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MSU educators work to protect actors in intimate scenes

Alexis Black and Tina Newhauser are the authors of "Supporting Staged Intimacy: A Practical Guide for Theatre Creatives, Managers, and Crew."
Scott Pohl
Alexis Black and Tina Newhauser are the authors of Supporting Staged Intimacy: A Practical Guide for Theatre Creatives, Managers, and Crew.

The #MeToo movement brought to light and spurred change against sexual abuse and harassment, particularly in the arts.

In the world of theatre, a trend to ensure the safety of actors is taking hold. It’s known as staged intimacy.

It isn’t unusual for plays, films and TV shows to put actors in scenes that require touching, kissing, nudity, and simulated sex. That can produce unintended, accidental contact and, at times, abuse.

Avoiding problems while still creating the desired effect for the audience has become the focus of a growing number of professionals in staged intimacy.

Michigan State University educators Tina Newhauser and Alexis Black are the authors of Supporting Staged Intimacy: A Practical Guide for Theatre Creatives, Managers, and Crew.

Black says the practice of staged intimacy has gone mainstream in recent years, and wonders why this hasn’t happened before.

“You have a stunt coordinator or a fight director who works with moments of fighting,” Black said. "But we didn’t have anyone to work with these moments of intimate touch and consent that actors are really engaging with, with their colleagues.”

Newhauser says intimacy should be considered very early in the process, starting with the selection of shows for an upcoming season. Directors, actors and crew members need to know what might be expected of them, and that changes could be made at other points in the process.

Cover designed by Eloy Gomez Orfila
Tina Newhauser and Alexis Black are the authors of Supporting Staged Intimacy: A Practical Guide for Theatre Creatives, Managers, and Crew.

“If we’ve discovered this moment in the show that we think is really important for the storytelling, and we all come together and we agree can make a change, that’s perfectly fine too," Newhauser stated. “We just want to make sure that everyone is informed before they come into the casting room, and they know what’s expected, and then they can make an informed decision to either accept the role or not. So for me, it’s all about communication.”

Black agrees, saying that “consent begins at casting,” but she cautions that the power dynamic must be considered.

“Sometimes, an actor might show up, and even though I’m telling them in the moment this is what is going on, do you consent, they might feel the need to say yes. So, by speaking with them prior to being in that situation, it really gives them that time to process and determine their boundaries.”

Creative ways to overcome these issues are cropping up, some the result of work done during the pandemic to avoid close contact.

Does every little thing need to be negotiated? Isn’t that time-consuming? Perhaps not. Black thinks an open, two-minute discussion can save time later.

“If you set what we call a container, so we have this bubble within which we can work, and these parts of the body that are okay to touch, then the actors really can go for it and get excited about working on this moment,” she added.

Intimacy coordinators aren’t yet in place everywhere. Small theatre companies may have trouble finding a qualified trainer, or may be unable to afford one. Academic institutions are starting to address training for this work, but until there are more professionals available, ways can still be found to get help through workshops and Zoom meetings.

Someday, Newhauser says she expects intimacy coordinators to be as common as choreographers.

“And I think with intimacy, it’s going to become and evolve the same way, where they’ll just become a normal part of the creative team in the process, and we just go about telling the story that we want to tell, and we don’t worry about focusing on this isn’t new now, it’s just the new norm,” Newhauser said.

What does all of this mean to audiences? Might artistic integrity be compromised? Will the romantic kiss or the sex scene be replaced by a handshake, just so actors aren’t uncomfortable? Alexis Black doesn’t think so. She sums it up this way: “If we’re supporting our artists, we’re going to have better art as an audience, right?”

Considering how often actors describe being scarred by inappropriate, even unlawful behavior, and the careers that have been damaged or destroyed, it would seem that this attention to the staging of intimate acts is both needed, and overdue.

Scott Pohl is a general assignment news reporter and produces news features and interviews. He is also an alternate local host on NPR's "Morning Edition."
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