of the things directors had to worry about,” said Kyle Rudgers, the Chesapeake Shakespeare production manager who hired Pace.
“If actors can consent to having a giant piece of steel swung at their heads, they should also be able to consent to being touched intimately. If an actor wielding a sword bruises another actor, the scar will fade in about a week. But the psychological scars from sexual assault last longer and are harder to see.”
Colleges were some of the first institutions to hire intimacy choreographers, Pace said. Not only do student productions feature young actors who are most at risk from hormones run amok, universities can often afford to hire theatrical support staff.
But in the 18 months since the #MeToo movement took off, there has been “a flood” of requests from professional theater troupes seeking to hire intimacy specialists, according to Teresa Eyring, executive director of Theatre Communications Group, a trade organization representing about 500 nonprofit stage companies and 200 affiliate members (such as universities) nationwide.
The organization will begin compiling statistics later this year on how many of its members retain the services of these new practitioners.
“I can say for certain that the demand has escalated, especially since #MeToo,” Eyring said. “It has really spiked.”
In Baltimore, Rep Stage and Everyman Theatre respectively have an intimacy director and an intimacy choreographer on staff. Baltimore Center Stage will use Lorraine Ressegger-Slone as its first intimacy director for its production of “How to Catch Creation,” which begins previews May 2. Pace has also worked as an intimacy choreographer for McDaniel College in Westminster and at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where she is an assistant professor.
The profession is also making inroads into television and the movies.
In 2018, the cable giant HBO was preparing to film the second season of “The Deuce,” the series chronicling the rise of the adult film industry in the 1970s. Officials hired intimacy director Alicia Rodis in response to a request for an on-set advocate made by actress Emily Meade, who portrays a porn star. The experiment with Rodis of Intimacy Directors International was so successful that the cable giant quickly adopted a policy of retaining intimacy specialists for all future programs that include sex scenes.
"In retrospect, it's remarkable to me that for years now we had engaged stunt coordinators to carefully simulate violence without harming or affronting actors, but for scenes depicting sexuality and intimacy, we had no corresponding support system,” David Simon, “The Deuce’s” creator and show runner, wrote in an email. “I have to credit our actresses on ‘The Deuce’ — and Emily Meade in particular — with arguing for a new paradigm. It's proved to be incredibly valuable to everyone involved."
Pace began asking herself similar questions about the comparative risks of stage combat and stage sex eight years ago as a student actor at Binghamton University in New York.
“I was in a production of ‘Noises Off’ that called for me to be in my underwear on stage during performances,” she said. “But I didn’t know if I was supposed to be in my underwear during rehearsals. There was no process for knowing when or how that was supposed to happen.
“I realized there were people who staged fights and people who staged dances but no one was staging sex. The load was on the actors to figure it out.”
It’s no coincidence that many of the men and women who have come forward during the #MeToo movement were performers. Eyring said a lot of factors seemingly conspire to make actors particularly at risk of being exploited:
Jobs in movies, television and live theater are scarce and a lot of people want them, so the power dynamics favor those who do the casting. Actors also are prodded to immerse themselves in their characters so they can give convincingly vulnerable performances.
Adding to the potential confusion, actors’ brains might know that they’re pretending when they swing at a stage opponent or go in for a kiss. But for bodies, there’s no such thing as a make-believe scuffle or love scene. When they’re stimulated, they react. Pulses pound. Faces flush. Breath quickens.
It’s at the very least a recipe for misunderstandings, and at the very worst — for an experience that is much, much worse.
“We train actors to be agreeable and easy to work with and to say ‘yes,’ ” Pace said. “That can put actors in the position of saying yes to situations they haven’t thought through.”
On the surface, the poignant Holocaust drama “The Diary of Anne Frank” might not seem as ripe for potential erotic mishap as, perhaps, “The Deuce.”
But Chesapeake Shakespeare is using a later adaptation that includes parts of the diaries originally suppressed by Otto Frank, Anne’s father, and that refer to the adolescent’s burgeoning sexuality. In addition, the troupe initially considered casting minors in those roles, before ultimately deciding that it was safer for everyone if all performers were over age 18.
Before each rehearsal, Pace has Kelly and Vanderbeek go through a three-step process she calls “building fences”:
First, performers run their hands over their own bodies to demonstrate where they’re comfortable being touched.
Next, they take their partner’s hands and place them on the areas of their own torsos and limbs where physical contact is acceptable. (For instance, Kelly was comfortable being touched on her hips and shoulders, so she placed Vanderbeek’s hands on those parts of her body.)
Finally, the partner verbalizes where he perceives the off-limits areas to be using language that’s intentionally clinical. (“The boundaries I saw were on your chest and in your pelvic region,” Vanderbeek said) and the first actor either confirms or corrects that assessment.
Then the roles switch and the other partner builds his or her “fences.”
Alix Fenhagen, interim managing director of Single Carrot Theatre, loves the idea of intimacy coordinators but said they’re not a magic bullet that will end sexual harassment in the theater. She pointed out that contracts for most of a show’s planning team, from the director to choreographers to designers, end on opening night when productions are presumed to be set in stone.
“Hiring an intimacy coordinator does not in and of itself protect the performers,” Fenhagen said. “It’s the obligation of the company to make sure the work of that coordinator is strictly adhered to during performances and to make sure systems are in place to address deviations.”
In addition to protecting actors’ safety, Pace said, her system provides actors with a fallback method for simulating desire. That comes in handy more often than audiences might think.
“When there is choreography, actors are covered if one of them had a bad burrito for lunch,” she said. “My motto is ‘Passion fades. Choreography lasts forever.’ ”