As an actor, your job is unlike any other. Few other professions demand that you get literally up close and personal with your co-workers, and require the daily vulnerability that comes with that. Performing a passionate scene where the stories ask you to make-out with a partner or shows your character losing her virginity in front of an audience requires unwavering trust between the actors.
So how do you put scenes like these on stage, while still ensuring the safety of everyone involved? One way many theatre companies are addressing that question is by hiring specialists, known as intimacy coaches—a role that has recently gained attention in light of the allegations against Soulpepper Theatre Company’s Albert Schutlz.
Last week, four women spoke out about the serial sexual abuse they say they experienced while working at Toronto’s Soulpepper, accusing director and founder Albert Schultz of 30 separate incidents that include Schultz flashing his penis, giving unwanted hugs and kisses, using sexually suggestive language and demonstrating inappropriate behaviour.
I’ve been acting in theatre for most of my life, and when the news broke about Soulpepper, my phone buzzed non-stop with texts from my friends in the industry. “Everyone knew,” one friend wrote.
Schultz has since resigned; however, the news has left many of us in the theatre industry rattled. Our artistic spaces—intended for creativity and uninhibited exploration—feel threatened. But as I discovered, intimacy coaches have tools to help artists explore sex on stage, while still feeling personally safe.
What is an intimacy coach?
When it comes to intimate moments in a play—be it a light peck on the lips or some seriously heavy petting—an intimacy coach has the job of choreographing the exchanges in the same way a fight director would do with a scene. In both jobs, the focus is on safety, says Siobhan Richardson who works as a both a fight director and an intimacy coach.
“Intimacy direction has become a solution for people who want to be sensitive in rehearsal,” says Richardson, adding that this type of coaching is now being sought out by theatre groups.
With the allegations coming out of Soulpepper Theatre, it is clear that the risk of someone getting hurt exists for both intimate and violent scenes. The damage may not be so obvious as a bloody nose, but Richardson explains that there is the potential for psychological hurt, be it re-traumatizing or compromising the actor by pushing them into their danger zone (i.e., a space where the actor no longer feels safe).
Creating a safe space on stage
Intimacy coaches like Richardson work to create a safe, non-judgmental space that considers the personal boundaries of all those involved in the process.
When choreographing a scene, such as a kiss between two people playing a married couple, Richardson carefully selects each move, just as she would if she was putting together a dance routine. Physical movements, such as leaning your torso suggestively forward or leaning back invitingly, are carefully selected to fit the story being told.
“The way I choreograph is I ask the actors, what would your character do first? If they have an impulse we go with that,” says Richardson, adding that she also checks in with her actors to make sure they are comfortable throughout the scene. “We talk first about boundaries. We ask where are you okay to be touched.”
If an actor is uncomfortable with a move, like having their neck touched, then the coach helps discover an action that still serves the text and the director’s vision.
Despite seeming confident, lots of actors feel awkward playing “sexy” scenes, so having an intimacy coach to offer ideas or give clear choreography can be especially helpful.
“It was liberating,” says actress Bahia Watson about her experience working with intimacy coach Tonia Sina during Stratford Festival’s production of The Bakkhai—a show that, at times, got real sexy. One scene required the cast to perform what’s called “a ritual,” which was, put simply, a staged orgy. I would personally be a nervous mess rehearsing that scene, but Watson says using an intimacy coach “really set the tone for the show.” It gave the actors a kind of language that made open communication easy.
“If you didn’t have an idea she’d say, ‘Come here, stroke her cheek. Are you comfortable with a kiss?’ I had to kiss another woman,” she says. “Even though the work was detailed, it never felt boring and it never felt restrictive because we had time to adjust things as we were building it, so there was always room for conversation. It was collaborative.”
What is sexy to one person isn’t always sexy to another
Often in rehearsals the intimate moments may be left up to the actors to figure out. But for some, that’s a lot of pressure. “There’s a belief that you should be able to do anything and be comfortable with anything under the sun—anything in the realm of humanity, you should be able just to go there, or else you’re seen as having walls up or blocks up,” Watson says. To the Toronto-based actor, this expectation is a key reason why so many actors pretend to be OK, but end up suffering in silence.
“Someone might say ‘make it sexier,’ but what is sexy to one person isn’t sexy to another,” says Richardson. So how would an intimacy coach make a scene sexier? By discussing the characters and their desires. Then they choreograph something that serves that particular story. As a result, the actor doesn’t have to expose their personal history or feel awkward as they try to act out a generic, or imposed, idea of what is sexy.
This method is particularly notable given the recent, incredibly disturbing allegations against Schultz from actress Kristin Booth. In a statement of claim, Booth described how in rehearsals for Soulpepper’s performance of Twelfth Night, director Schultz would grope her to “demonstrate how a man should touch a woman in a ‘sexy’ way so that the audience would ‘get wet.’”
Sticking to the choreography
With an intimacy coach, once the choreography is set, it is the actors’ job to stay within that framework during performances—and any changes are addressed immediately.
“You don’t just go for your glass of bourbon at a different time, you aren’t going to just throw in a pirouette, you don’t just add text unless it’s improv,” explains Richardson. So if someone slips up one night and grabs something they shouldn’t, a conversation should be had to convey that that is a serious problem. Is the actor just oblivious or are they knowingly, and repeatedly, crossing the line? “Having an established practice will hopefully stop some of those things from happening,” Richardson says.
Diverting from the agreed-upon choreography is also discussed in the lawsuits filed against Schultz. The actor and director has been accused of changing up a scene during a performance—and sexually assaulting an actress in the process—in front of an audience. According to one of the statements of claim in a lawsuit against Schultz, Diana Bentley spoke about when she performed in Soulpepper’s Our Town alongside Schulz. Bentley says that during a shared scene, Schultz would slap her buttocks. “It is Albert’s practice to use his position to cultivate the use of specific moments, hidden from the audience’s view, to touch actresses on stage while unable to escape him,” the court filings say, which later detail that Schultz allegedly dismissed Bentley’s concerns when she confronted him.
Theatre’s second act
In light of the recent reckoning against sexual predators, including the allegations against Schultz, Watson says that the theatre industry must change.
“I don’t know that an actual intimacy choreographer is required in every single room, but directors should at least be trained and/or well-versed in the language of consent, permission and boundaries, and be mindful and careful in how and what they ask actors to do,” she explains. “Everyone should feel comfortable expressing their discomforts or challenges without fear of judgment or loss of opportunity.”
The theatre is where I’ve learnt many hard but valuable lessons, and I’m stronger for it. Sure, being an actor is challenging, but it should not cost you your dignity or self-respect to pursue something you love. It seems obvious to me that the industry is shifting, and finally, I think people are starting to recognize the scope of the problem and the need for change.
Just the other night, my friend and I were lamenting about Soulpepper. “It’s such a bad time to be an actress,” she said. Then we corrected the thought simultaneously, “Or the best time.”
The silver lining here is that we are finally having important conversations about these critical issues. Finally, people are listening and looking for solutions.