Theatre world calling in intimacy coaches to guide actors through sex scenes

TORONTO — When theatre groups turn to choreographer Siobhan Richardson for help, it’s usually because they’re looking to stage a convincing brawl or scuffle.

But once that’s done, the Toronto-based performer says it’s not uncommon for the director to pull her aside to consult on staging a kiss or a kinky sex scene that is respectful to the actors.

Richardson eventually realized there was a new role for her to play: as an intimacy coach for directors and actors unsure of how to navigate sexually charged performances.

As stunning harassment allegations engulf one of Canada’s most prominent theatre companies, she says it’s a skill set that’s become increasingly necessary.

“Pretty much every actor you talk to has some story of how they were surprised on stage, surprised in rehearsal — and the terms I’m using are in some cases euphemistic,” says Richardson, also an actress, singer and dancer who was born in Kitchener, Ont., and is now based in Toronto.

“Rather than surprised (they) are assaulted on stage…. There’s a certain expectation of, ‘I have to know how to deal with sexual harassment and sexual assault.”

An intimacy coach specializes in how to stage scenes that might involve nudity, sexuality, sexual violence and sexual tension. It can be as clinically precise as plotting out body movements such as hand positions and eyeline. But coaches can also help actors distance a steamy performance from personal anxieties and protect themselves physically and psychologically from unwanted contact.

In tackling her first sex scene for a Fringe show last summer, Toronto director Claren Grosz turned to Richardson for help in making her cast feel comfortable.

She notes that sex scenes can be especially revealing of an actor’s personal predilections — they’re often improvised and can unfold with few concrete instructions from a director, who might also be uncertain.

“Everyone has their own personal little bubble of what they think is sexy or what they think is OK or what they think is weird and that’s not what you should be bringing into the rehearsal hall,” says Grosz.

“It’s not about you personally and your case — it’s about the character and so that is when an intimacy director comes in and takes out your personal (opinions) so that you’re not putting your own vulnerability on the line.”

The field is still little-known and relatively rarely used, says Richardson, but she believes it can play an important part in addressing inappropriate behaviour by establishing clear guidelines about expectations and personal boundaries.

And these boundaries are constantly crossed, say Richardson and Grosz, who did not find the recent allegations surrounding Soulpepper Theatre Company especially surprising.

Four actresses are suing the Toronto company and its founding artistic director Albert Schultz for sexual harassment. Schultz resigned last week amid allegations he groped them, exposed himself, pressed against them, or otherwise behaved inappropriately.

None of their allegations have been tested in court and neither Schultz nor Soulpepper have filed a statement of defence. Schultz said he will “vigorously defend” himself against the allegations.

Richardson is honing her skills under the tutelage of intimacy coach Tonia Sina, a former fight director from Oklahoma City, Okla., who developed her own method of choreographing intimate scenes.

Richardson is a co-founder of Sina’s group Intimacy Directors International, and regularly holds workshops and classes for emerging actors and students. She says the emotional dangers of intimate scenes are generally not addressed by most acting schools.

Too often, actors are left to improvise or figure out how to tackle the scenes themselves. She says it’s not unheard of for a director to tell actors to “make it hotter” with more rehearsal.

“Which isn’t really rehearsing, right? It’s just two people making out in a corner. That does sometimes happen,” says Richardson, who last year assisted Sina on a steamy Stratford Festival performance of “Bakkhai,” an interpretation of the ancient Greek tragedy “The Bacchae.”

“If you think about it, nothing else in the show is improvised so why is this moment improvised? And it’s a moment of high drama, high emotion.”

An intimacy coach will establish a common vocabulary for everyone to refer to and a scale to denote the various levels of intimacy or arousal. This helps ensure all parties are on the same page and that there are no surprises that can be awkward or even traumatic.

“For people who are survivors of assault already it can be quite triggering. One of the things that can result from that is that the actor shuts down in a way that the work onstage can’t be as honest because there’s a part of them unable or unwilling to commit to this work,” she notes.

Richardson’s colleague Alicia Rodis says there’s growing demand for this work in film and TV productions as well, where the cost of filming can add even more pressure to an actor.

“I myself have been in situations both on camera and on stage,” says Rodis, based in New York.

“And when you have 20 people behind a camera looking at you saying, ‘You’re doing this now,’ you have that pressure, that high pressure of just (saying), ‘OK.’ Because even if it is communicated to you or not you are just told: ‘Well, are you a professional?’ Then you’re going to do your job and you’re going to do what they ask you.”

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