Thursday, September 5, 2019

Intimacy Direction at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse

  Hello, Tavern blog readers! 

I’m Rivka, your new blog host (or “blah ghost” if you could stand to work on your diction). I’ll be offering a new blog post each month, so be sure to check back in!

  For my first foray into the land of blogging (Lord help us all – I welcome the brave among you to join me on this learning curve of discovery!), I knew exactly what I wanted to share with you. It’s a topic near and dear to my heart, and I’m very proud of what the Tavern made available to our community. In the interest of full disclosure, this first blog is quite a bit longer than I’ll typically be writing, but it’s a topic of tremendous importance and impact on the local theatrical community. So, dear reader, enjoy!

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  This past June, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company was host to a group of trained instructors from Intimacy Directors International, described on their website as a non-profit organization “pioneering the best practices for theatrical intimacy, simulated sex and performance nudity for theatre, TV and film”. Our instructors were Dan Granke, Certified Intimacy Director and IDI Lead Instructor, Jessica Bennet, Intimacy Coordinator in training with IDI, and Ash Anderson, Intimacy Director/Coordinator training under IDI.

  Theater artists came from as far as 100 miles away to attend this Atlanta premier event, coordinated by Tavern Education Staff member Andrew Houchins. There were two workshops offered, one geared toward the actor and one toward the director. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to attend both, and to learn (among other things) about the broader definitions of consent, how to appropriately request consent, and how to gracefully move forward depending on the answer given.

  One of the exercises that most fascinated me was titled, “How to create chemistry with anybody in 5 minutes”, in which randomly-paired partners were guided through a series of imagined scenarios: one partner’s unrequited desire for the other, grief that the partner did not return that desire, a plot twist in which the partners’ positions were reversed, and finally, a rekindled and mutual desire felt by both parties. (This is a great simplification of what was actually a very powerful exercise.) The most important part was that, after this purposefully-adopted passion was experienced by both partners, we were guided in how to smoothly disengage from the imagined scenario, shake hands, and return to a safe and neutral relationship with our work colleague. It was the perfect answer to the question, “But how do I create the necessary passion onstage without it accidentally bleeding into our offstage relationship…or risking misinterpretation by the other actor?”

  Another personal favorite was a way of codifying body language and gesture in order to most appropriately tell the story. For this exercise, we categorized embraces on a scale of 1-10, once again using guided, imagined scenarios. For example, “Coworkers offering a moderate greeting at the office Christmas party” might be designated a “3”, with a “side hug” in which the fronts of the bodies did not connect. Slightly more friendly coworkers might embrace at a “4”, with collarbones touching, but anything below the ribs kept at a respectful distance, and with a duration of only one or two seconds. However, “Greeting a very close friend or relative at the airport after a long absence” might be more like an “8”, in which not only might full body contact occur, but in which the hug might last for 10-15 seconds, and might involve swaying back and forth together or cheeks being pressed tightly together. Being able to break down an embrace into quantifiable attributes -- such as duration, amount of contact, and hand position -- is both an important part of storytelling and a way for artists to clarify and choreograph the embrace to ensure comfort and safety between the storytellers.  

  In preparing to write this blog, I had the opportunity to speak with Ash Anderson, whom Tavern audiences may remember seeing as the young Prince Richard in 2017’s Richard the Third, and Kristin Storla, whom Tavern-goers will recall most recently as Mercutio in 2018’s Romeo and Juliet. At present, Ash is the only IDI-trained Intimacy Director in Atlanta; Kristin is the only Intimacy Choreographer with IDI training.

Rivka: Firstly, Ash, what is the difference between an Intimacy Director and an Intimacy Coordinator?

Ash: “There are tiers of IDI much like the SAFD [Society of American Fight Directors]. Certified Intimacy Directors are at the top. Intimacy Director means you have the training and experience to take on that title and are working towards Certification within the Program. Intimacy Choreographer means you have some experience within the Pedagogy.”

Rivka: Thank you for explaining that. Kristin, why do you think the Tavern was the right place to host the workshops?

Kristin: “The Tavern is a great host for this workshop (and hopefully more!) as we have a long standing reputation in the Atlanta market. To take the reins and adopt this practicum for our artists keeps us progressing into a new era of awareness. What a great opportunity to add a fresh level of safety to what can be seen as dusty text/work! I've personally seen and heard of incidents wherein actors weren't in control and fully aware in moments of heightened physical contact. I feel proud and relieved knowing the Tavern is now tackling these issues and allowing a specialist to craft these scenes through the director's vision.”

Rivka: I’m so glad to hear that! Ash and Kristin, can you please tell our readers your personal thoughts on why ID is important? What are some of the more common ways it’s being used?

