Intimacy choreography has been a fundamental tool for me as an actor and as a human with boundaries. My boundaries are very different now from what they were when I was 16. I have triggers now that never existed before. Without intimacy choreography, I don’t know that I would have been able to work on my last two productions in a way that kept me safe, and allowed me to tell the story effectively.
This past February I began rehearsals as Catherine in Proof by David Auburn. For anyone who knows the play, they will know that there is a rather steamy make-out scene between Catherine and Hal. This scene leads to the implication of them having sex off-stage. The last time I had to do a scene that even came close to that level of intimacy on stage I was 16, and my scene partner was older than me and totally dreamy. At 16, I’d only had one boyfriend and I was super excited to kiss a man on stage.
Now, at 27, one would think that life experience would make me more equipped to deal with such intimate moments on stage. Instead, I found myself filled with dread and anxiety about rehearsing any sort of intimacy. I had full blown anxiety attacks before rehearsal because I was so scared that we would end up rehearsing the “make out scene” (even though it wasn’t on the schedule). I was NOT ready to do it. My director was male and my scene partner was male. I didn’t feel as though there was anyone in the room who would keep me safe. I did not trust that they would know how to respect my boundaries and ask for my consent when it came to scenes of physical intimacy that involved my body. Eventually, when I could deal with the dread no longer, I sent Siobhan Richardson a rather angst filled email asking if she could spare a few moments to talk with me about how to approach this really scary scene in rehearsal in a way that would make me feel safe. THANK GOODNESS SHE SAID “YES!” We scheduled a phone date and she walked me through what I would now call the Pillars of Safe Intimacy Rehearsal and Performance (which you can find on the Intimacy Directors International website).
Siobhan armed me with tools I could bring into the rehearsal room. These tools allowed me to guide the conversation so I could keep myself safe as an actor, without overstepping the directors’ authority. She gave me questions to ask the director that kept all of the movement and intimacy about the story we were collectively trying to tell. She empowered me to have a conversation about boundaries and limits in the rehearsal room. I learned it is ok to say, “This part of my body is off limits” and that I don’t owe anyone an explanation as to why. There is always a way to tell the story that needs to be told, while respecting everyone’s personal boundaries.
It’s A Process
She spoke to me about talking through each touch so that you end up with a framework of movement that is mutually agreed upon – a framework that everyone is comfortable and happy with. She reminded me that the emotional intensity would grow with rehearsal, just like anything else. The intensity the director is looking for may not be there on day one and that is OK!
The journey I took during Proof when I began to learn how to approach intimacy on stage allowed me to feel comfortable and confident going into rehearsal for my next show, Hogtown. The intimacy required of me in that show made Proof seem like child’s play. I was armed with the tools that I needed to take into rehearsal and the confidence that it was ok to say ‘no’. I didn’t have any anxiety attacks and I was able to enjoy the rehearsal process a lot more.
This Feels Familiar…
The more I learned from Siobhan, the more I realized, “this sounds an awful lot like fight choreography.” The basic principles seem to be the same – an agreed upon series of movements which are designed help tell a dramatic physical story that the audience can connect to – a story which keeps the performers safe in the process. The more I think about it, the more it boggles my mind that it has taken this long for intimacy choreography to enter our collective consciousness as a necessity in the rehearsal room.
Psychological safety is just as important as physical safety. A psychological wound opened by a well-meaning director can often be much more difficult to heal than a physical wound. I heard someone once refer to actors as ‘heart warriors’. In order to share with our full heart and soul we need to feel safe enough to open our veins. Only when we feel safe, both physically and emotionally can we begin to share the depths of our soul so that audiences may experience catharsis – the whole point of theatre.
Guest Contributor: Karen Slater
Karen is an actor and a singer currently based in Toronto, Ontario. Her first feature film, The Witches Ball is now available for purchase on iTunes, Wallmart US and Bell On Demand Canada. Karen has spent the past year working with the Hogtown Collective on Dancoks Dance and The Hogtown Experience. Both shows were performed for sold out houses at Historic Campbell House. In 2015 she had the honour of portraying one of Canada’s most beloved literary characters, Anne Shirley in the Charlottetown production of Anne & Gilbert: The Musical. She co-produced the femlock web-series Baker Street and performed the role of Jane Watson. Karen holds a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Ryerson University, where she completed the acting programme, with honours in 2012.