In the wake of the #MeToo movement, I’ve been reading more and more about steps that artistic productions are taking to make actors feel more comfortable on set. One of the most interesting developments that’s emerged is the idea of intimacy directors, who serve as both a choreographer of sorts as well as a contact point for performers to voice their concerns about intimate scenes. I spoke a bit with D.C. area theatre intimacy director Emily Sucher about her experiences in this field.
Tell me a little about who you are and what you and how you got into intimacy direction?
I am a multidisciplinary theatre artist currently living in the D.C. area. I primarily work as an actor, but have also directed and worked as a teaching artist for students of various ages. Last year, I expanded on my work in theatre education and passion for social justice efforts by helping teach Theatre of the Oppressed techniques to prison inmates as a facilitator with Voices Unbarred. Offstage, I am a freelance creative with an assortment of gigs on my calendar. Most of this involves working as a standardized patient and physical examination instructor with area medical schools. All of my medical school work involves nuanced communications skills, but it was my work as a GUTA (genitourinary teaching associate) that led me to my goal of becoming an Intimacy Director. As a GUTA, I teach medical students how to do breast and pelvic exams on my own body and in addition to reviewing proper physical exam techniques, I always take time to discuss communication measures that physicians can take to empower their patients, including consent, awareness of trauma, and respect for the patient’s gender identity.
When I first heard of intimacy direction as an art form, something clicked in my mind. I felt driven to use the skills I’ve honed with medical students to make my theatre community safer. Learning more about the detail that goes into shaping a relationship between characters and telling intimate stories also excites me creatively and more sharply focuses what I love about directing, more so than the big picture questions that a theatre director needs to consider. I am now a member of Intimacy Directors International (IDI) and training under their model, referring to the IDI team and the IDI pillars whenever necessary. I have been working locally as an Intimacy Choreographer for the past year and am eager to help the practice grow in the DMV theatre community, along with the theatre world at large.
What are some of the recurring challenges of your work? Do you have actors asking the same sort of questions time and time again?
The main recurring challenge I have discovered in my projects so far is time management. Until people began widely discussing this as an art form in its own right, setting intimate scenes in the past usually went “and there you kiss.” That’s pretty much all of the guidance I’ve received as an actor kissing scene partners. Even if a director phrases it as a question, the director is usually the one casting and therefore holds that job and potential future jobs for the actor in their hands. The power is imbalanced and the actors’ ability to consent is therefore compromised. Now, many directors are not used to the time it takes out of rehearsal to discuss boundaries and concerns, to talk out the context of the scene, and set choreography in minute detail. Intimacy is in the breath, intimacy is in the tension or relaxation of a finger, intimacy is in the rhythm. As an early career choreographer and one still in training, I am open to feedback and definitely strive towards greater efficiency, but intimacy is an inherently slower process than directors are used to and it’s a lesson in patience for them, and clarity while setting expectations for me.
How do producers view your role?
I have been lucky to work with many supportive producers who have taken the time to learn more about what I do and see me not only as an advocate for the safety and empowerment of their performers, but also as an artist who can help clarify and enhance the story and relationships of the play. I’m sure there are some who resent another expense for their budget, but I would doubt that anyone who views the inclusion of intimacy directors merely as lip service has actually collaborated with one. It’s still a new movement, but it’s growing, and the amazing recent press, especially that for Alicia Rodis and her work on “The Deuce,” is accelerating that path, so more and more producers are jumping on board.
I recently read that Alicia Rodis article and was fascinated by the idea of intimacy direction, it feels like such an important development for these times. Has the #metoo movement impacted your work at all?
