The theatre can be a messy place, and often this is most evident in the rehearsal process. Violence and intimacy scenes stand as two of the more interesting challenges. How do we display violence on stage, while keeping the actors safe? How can an actor sit there and take a punch every night, for 20+ performances, not to mention every rehearsal, without getting injured? How do we make it look believable? If the audience sees even an inch of air, they’re likely to tune out and go: “Whoops, that was fake.” We actor-combatants need the audience to believe that the moment was real. Paradoxically, we need them to know that it’s fake, otherwise they’re concerned for the actor, and are taken out of the story.
This is why we have specialists. Fight Choreographers who relentlessly train, they get certifications, and they train actors to look amazing and devastating, to SELL the violence, without ever harming their partner on stage. Actor safety is tantamount; if you give a fellow actor a black eye, they have to perform the next several shows with a black eye. More importantly, you’ve shattered their trust forever.
So with all this emphasis on physical safety, directors rarely, if ever, send two actors off and go: “Okay, work out this fight scene.” Yet, it seems to happen all the time with intimate moments.
Intimate moments can be sexy, horrifying, hilarious, enjoyable, or some combination thereof. Two actors putting their bodies together to tell a story. Yet, until more recently, directors seemed to think: “Well, I don’t know how to wield a sword, but I know how to have sex, so I can stage this.”
And so actors are placed not necessarily in physical danger, but in emotional danger. Many people are survivors of sexual abuse and sexual assault. If you know an actor has a physical injury, a fight choreographer makes sure that they’re not placing unnecessary pressure on that injury. If an actor has emotional scars, why don’t we have someone to help them with choreography so that they don’t have to improvise their way through something that could aggravate that emotional injury?
Well we do. And they’re called “Intimacy Choreographers”, and they’re incredibly vital to the work. Or at least they should be.
Why intimacy choreographers?
“Before 2016, 2017, I would say it was for the actors’ comfort and confidence. Now I think we need it to protect the theatres on top of that. To protect people from getting seriously hurt by a power play from an actor or a director.” – Cliff Williams III, Intimacy Choreographer, Familiar.
I took some time, late on a Thursday night, to chat with Intimacy Choreographer Cliff Williams, whose most recent work can be seen in Familiar at Woolly Mammoth Theatre.
Jon Jon: What do you do as an Intimacy Choreographer?
Cliff Williams III: I think the answer is probably to the effect of: finding solutions for intimate moments on stage. The intention is to bring the choreography to light, achieve the story, and do so in a comfortable way for everyone involved.
Could you tell us a little about your work in Familiar?
[Director] Adam Immerwahr asked me 6 months ago if I had an interest in the show. I had worked with him on his first show at Theater J. Due to the current political landscape, and the issues of power dynamics, Adam expressed that it would be great just to have someone in the room to focus on caring for the actors and being a go-between, as well as helping the director get the image and vision that they want. Having the actors have an advocate to fight for their safety and comfort while in the room is so helpful. Adam saw how important it is to have someone in there so it doesn’t all fall to the director. This way, the director doesn’t have to ask: “Okay, take off your shirts and let’s work on the sex scene” which can lead into tricky territory.
Actors get worried that if they can’t perform intimacy, or can’t get over their discomfort. They don’t want to speak up and turn into a “Problem” with the director. I’m worried that they think they “won’t get to work at the theatre again” or “develop a bad rep” because they were uncomfortable with intimacy. I want to make sure that they can communicate those grey areas, or areas of discomfort – I want them to let me know before, if possible, or during! We want to work around those, and make sure that the actors are safe, and that they’re not dreading that part of the performance. That’s no different than working with an actor with a bad knee with fight choreography. If someone informs me of an injury, and I ignore it…the whole show will suffer. It’s the same with intimacy.
I choreograph entire pieces before I get into the room, then I’m ready to scrap it at any moment. Like with fight choreography, if you leave too much to chance, or to open blocking, someone gets uncomfortable. I try to really choreograph it down to the numbers, but sometimes, someone raises a question, like in Familiar.
One actor suggested that one move we had in the intimate moment might state that her partner was more “devolved” than she was, and that with a move like that they would already be having sex. We didn’t want to tell that story. Now, from the audience perspective, it might not have felt like that, but the actor’s safety and comfort with it was paramount, and we wanted to make sure we were telling a story that we all agreed on.
There’s also a lot of comedic moments throughout the intimacy too, so I think it’s important to find those and hold on to them. Intimacy isn’t always sexy – I want the audience to laugh at the uncomfortableness at times.
What are some of the steps in your process?
I try to have conversations with the director, the costume designer and the stage manager about what we’re going to do with clothing – it really informs the audience. A comical scene, if you have a comedic intimate moment, it’s important that you don’t have any nudity. You can show a man’s butt, or maybe a woman’s bra – once you see full nudity, it becomes less funny and more serious, so that’s something you want to communicate with the costume designer. If she’s taking off undergarments, can we mask it?
