Actors were expected to perform intimate scenes on stage for years without any preparation. Some actors found the experience a minefield that triggered uncomfortable memories and emphasized unequal gender dynamics.
Angela Timberman is a veteran actor on the Twin Cities stage and a director. She recalled moments when intimate scenes made her colleagues uncomfortable, but they just had to keep going.
She recalled that many people used to say “Get over it” when they were young. “But I have always felt uncomfortable kissing someone I do not know. I know that I’m not the only one. Everybody has different levels of comfort with sexual intimacy and being touched. Actors today are more comfortable talking about it.”
Many Twin Cities theater companies have begun to hire intimacy coordinators to help them navigate intimate scenes. These individuals work as choreographers to assist actors in navigating these scenes.
The Minneapolis-based Jungle Theater hosted an eight-hour workshop for theater professionals. Chelsea Pace, cofounder of Theatrical Intimacy Ed, a consultancy group that specializes in developing and teaching best practices for theatrical intimacy, was there. Participants were taught and practiced tools to create a culture that encourages consent during rehearsals, establish boundaries, and choreograph physical intimacy.
Timberman, who is part of The Jungle’s artistic group, stated that the workshop was a great opportunity for theater professionals and to discuss issues that were often ignored in the past. She stated that theater companies across the country are paying more attention to these types of issues because of their leadership.
“BIPOC women and men are gaining more leadership positions in the theater. This indicates that we are changing how we see these issues. Timberman stated that in the past the room was managed by white men.
Christina Baldwin, Jungle Theater’s artistic director, stated that intimacy coordinators are now a key role in established theater companies.
Baldwin stated, “I likened it to dance choreography.” You will see and feel the difference when you have talented practitioners involved in discussing and implementing the tools required to create a great performance. 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’s a big difference.
The power of
Timberman stated that younger directors and actors have led a lot of the discussion about how theaters approach intimacy. Timberman said that these professionals didn’t grow up with the same expectations of “get over it” as she did when she first started in the field.
Timberman said that many younger people are aware that they have the right not to agree with offensive behavior. Intimacy training allows actors and other theater professionals the ability to voice their opinions when they see inappropriate behavior. It also offers suggestions for helping individuals make positive changes.
Timberman stated, “If the kiss lasts longer than it should or the hand goes in an area it shouldn’t, you can call it out.” She said that intimacy coordinators provide a language and framework to help people have healthy emotional interactions. It’s like a fight scene. If you do something that you’re not supposed to, someone will get hurt.
Some critics have feared that actors who are too controlled over their impulses could lead to stifled performances. Baldwin disagrees. Baldwin disagrees. She believes intimacy education helps to level the playing field and replaces an historical world in which only directors and white male actors ruled over all others.
Baldwin stated, “When we give equity to all people in a room, everyone feels free to be their best selves and the work is better.” That’s our goal.
Timberman said that intimacy scenes can be uncomfortable for anyone regardless of gender. Timberman said that there are many women who are comfortable with these scenes and who love them. She said that intimacy coordination is not only to protect women. It’s to protect everyone involved, who must do things on stage that are usually done behind closed doors in your privacy.
Baldwin stated that the workshop was attended by a “mixture of people”, including members of The Jungle’s cast, crew, and professionals from other Twin Cities theatre companies. “There are people we have worked with in the past who we believe would appreciate this training. There are also people we have reached out and helped in other theaters.
Timberman stated that while larger theatre companies such as the Guthrie routinely hire intimacy coordinators for their productions of plays, it is good to make this workshop accessible to smaller, less-funded staff. “The more workshops that we like, the better.”
Timberman said that the future would see more theaters spending money on this. It is becoming a demand from actors. They want to feel secure in a changing climate.
Space for spontaneity
Shae Palic is an actor and intimacy director from Minnesota who has helped many theater companies navigate the tricky waters of intimate scenes in their productions. She has worked on a variety of shows, including the Guthrie Theater’s production of Sweat and ” The Rape of Lucretia” at An Opera Theatre.
Palic is an intimacy director for a production company. She explains that she begins with careful reading the script.
She said, “I mark the script and make intimate notes for the cast. We note where there are moments of possible intimacy.” The director then reviews the notes. “I say, “Here’s our thinking. “Is there anything you think we should change or add to this?
This process was designed to address all possible objectionable situations. Palic stated, “We discuss every detail.” “We get permission from the actors.” Next, cast and crew create a set choreography that will be followed throughout the show’s run. She said, “If something has to be changed then I or an intimate captain ensures it gets done.”
Palic stated that this careful and watchful approach is quite a departure from how intimate scenes were handled in recent times. Although she is still young, Palic recalls instances when she was part of performances where she and her fellow performers were not given any guidance in intimate scenes.
Palic stated that young performers and professionals, as well as adults, were often told to perform in the make-out scene. They were then left to their own devices. People were hurt because we didn’t know the language. We now have the language and people who have had to experience this are better equipped to advocate for themselves.
Palic stated that portraying intimate scenes can cause complicated emotions for everyone involved.
“Intimacy directors do a lot of mental health first aid training. Palic stated that it is crucial because things can and will happen.
Some people have criticized Palic for focusing too much on protection and making a performance seem artificial. Palic stated that she believes it can have the reverse effect.
“If I get pushback, it’s: ‘Where’s spontaneity?’ I tell them, ‘Believe it me, it’s amazing what actors can accomplish when they have genuine consent to execute an act.’
She explained that actors can feel uncomfortable touching each other if there isn’t an intimacy director on set.
Palic said that an actor who knows for certain that their fellow actor’s lower back is green is an actor. This creates a greater spark to the performance.