The #metoo movement has opened a lot of eyes to the scope of abuse in the social and professional world. Sadly, I was rarely surprised as stories came out (and continue to come out), but suddenly the power in numbers made it okay to talk about them. I think the movement has people asking questions more openly, contributing to the increased demand for intimacy directors, but the need has always been there. The #metoo movement has not changed my process per se, but the frequency of triggering content in the news has definitely impacted rehearsal rooms, and I take that environment into account. For example, I was working on a show with sexual violence (The Changeling with Brave Spirits Theatre) during the Kavanaugh hearings. We were all tense. Breaks are important when setting and rehearsing emotionally packed choreography, and these were especially necessary during those days. I will also offer temporary modifiers in rehearsals when going through the full scene might be too much that day. When I do so though, I make a point to revisit that scene with a conversation, because the scene, even if challenging, ultimately needs to be safely repeatable, beat for beat. If it’s a one-day adjustment, fine, but if the choreography needs to be reset, it’s my job to make the actors aware of that option and their job to honestly tell me where they stand.
I was also interested to hear that while this idea is newer in Hollywood, it’s something that has been actively in practice in the theatre for some time. Why do you think theatre was ahead of the times here?
I have only a small amount of film experience even as an actor and have not yet ventured into that space as an intimacy professional. I did take a short workshop on Intimacy in Film led by the brilliant and inspirational Alicia Rodis, and do eventually hope to expand my field to include film, but I want to be sure I am ready. My guess about theatre being ahead of its time is that an extended run of performances means performing intimate scenes again and again, up to eight shows a week. Theatre is also live and many actors have been surprised with unwanted and unset contact when they are in front of an audience. I could see any of these factors pushing this conversation to the forefront sooner than in film, but that’s just conjecture on my end.
Unfortunately, indie films and smaller productions aren’t likely going to have the means to hire an extra person for intimacy direction—what’s one big piece of advice you’d give to directors of those kind of projects for making actors feel more comfortable?
Whenever anyone asks me for advice, especially if they have budget constraints, I point them first to the IDI website to review the Pillars. Choreographers vary in style and personality, but I believe that the process needs to be standardized, and the Pillars comprise the clearest checklist I’ve seen. Standardization prevents confusion, and confusion in intimacy is dangerous. That said, I also believe that if you don’t have the budget for an intimacy professional for a story that requires it, you don’t have the budget to tell that story. The Pillars are a fantastic reference, but you really need someone in the room who can skillfully put them into practice.
One of the things that struck me about that article is that for so many years in film as well as theatre it seems the protocol for love scenes was just “go for it” and how awkward that actually is! As someone who had one of her very first kisses on stage as a teen, I think back to how much more comfortable I would have been had someone made the process feel more choreographed. Can you tell me a little about the impact you’ve seen your work have on the final production? If you have a specific example that would be awesome!
First of all, I’m sorry that you had to go through that as a teen! IDI actually does not choreograph any intimacy with minors, and I would never have anyone under 18 kiss onstage either. With adults though, we can safely and thoroughly discuss the nuances of the relationships we are portraying, breaking down the moments of discovery in a first kiss, the familiarity woven into a 10-year marriage, and the tension and fear of someone invading your space. I’ve found the work extremely gratifying from a production standpoint, but the greatest reward is when actors have shared how including intimacy choreography into rehearsals has personally empowered them. They have opened up to me about past experiences when they have felt unsafe or unclear as to what they were doing, how much they wished they could have had someone like me there for them then, and how their perspective and expectations have changed for the future. Actors are generally expected to be agreeable and comfortable with discomfort; this typically translates to mean “easy to work with.” However, it is not and has never been okay for that discomfort to include harassment and assault. People are only recently making this decision. At the IDI intensive last summer, Tonia Sina talked about the many reasons intimacy direction is necessary, including that “we are tired of being traumatized.” I have thought many times since then about these experiences artists have shared with me, from the truly painful to things that may have been fine, but no one took the time to check one way or the other. I often tell my medical students that patients are socialized to accept discomfort at the doctor and it’s their responsibility to encourage patients to open up about their reactions and preferences. It’s unlearning an ingrained mentality, and theatre artists need to do the same.
Please feel free to share where we can find out more about you and your upcoming projects online!
I am still pretty new at self-promotion, but my website is www.emily-sucher.com and I should update that with my upcoming projects when they are set! I have some possibilities in the works right now, but I am also coming off of a very intense fall, so I am taking the next few weeks to manage my own self-care, which is equally crucial for successful intimacy as the craft.