I also make sure I talk with everyone about their comfort levels, and what we want things to look like. If you’re not comfortable taking off your shirt – I need to find a way for you do things with your shirt on, or to mask or hide the parts you’re not comfortable with showing.
What’s the most difficult thing you’ve had to choreograph?
Rape scenes. They’re always tough. Everybody has a friend or family that has been sexually assaulted, raped, or molested in some way, including me. Choreographing those are not enjoyable. I like shows that show the villainous side of life…but they’re always hard for everyone to deal with. They’re not fun. But it’s an important part of storytelling, even if it cuts to the bone.
The other challenging bit is when the director doesn’t let me work. If the director has to constantly put their hands on something you’re working on, it really becomes difficult to do anything.
My biggest pet peeve, however, is being brought into the process at Tech Rehearsal, because the production team didn’t think to bring me in earlier. “Who choreographed it?” “The director” “Oh god.” “Please come fix it.”
Why do we need intimacy choreographers?
It’s for everything that’s happening right now. Before 2016, 2017, I would say it was for the actors comfort and confidence. Now I think we need it to protect the theatres on top of that. To protect people from getting seriously hurt by a power play from an actor or a director. There’s a huge call for it in general. Powerful actors in DC and Hollywood and New York, taking advantage of people who are new to the scene…it happens all the time. It’s sad. This is a way to make the power dynamic even. This way we give everyone the same amount of control. Actor, director, and choreographer can collaborate together and all reach the points we need where everyone feels confident in our work.
What do you think are some of the most important aspects of this work?
Communication. Hands down. It’s all about the communication. We need to be on the same page about everything, because safety is at risk.
Nudity is probably the biggest thing that comes up. You know what? It’s really not needed. If you wanna tell that story however, let’s do it only if the actor is gonna be comfortable with it. Then it’s worth it.
But certainly don’t fight against someone who has issues or hesitancy – seek a new solution.
The only hesitancy I generally see is in day 1, and that’s because everyone’s a little bit uncomfortable. Generally speaking, in the first ten minutes in the room, if I feel hesitancy, then I’m going to put myself into the choreography and play the role ie: If it’s a scene between a man and a woman, and the woman is riding the man, then I’ll stick myself in the woman’s place – I’ll play the woman’s role, and they can see it. It’s a non-verbal way of saying: “We’re just up here playing. It’s make believe. We’re playing characters”, and that usually reminds them why we’re there. Typically if a woman sees me, a large man, climb on top of another man and ride him, they get that “this is the story we’re telling”, and as a bonus they get a little laugh.
There’s also the drawback – if I insert myself into the choreography, it could also be seen as me making a power play on the actor as well. It’s why I try to make sure I’ll step into both parts.
How does your work break down into technical terminology and personal appeals? Do you find it easier to rely on codified terminology
My language is changing quite a bit in light of #metoo. I’m typically a very jovial, jokey person, and I’ll occasionally say something that I think is funny without thinking of the repercussions of what someone will think that to mean. It’s backfired on me once or twice. Never in a big way, but in a tiny way. And that makes me go: “I need to be a little more equivocal with some of my terminology when working on my stuff with intimacy.” For each theatre, the language is slightly different. In the case of Familiar – the two actors who do the majority of the sex aren’t shy…but they’re not as aggressive as people I’ve worked with in some other shows. There are folks who are very open with their sexuality. In The Argument at Theater J, we happily used the terms “penis” and “vagina”. In Familiar, we used “Horse hanging head out the barn”.
What acts of intimacy do you find most compelling or useful in telling a story?
Hard to say, but there’s a term: There’s almost always a moment of “nuance” that turns its focus on comedic. I enjoy finding and working on those moments. In The Argument, the actress was on top of the actor. When she jumped onto his lap, the intention was that she landed on top of his erection and sat in a way that actually caused him pain. It’s jarring, you know. The guy has to realign. It was a tiny nuance that, for me, made it REALLY clear what we were doing here. For Familiar, she pins him on the couch, and sticks her finger in his mouth, and traces down his chest in a slow “Shhhhhhhhh”. I think it’s a moment where she WANTS to be sexy and WANTS it to happen, and it’s NOT QUITE WORKING.
What are your metrics for a successful scene?
Anything is successful if it tells the story. It must be a reality to the characters. And most importantly, the actors MUST be comfortable with it. I’m most concerned with that. I feel that a majority of the people that I’ve worked with- I want them to feel more comfortable when I leave the room than when I came in. That’s the success.
How did you become an intimacy director?
So this is a bit of a long story.
I started as a fight choreographer, probably about 13-14 years ago. I’ve been in the DC area for about 12 years.So awhile back in college I was a bouncer, just something that I kinda came by. I was always in the theatre, as an actor. Throughout my entire time acting and bouncing, all of a sudden the two things came together when I met a fight choreographer. It totally spoke to me, and it combined my two worlds. Since then, I’ve been doing fight choreography in several summer stocks, focused on fight choreo, and big spectacles/outdoor dramas. I learned a lot through working with great choreographers and directors who focused on fights. From that I built a resume, and got hired as an apprentice in 2005 at Actor’s Theatre of Louisville. I got cast in a show called Dracula there, and I was the Fight Captain for the famous fight choreographer Drew Frazier. I was his assistant on that show.
