Intimacy Workshop for Stage Managers and Stage Hands

by Sam Houkom, AEA Stage Manager

Published June 2019

“This is about changing the culture. Intimacy protocols are about creating safe spaces for dangerous work.”

– Tonia Sina, founder of Intimacy Directors International

On February 23rd, 2019, Technical Tools of the Trade offered a three-hour event titled “Intimacy Workshop for Stage Managers and Stage Hands”. The workshop was described in this way, “Very often, it’s our job as stage managers, running crew, stagehands and designers to be both ever-present and never-noticed. This creates a specific power dynamic where it can be difficult to have our needs, voices, and concerns feel valid – or have the power to act on them. Yet the reality is that when scenes of trauma play out on stage, we watch them show after show after show – often with more attentiveness than anyone else – yet with next to no agency to do anything if we feel that the way it has played out is traumatizing to any of the folks onstage, or to us offstage.”

Kate Powers, experienced director and intimacy coordinator-in-training ran the workshop for about 20 people, the majority of whom were female stage managers. It started at 9:00am on a snowy Saturday morning, and when Kate announced that she had run over the three hour time period, I was disappointed that the workshop had to come to an end. I have been a professional stage manager for the past 30 years, and this topic along with the presentation of the information gave me the tools and vocabulary needed to protect and safeguard those onstage as well as offstage.
What is intimacy? How is it defined? Basically, it is any physical contact onstage. In broader terms, it can also include implied physical contact, such as coming within inches of another person, but never touching. Intimacy may initially conjure up feelings of physical love or attraction, but intimacy can also be defined from a child’s kiss on another’s cheek to a traumatic rape. Each intimate moment needs to be addressed. In only the past few years, we have seen the rise of Intimacy Directors in the entertainment industry. In fact, there are only six certified directors affiliated with the Intimacy Director International (IDI) organization. However, their membership training is growing and their expertise is being sought after more and more in theatre, television, and film.

The Five Pillars

The basis of the Intimacy Director International (IDI) are these important factors known as “The Five Pillars”: Context, Communication, Consent, Choreography, Closure. We explored each Pillar in order to understand why intimacy is in a production, how is it being presented, and does everyone involved with the intimacy feel safe and protected. And when we discussed “everyone” that not only included the actors onstage, but also those who witness the events offstage. So often we lose sight of the fact that directors, stage managers, designers and crew watch rehearsals and performances day after day, and there may be instances of intimacy that can affect them as well as the performers.

There needs to be a clear understanding of the story and the circumstances surrounding the scene of intimacy. How does the scene of intimacy meet the needs of the story? This should be made clear from the first day of rehearsal.

Most productions begin at the table. This is the perfect time to discuss the intimate scenes in the play, the vision the director may have for the scene and the thoughts of the actors involved in the scene. If this isn’t something the director wishes to do on the first day, then it should be scheduled as soon as possible. Communication is key. Everyone should have a clear understanding of the intimacy and intention of the scene(s). Most importantly, everyone involved should have a voice in the discussion. There needs to be open and continuous communication which includes vocal dissent.

Acceptance of a role is NOT consent.
Consent can only be given by the receiver of the action.
Consent can be given, but it can be removed at any time.
There must be clear understanding of every action.

“Keep in mind that a less than enthusiastic yes
really means no.”

One of the most difficult aspects of consent may be the denial of consent. More often than not, an actor will not want to say no for fear of being seen as difficult, hindering the creative process, job security, etc. This is where Intimacy Directors as well as Stage Managers become an integral part of the process. There must be a clear understanding (communication) that “No” is a valid answer. There can also be the option of “No, but…” For example, “I am not comfortable with doing this action, but I could do this action”; or “I don’t wish to be touched on my neck, but you could touch me on the back of my head.” This also gives the actor agency in a room where it is often unclear to them as to how to find what feels right. Granting them the ability early on in the process to say “No, but” in the room allows the power dynamic to shift and doesn’t shut down the creative process at the same time. Keep in mind that a less than enthusiastic yes really means no.

There are many options to physical intimacy that may never include physical touch. Proximity, breath, the “almost” touch are creative ways in which a story can be told without being physical. However, when the actors have consented to each and every move the scene requires, that choreography should never change. It should be as set as the moves of any stage combat. The pace, action and intent remains intact from rehearsal through closing. Side note: it was made very clear in the workshop that during any kissing, there should never be any tongues involved!