Ash: “[The website sums it up perfectly:] We believe that scenes of intimacy must be handled in a professional manner that adheres to the highest standards of artistry and safety, whether that be on stage or on set. Intimacy Directors International utilizes The Pillars as a standard for simulated intimacy. The choreography of these scenes must accurately tell the characters' stories, as intended by the writer through the interpretation of the director and the actors involved while respecting the physical and psychological safety of all.”

Kristin adds that Intimacy Direction is important because it “strengthens storytelling while keeping an artists' physical and emotional health a priority”, and that the desire to keep a scene passionate and “real” can lead to trauma.

Kristin: “Think of a fight scene; one particular move bruises an actor. Maybe not terribly, but after the repetition of rehearsal and performance, what was once a small bruise has grown deeper. Now apply that pain to an artists' emotional and psychological health,” as might happen in a play where scenes involving sexual intimacy or abuse might cause internal trauma. “In an age of growing awareness, empowerment, and empathy, the work of [an Intimacy Director or Choreographer] helps to carry that care over into theatre/film.”

Rivka: Kristin, I understand that The Three Musketeers, opening this weekend, was our first time utilizing an Intimacy Choreographer during the rehearsal process.  I’ll lay out some context for our readers, after which, I’d love to hear your thoughts on what you and the artists discovered as part of that process.

For context, readers, the inclusion of an Intimacy Choreographer wasn’t an out-of-the-blue procedural decision. As a company, we have been making our way toward adopting this practice, beginning with our having formally adopted the Chicago Theater Standards as company-wide policy, applicable both to the art and to our administrative practices.

While attending the international Shakespeare Theater Association conference, our Board Chair, Cheryl Davis, came to learn about the Chicago Theater Standards. The Standards are described by their website as, 'a voluntary tool for self-governance that seeks to nurture communication, safety, respect, and accountability of participants at all levels of theatrical production. Its mission is to create spaces free of harassment, whether it be sexual, or based in race, gender, religion, ethnic origin, color, or ability. Theatres [adopting them] strengthen the safety net in their theatres, and provide a process for response without reprisal.'

These codified standards were specifically created for the theatrical community, where actions that constitute bullying, sexual harassment, and appropriate paths for conflict resolution can be more vague than in traditional corporate organizations. At the start of our 2019/2020 Season, we formally adopted the Standards, identified paths through which concerns may be addressed, and created a structure of consequences for infractions. That company-wide standard having been set, it was only natural to take the leap to inclusion of an Intimacy Choreographer  as part of our rehearsal process.

Three Musketeers was an ideal show for which to initiate this inclusion, as many of its scenes involve, in Kristin’s words, “romantic and sexually-charged” moments. In order to create trust and comfort for the actors in these scenes, Kristin choreographed the moments of intimacy the same way one might choreograph the violence: each move is planned, the timing of it dictated by the choreographer, and both actors knowing ahead of time what the moment will look like each and every night. The intended result is that -- while the passion may look real and spontaneous and abandoned from an audience’s perspective -- there are no questions in the actors’ minds about whether an intimate touch or kiss will be changed without their consent, or mistaken for something more personal than professional. Everyone remains safe because the touch, and even the exact placement and duration of that touch, has been worked out in the rehearsal hall.

Kristin: “It’s been very enlightening to work with these different actors on how we tell those stories for each character and for each actor, keeping their consent and safety and well-being in mind. The script and the choice of casting gives permission for these artists to tell those specific stories, but it’s always a negotiation on how we interpret those for the stage. I’m very excited for the work that we’ve done.”

Rivka: I can’t wait to see the product of all your hard work! Last question for both of you: what do you see as the future of ID/IC?

Ash: “I cannot speak for the founding members of IDI, but the future, in my eyes, [is for the community to acknowledge] Intimacy Directors [as being as necessary] in the theatre process and the theatre community as we do Fight Directors or Stunt Coordinators for film.”

Kristin: “IDI's exposure has blown up over the past few years. I believe 'intimacy direction/choreography' is no longer a buzzword but a culture shift that theatres across Atlanta (and internationally) will embrace. I personally have found a strong voice through this work. Previously I've felt coerced and mistreated by directors and scene partners alike. I no longer accept staged contact without breaking it down to its contextual essence. The 'why' of it all. Advocating for myself has allowed me to make stronger choices as an actor and hone my aesthetic as a director. I aim to teach my peers, mentors, and younger artists alike how to voice their own self-autonomy in artistry.”
Readers, thanks for joining me on this, my maiden voyage into blogging! If you have a topic you’d like me to write about, please drop me a line at If you’d like to read more about IDI, head over to their website at

Until next time, “When I am forth, bid me farewell, and smile” - Coriolanus

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