I guess the theatre felt that they could trust me enough to choreograph stuff for them in the middle of the year. By the time we got to the Humana Festival in the spring, I was choreographing 4 of 6 plays. One of those was called The Scene written by Theresa Rebeck, and directed by Rebecca Taichman. I believe she just won a Tony recently. [She won a Tony for Indecent in 2017.]
During The Scene, there was a big fight at the end. There’s some slapping, some pushy-shovey, and that’s all par for the course. The stage manager called and asked if I was able to come in some choreography for the top of Act II. I had no idea what they were talking about. So I checked the script for stage directions and found: “The lights come up at the top of the act with an aggressive, athletic sex scene.”
I started plugging away, and came up with some choreography. The 21 year old woman (Pitch Perfect’s Anna Camp) is having an affair with a 35 year old man. The joke is that she’s got all this fire and pep and he can’t keep up. I choreographed this scene where they’re having sex all over the stage, in the round, and it had to be funny! So I took it into the room, and I was VERY nervous. “Are people gonna think I’m a freak!?” I had no idea what they were gonna say. To my surprise, the two actors DOVE into it headfirst. They were such good sports about it, and they made that scene SO much better than what I had in mind. They amped it up with their artistic abilities and ran with it; it was so great. I was a bit out of my depth the first time I worked on it, but they made it so easy. Like any choreography, you’re implementing it like a dance, to create the story. It’s driven by the actor and story.
So around that time I met Shirley Serotsky who was working at Theater J. When I moved to DC, she hired me for Blood Wedding at Constellation. She had a few intimate moments; not as aggressive as The Scene, but they were intimate. In Gem of the Ocean at Arena, there were some intimate moments that the director was having a hard time getting to something with the actors. I had a suggestion, she asked me to go up there…and it just worked! This was when I really stepped into intimacy choreography. At the time, making suggestions on intimate moments felt kinda like it was stepping on director’s toes. I felt like I would hear: “It’s not a fight, you don’t need to be concerned.”
Six months later, Jessie Burgess was working on a show called OK at Inkwell. This might’ve been their first or second season. One of the scenes featured Casie Platt, on stage alone, being molested. The whole scene was just her! It was a little easier for her to manage by herself, but we wound up going through the choreography so she could mentally have someone there. It made the scene really powerful, as far as Jessie, Casie, and I felt.
Intimacy started becoming something I would focus on. In one rehearsal, one woman had some history of harassment or sexual abuse, and it was tough for us to work. Yet, we had to work through it, and we had to get to a place where she felt comfortable and confident with what she was doing. Her history would “hinder” her performance, so we did a lot of learning on our feet on how to help her feel confident with the portrayal.
Nowadays we have these really great intimacy rules to follow. Intimacy Directors International (IDI) is a group founded by three women: Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis and Siobhan Richardson. I met Tonia through a mutual friend here in DC. She was teaching an actual course on intimacy choreography at the University in Oklahoma. I’d been doing it for 5 or 6 years, and I was like: “This is so awesome! I have rules for myself, and things I’ve found that help people feel more confident, but I haven’t written even a thesis for it. She’d written a whole syllabus!”
She’s teaching this to college kids who need it the most! They don’t have any guidance. They’re being asked to do scenes with no idea what they’re doing! “Hey there’s a scene in Proof where you kiss. Go in the hallway and work that out.”
It’s a step in the right direction for where we should be going. IDI has done some amazing work, through movement seminars and classes everywhere; it’s such a great thing, especially for college students who don’t have that same kind of focused safety valve in their daily lives. It gives them a language to protect themselves and their scene partners; something that definitely wasn’t there when I was coming up through college.
Anything else you’d like to say regarding intimacy choreography?
Yeah: Check out the resources. IDI’s website says a lot of what I’m trying to say, but better. They have this excellent questionnaire on “do you need an intimacy director”, which is not only super helpful, but pretty funny as well. They hit REALLY hard on consent, focusing on verbally saying things like: “Jon Jon, are you ready for me to touch you?” or “do I have permission to touch you?”, and that sort of language is especially excellent when working with students.
One last thing:
I feel like Fight Choreography really became a big thing in the 70’s with the Society of American Fight Directors. The SAFD’s focus then was in protecting the actors much like the IDI’s focus with intimacy is in protecting the actors.
The LORT theaters finally agreed to file SDC contracts for fight choreographers this past May. It has taken from the 70’s and the formation of the SAFD to SDC’s push for coverage for Fight Choreographers for LORT theatres to finally agree to a union contract. I hope it eventually becomes a requirement for the theatres to hire fight choreographers and I hope the LORT Theatres start to require intimacy choreographers as well.
And I hope that the drive to protect our actors and our theatres continues forward; it’s so important.
Familiar is now onstage at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Details and tickets.