Leave the scene behind. Rituals are being developed to allow the actors (and those outside the scene) to “tap out”. This ritual signifies that the scene is over and the characters are left behind. We are ourselves once more. An example of a tap out would be the actors involved make eye contact/take a deep breath together/then high ten each other. At other times in the middle of a scene, an actor may need a moment. There can also be a pre-ordained signal for this as well. This tells those watching that the actor needs to walk away but will return quickly. There is no need to attend to this person, but wait patiently. Again, communication is key to developing these signals.

So how do the “Five Pillars” help those of us offstage? Stage Managers can be a key player in overseeing these elements as well as enforcing them starting with pre-production. This is the time to discuss intimacy moments with the director and find out what their intentions are for the scene. Ask the questions that will give you a better understanding as to how the scene may be blocked, what kind of physicality is the director thinking of using, will there be an Intimacy Director involved, when does the director intend on addressing the issue with the cast, etc. Even more importantly, what does the director think of an actor not giving consent. Hopefully this will give you a clear sense of how you can help facilitate and maintain a safe environment in rehearsal and through the run. Stage managers can also help with how we label a scene of intimacy in the call sheets. While talking with the director, establish ways to label a scene other than “the rape scene” or “the kissing scene” or “the assault”. It is helpful to stick to more generic terms when referencing these scenes.

Early on, encourage communication of the intimate moments throughout the process. Intimate scenes should not be “put off for later”. In most cases, the actors are thinking about the scenes once they read the script. The stage manager can help organize and schedule the rehearsals so that there is a steady process of understanding the scene then choreographing and giving consent to each move of the scene. Slow and steady wins the race. Let the actors get to know each other, understand the scene and understand that they can say no. Physical and mental triggers can be unknown or unexpected. If an actor consents to a move one day, but needs to withdraw consent – for whatever reason – the next day, that must be respected. Actors should NEVER be sent off to rehearse privately or told to “figure it out on their own”. (You would never have actors figure out their own sword fight or musical dance number.) Hopefully by the time the show is ready to open, all those involved in the intimate scenes feel prepared and know that the choreography is safe and consistent.

Be conscious of the fact that something that may seem innocent enough to most people, may be uncomfortable or even traumatic to someone else. We may think that a kiss on the cheek is innocent enough, but to a child that could be monumental. A chaste kiss could be a young adult’s very first kiss ever and it is happening onstage. This is where communication for every aspect of the choreography is essential.

During rehearsals, the stage manager can be an advocate for the actor. Stage managers are usually keyed into the physical changes in an actor when they are sick or sad or uncomfortable. Watch the choreography, assess the comfortableness of the actors, give them permission to walk away or tap out. Also, when rehearsing the intimate scenes, you may need to call more five or ten minute breaks. The stage manager should take careful blocking that can also include such things as breath, intensity levels, and timings. How long do they kiss, is the hug at a four intensity or a nine intensity, is the intake of breath on the fourth beat or eighth beat of the sequence, etc. This can be helpful in maintaining the continuity and integrity of the scene throughout the run.

Another helpful tip is to establish an “out” in the event something goes wrong. In live theatre, this could be any number of things – a missed light or sound cue, an actor’s entrance, a dropped line. For example, a kiss is interrupted by an actor’s entering the scene, but the actor’s costume change is running behind. Having a pre-established out allows the actors onstage to finish their moment and not continue the kissing for longer than rehearsed.

Intimacy calls prior to a show may also be helpful to schedule when needed. This can help the stage manager touch base with the actors and address any discrepancies in the choreography. Intimacy calls should always be done in street clothes, not costumed and never with any nudity that is required during the performance.

What about backstage? When any nudity is involved, a robe should be waiting in the wings as close to the stage as possible to cover the actors the moment they exit stage. If holding during a tech rehearsal, the actors onstage should be covered whenever possible. The crew should also be an advocate for the actors while backstage. Often times, the stage manager is calling a show from a booth and is not present backstage. Crew members can be aware of any tensions, emotions, or other warnings that the intimate scenes did not go well for the actors and this should be communicated to the stage manager.

Unfortunately we ran out of time before we could discuss in depth how intimate scenes onstage affect the people offstage watching night after night. Personally, as a stage manager, I would want to meet with the full crew prior to the beginning of tech rehearsals to explain the details of the intimate scenes. I would want the crew to be fully aware of the process we went through in rehearsals and have a clear understanding as to the discussions and decisions that were made regarding the scene(s). As always, communication is key. Give time for the crew to ask questions and discuss ways in which they can protect themselves emotionally and intellectually just as was discussed with the actors.

We are capable of taking care of each other while creating the very best production we can. It takes honesty, respect, self-awareness, communication, and compassion from all sides. Again, we should all strive to create a safe space for dangerous work.

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