Bringing Identity to Staged Intimacy

Seeing our students taking care of one another in the space, taking risks and expanding as artists without sacrificing someone else’s humanity, safety, or artistry excites me in the classroom. And having my students call out my incognizance excites me, too. I might be looking at a scene in its historical context through my limited lens and they’ll bring up, “Did you notice this particular moment here is ableist?” I didn’t even see that. I love it. I think our next generation is smarter than us.

Seeing our students taking care of one another in the space, taking risks and expanding as artists without sacrificing someone else’s humanity, safety, or artistry excites me in the classroom.

Ann: I think they’re a lot smarter than we are, and we just have to get out of their way by giving them the tools we’re developing and learning through our expertise. And the potential and the hope in the air right now—especially in the American theater, because it got thrown upside down for a minute, and we’ve been living through these past three years upside down—is exciting. It hasn’t changed completely, but with intimacy work happening in every form, consent and boundary work is changing the game.

Talking about what lies ahead and what you’re working on, I heard you had a friend who did an erotic audiobook. Could you talk about them and transfer some of their experiences over to us?

Adi: For sure. Kai Rubio is primarily a queer erotica audiobook narrator. So their work is bringing vocal life to written experiences for aural consumers of literature. They’ve told me about what it takes to find breath and vocalization that helps a listener connect to the story without giving too much of the experience away. It’s playing in a liminal space of, “I’m not doing auditory sex work”–which is valid and valuable– “but I’m also not just reading words at you.” So, Kai has to figure out within their boundaries, “Do I feel comfortable reading this? Do I feel comfortable giving voice to this experience? Though I’m not going to see the audience who will consume this product, do I still feel safe doing it? Does it read as problematic, or does it read as a positive experience for the consumer? Is it niche? Is it supposed to have mainstream reach?”

Ann: And specifically for the blind and visually impaired community, I would imagine this storytelling has a very high level of definition. And what a gift this must be to the blind and visually impaired community! As far as enriching the fabric of their imaginations and the consumption of this material in such a personal way.

Adi: And for intimacy directors and coordinators, romance novels are a great resource for detailed descriptions of how a moment might look. This is something scripts often don’t go into detail about because we don’t have the time, right? You don’t have six pages to tell me about how gorgeous the bedroom is.

Ann: Tennessee Williams did.

Adi: True, true. But if we as choreographers are ever at a point where we’re like, “Oh, God, I need inspiration. I don’t know what to do at this moment!” I can reference a romance novel or an erotic novel and see what they’ve structured that I can adapt to choreography within the actors’ boundaries. Especially for any intimacy choreographer who might not be comfortable exploring recorded sex acts as part of their research–viewing pornography to figure out what happens next.

I feel like sometimes people assume intimacy coordinators and directors just watch porn all day, or we’re having sex every moment of the day, and that’s how we build our body of knowledge.

Ann: Not! I don’t have time!

Adi: We don’t have time! We’re doing research. We’re doing deep research by reading books, reading stories, learning from our fellow intimacy professionals, and letting that inform how we physically tell stories. But also being observers of human communication. How do friends on the street greet one another? How do I observe people interacting and translate that to the stage, telling stories within the boundaries of the artists in the room?

When the only media representation or influence you have as a young person coming into your identity and sexuality is based on eroticization–specifically, the attempt to arouse the viewer–then you’re not connecting to your own body or experience. You’re connecting to what you look like when you do the thing.

Ann: It’s telling the true story that is inescapably human. That’s what we do. And the choreography can be symbolic. It could be shadow play. They could be two feet apart from one another and it can be just as exciting as a graphic demonstrative in-the-sheets scene. We can take pornography out of human sexuality. Although pornography has a place in our society.

I feel bad young people with a limited understanding of sexuality are thrust into the media where adults are portraying children as having these very sophisticated sexual relationships. Whereas, when you’re a teenager beginning your sexual journey, you are sloppy, awkward, giggly, and make lots of mistakes. Cause pain. Have to back up and be like, “Okay, wait. Let’s try this again in a moment.” And that’s being knocked out of the teenage story in the media right now. And there’s been some pushback about adults being in these teenage-centered stories simply because it’s legal for adults to engage in this kind of choreography that would be illegal for a child under eighteen to be asked to do on camera. What are your feelings about that?

Adi: I think the hyper-sexualization of minors in the media damages our young audiences. It does what people against pornography argue: it sets up unrealistic expectations and creates a toxic relationship with their sexuality. When the only media representation or influence you have as a young person coming into your identity and sexuality is based on eroticization–specifically, the attempt to arouse the viewer–then you’re not connecting to your own body or experience. You’re connecting to what you look like when you do the thing. Which creates non-gratifying experiences for young people.

There’s a show on Netflix called Heartstopperwith intimacy coordination by David Thackeray, which I think does a great job of exploring the development of romance and sexuality as young members of the LGBTQIA+ community without explicitly showing sex.

Ann: At that age it’s so mental; it’s so emotional and cerebral. We ask kids to grow up and mature visually, but not orally, sensually, or spiritually through intimate behavior. We want them to look a certain way so we can sell things! It’s a commercial capitalist engine around our youth and their sexual development.

I want to get onto productions and into writers’ rooms and producers’ offices to discuss the harm hyper sexualization does to a young person. Our youth often don’t have the wherewithal to understand these images do not reflect their experience and they don’t have to live up to those expectations. If I can change that culture, then I feel like I could leave the industry knowing I helped to make a change.

Okay, I have one last question, though I could talk to you forever. My final question is, have we left anything out?

Adi: Three things immediately come up for me. One of them is reminding your students or your artists that boundaries don’t just have to be physical. Boundaries can be emotional, and boundaries can be professional. You can use your boundaries to establish goals. A professional boundary may be, “I don’t want to do this kind of work on screen or stage.” Or it could be, “But I do want to do this on stage or screen.” So, developing a better relationship with your boundaries is going to help increase your artistry. Human connection specialist, Mark Groves says, “Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach people where the door is.” That gives us parameters in our creative practice and creates opportunities for creative problem-solving. It’s how we avoid repeating the same choreography formulaically.

Second, intimacy coordination, direction, and choreography aren’t always about sex or romance. The amount of simulated intimate acts I choreograph is minimal compared to the amount of work I do helping actors navigate traumatic material for the stage. Actors are asked to put highly charged material on stage. My work on Blood at the Root by Dominique Morisseau was to help the actors bring their intimate self to the material without harm. Intimacy directors provide advocacy for the actor, not just advocacy for the actors’ genitals.

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