Intimacy direction: An onstage chemistry essential

Sienna Axe, A&E Reporter

It’s a tale as old as student theatre: two unsuspecting cast members are sent to a corner to figure out how to kiss each other and come back when they’re ready to do it onstage. Or worse, one of the students is told to kiss the unsuspecting other the next time they do the scene.

This situation, while common, has recently been recognized as a problem.

Enter intimacy directors. Their job is to coordinate scenes of intimacy — anything from hugging, to kissing, to sex, to even assault — in theatre, film and television.

Last Friday, Sept. 28, Whitman students were coached in how to navigate these kinds of intimate scenes when Alexis Black, an intimacy and theatrical director and fight and movement choreographer, came from Michigan State University to teach a master class in intimacy direction in Harper Joy Theater’s Acting Studio.

Black used humor, theater games and hands-on examples to stress the importance of what she called the “Pillars of Safe Intimacy:” Context, Communication, Consent, Choreography and Closure.

The activities did not always require touch. Some simply revolved around being able to practice saying “no” to someone, like when Black told participants they could choose whether or not to pass a “whoosh” noise around a circle.

Black, who has been a fight and violence choreographer for over a decade, was first drawn to intimacy direction after the rise of the #metoo movement in 2015, when intimacy directors became more well-known and sought-out in both theatre and Hollywood. 

Intimacy direction not only keeps the actors safe, but creates the opportunity for richer storytelling,” Black said. 

The activities in the workshop reflected Black’s sentiment.

In one activity, for example, a lot of attention was paid to issues such as which person out of a pair would initiate touch (such as a hug or handshake), how enthusiastic each person was, which person was the first to release the touch and how that would effect the story and characters being portrayed.

First-year Gillian Brown, who has theatre experience from high school, found the workshop to be helpful.

“You know, like, the infamous ‘stage kiss is your first kiss’ bit—yeah, that was definitely my story,” she said, calling the experience “really, really awkward [and] a little bit traumatizing.”

“Having the vocabulary to talk through [intimate scenes] was really helpful,” Brown added. 

First-year Jack Hamilton was also reminded of his past student theatre experiences through the master class.

“It really makes me think back to all the stuff I did in high school and…wish that it went differently, because we had nothing like this in high school, whatsoever,” Hamilton said.

Sophomore Luke Patrick also appreciated some of the lessons Black brought to the workshop.

“I think I was able to take away the simplicity of how easy it can be to ask about boundary areas,” he said. “It can go a long way.”

Since intimacy direction has become more popular, Black said she has seen vast improvements in the acting world.

More respect for and much more communication with the people in the room, not just in regard to gender but with other marginalized groups,” Black said. “The idea that the actor is seen and respected has created more room to breathe and relax into the work.”