by CHRIS ROGERS
Tonia Sina invented her career. She has been working on it for over a decade, encountering resistance that almost made her give up. But in recent years, especially since the #MeToo movement, there has been a growing recognition that her field ought to exist and a growing demand for what she does.
Sina is the executive director and a founder of Intimacy Directors International, an organization that trains intimacy directors. Intimacy directors — sometimes called intimacy choreographers — provide actors, directors, and production companies with guidance on how to approach scenes that depict kissing, nudity, sex, or sexual violence, and help ensure actors do not experience actual sexual violence or harassment.
“This is a really important conversation for us in the theater, but I think for everyone,” Great River Shakespeare Festival (GRSF) Artistic Director Doug Scholz-Carlson said as he introduced Sina, the guest speaker at one of the festival’s Front Porch talks last weekend. Sina’s talk came six months after Minnesota’s junior U.S. Senator resigned following allegations that he sexually assaulted a female co-star onstage, and two weeks into GRSF’s run of “Venus in Fur,” a play that makes consent one of its major themes.
Sina got her start choreographing stage combat. Both fight scenes and sex scenes are trying to compellingly mimic something risky. The difference was that, in fight scenes, there was a plan for how to do it safely, Sina said. Every punch and dagger thrust was meticulously planned. It made her realized how unplanned scenes of intimacy often are. Sina had her first onstage kiss in a high school play. “That first kiss onstage was not choreographed or handled in any way,” she said. She and the male lead were supposed to figure it out. Sina recalled another play in which the director said he just did not have time to walk Sina and her male co-star through a romantic scene. Just go practice alone in the lobby, the director told the two of them. When actors are left to improvise, they can go too far and assault their co-stars or lose track of the line between acting and reality, Sina said. Other times, directors ask actors to do things with which they are not really comfortable. There is often little to no discussion of the details of an intimate scene, no system for making sure actors are comfortable, and with so many actors — especially female actors — competing for coveted roles, they often do not feel empowered to speak up when they are not comfortable, Sina said. “My goal is to change that and create a process that makes the whole industry safer,” she stated.
Sina’s method focuses on consent and communication. It calls for actors and directors to talk through an intimate scene in detail ahead of time. Before doing anything, make sure everyone consents and remember that people can withdraw consent at any time, she advised. A director can give someone permission to try something, but only the person being touched can give consent, Sina noted. It is not that hard, she added. “It only takes three seconds for an actor to ask, ‘Is it OK if I touch you there?’” Sina said.
Once the choreography is set, it should not change — or at least not without talking through it, Sina advised. There should be no actors choosing on a whim, “I decided to add an extra grope because I was really feeling it tonight,” she said. “You don’t add a line to a show. You wouldn’t add another slap to a show … So we don’t add kissing or groping or anything else to a show,” Sina added.
Of course, it is important for actors to feel comfortable saying that they are uncomfortable. There are reasons they might be hesitant to speak up. “If you as an actor don’t make the director happy, you’re risking your next paycheck in a very serious way,” GRSF’s “Venus in Fur” Director Jess Shoemaker said in an interview. “Making it clear to the artists I’m working with that this is a conversation I’m ready to have makes me more confident that they would come to me,” she added.
Acting as a sort of ombudsperson and empowering actors to voice concerns can also be part of an intimacy director’s job. As a male director, Scholz-Carlson said that he would sometimes turn to women on the production team to fulfill this role in an ad hoc way and check in with female actors. He explained why: “Because I’m afraid I’ll ask a woman and she’ll say, ‘No, no, it’s OK,’ and it won’t be the truth.”
Shoemaker, Scholz-Carlson, and Sina said that carefully choreographing kisses and sex scenes actually leads to better acting and more powerful scenes. Scholz-Carlson likened it to fight scenes. He explained that when actors feel like they are actually in danger during staged combat, they look scared — because they are. Even though a fast-paced, pushing-the-boundaries fight might be more “real,” the result is actually less exciting for the audience than a safe fight, in which actors feel comfortable enough with the combat choreography to focus on really selling it, he stated.
“The naysayers in this process say that this is censoring actors, censoring actors’ impulses, but those people haven’t been to a workshop,” Sina said. “I feel this makes shows better and safer.”
That was Shoemaker’s experience. She said that, in “Venus in Fur,” talking through scenes and talking through consent led the actors — Anna Sundberg and Scholz-Carlson — to be more intimate than they otherwise would have. The result was more sexy, not less, Shoemaker stated.
Intimacy directing and the principles Sina espouses are still very new and far from universally adopted. Scholz-Carlson and Shoemaker said they had only heard of the term “intimacy directing” within the last year. Still, it is catching on. “In the last two years, our phone has really started ringing off the hook,” Sina said. She continued, “Lawyers love us. Love us. Because right now they are drowning in lawsuits … Finally they have some kind of procedure which seems to be preventative and not after-the-fact, which is what they deal with.” Sina explained that her organization is training a new cohort of intimacy directors, adding, “We’re doing the best we can to make more of us, but we are literally inventing the road as we run forward.”
More information about Intimacy Directors International is available at www.teamidi.org.
Performances of “Venus in Fur” run through August 4. GRSF hosts Front Porch talks every Saturday morning through August 4. Its next session is a panel discussion on “Women in Performing Arts” on July 21. More information is available at www.grsf.org.