Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Intimacy in Theatre

Natalie Turgeon and Katie Barrett demonstrate consensual eye-touching in This Doesn't End Well.

Byron Woods has a great article about intimacy direction in this week's Indy.  It is great that local theatres are starting to incorporate this work into their process. It is an incredibly important and under-served aspect of storytelling, and virtually every actor (male or female) has a story similar to the ones told in this article.

For a small theatre company, of course, that also presents a practical issue. Intimacy direction is a relatively new field. It's growing (thankfully) but it is also in very high demand. There are currently only two groups that offer any kind of certification, and even these people will confirm that they are still crafting and perfecting the practical skills and training needed to implement the principles of intimacy direction. RLT has the resources to bring in an intimacy director, but because of the limited supply and increasing demand, many, if not most local theatres do not. So what do you do?

Well, the obvious answer is - you do as much as you can. First - there are online resources available to everyone. Intimacy Directors International (IDI) has some materials available on their website. Sadly, most of them are behind a paywall, but what they term the "Pillars" - the foundational principles, are available to all. I think the fee for "membership" and access to these materials is relatively modest ($35/year as of this writing), probably worth it if you are a director (and I would hope within your budget if you teach theatre). Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE), a different group, has more material available free on it's website. There is also a short (but good!) guide to stage intimacy. Similar to the Pillars, it's more of a basic priciples document than a how-to, but it's a great place to start. Finally, there's NotInOurHouse. For those not familiar, these issues have been around in theatre for... well probably forever, but they came to national prominence in the theatre community in the wake of an article about Profiles Theatre (since closed) published in June of 2016. Out of this article, and the ensuing discussion in the Chicago theatre community, came Not In Our House. It started as a support group and safe space for people to talk and share their experiences, but it became an advocacy organization for safe intimacy practices in theatre. They have some good resources on their site, including the Chicago Theatre Standards. These standards are designed for professional theatre, and they may not be practical/possible to implement for your group due to cost or the structure of your organization (for example... our theatre company is really just me and John... there's no board of directors, so it's not really possible to create an "outside reporting system" that doesn't go through me at some point). However - it is really good document to read and consider. Even if you can't implement all of the formal structure, the goals the document embodies and the methods of how to achieve them are worth pondering. "How can we achieve the same goals in my organization?" is a question every theatre company should at least ask itself.

If possible, you should also seek live instruction when it is available. Both IDI and TIE offer workshops to provide theatre practitioners and educators the principles of intimacy direction. For budgetary and practical reasons, every show is not going to have an intimacy director. For a show like Measure for Measure, or Closer, you really should try to have one, but many (most?) shows have some sort of physical intimacy. Even if it's a single kiss at the end of And Then There Were None, it is good to be aware of the principles as a director and to affirm those principles verbally in rehearsal to your cast. You won't have (and honestly, don't need) an intimacy director for every stage kiss. But you should use the principles of safe intimacy direction for every stage kiss. And you don't need to become a professional intimacy director to learn the principles of intimacy direction. Most of the workshops offered by IDI and TIE are aimed at just this sort of education.

Prior to our production of This Doesn't End Well, I (Brook North) attended both the workshops mentioned in Byron's article. Speaking as a director, having this sort of education was an excellent tool for working with my actors. One scene in TDEW has some physically and emotionally intimate kissing. I was able to adapt an exercise we did in one of the workshops where we used a hug as the gesture, and then we experimented with different levels of intimacy in that gesture (this is a hug with someone who you are socially obligated to hug but don't want to, this is an acquaintance, this is a loved one returning after a long time away). In rehearsal, I had the actors use the gesture of pressing palms together. This allowed the actors to "play" with the gesture, using different timing and intention (who will initiate the gesture, who will break it off, why, how long will it last, etc...) without the physical intimacy of kissing. I think (based on feedback from my actors) that this worked well, and laid a strong foundation that prepared us to choreograph the intimacy in the scene.

Once we got to choreographing the scene ... I'm not going to lie, it was still awkward. The actors in the scene are not just my colleagues, they're my friends. Directing people you know to do something intimate is challenging. I have two observations from this process. First, it's OK as a director to acknowledge that "hey, this is awkward for me. I'm not sure what to do." Acknowledging the issue, verbalizing and talking through discomfort is not just for actors, it's for directors too. You are a human being in this situation! Second, it is SO AWESOME to have actors that have this knowledge too!!! Seriously, actors - these workshops are not just for directors, so they can tell you what to do later. They are VERY MUCH for actors. It keeps you safe and lets you identify situations where your space and body as a professional are not being respected. But also, much of the principles of intimacy are checking in with your partner and working with them using consent to build a scene together. One of our actors, Katie Barrett, had been to both of the workshops as well. Having her there in the scene was critical to what I think was a really successful process. I was able to provide and support the principles as the director, but to be honest, Katie was as responsible as I for it's implementation in the scene.

So - directors and actors - PAY ATTENTION TO THIS! This is a great idea, and if this is an area with which you are not familiar, you really owe it to yourself to get familiar with it. It's useful, it's respectful, and most importantly - actors that feel safe and respected make better art. Don't believe me? Come see This Doesn't End Well!

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