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Intimacy Training for Performers - An Introduction

As part of the effort to build safety resources for individuals and groups working in the performing arts the Kaivalya Plays team aims to share information about the most commonly asked topics.

This document will give you an introduction to understanding how to facilitate a safe environment for performers to create and execute intimate scene work. This includes scenes of a sexual nature or that deal with physical touching between performers. I was introduces to the majority of the practices here from Stephen Davidson and Lucy Fennel’s “Creating Safe Intimacy in Improv” course.

One useful resource to look at before getting into the activities we can do to facilitate intimate scenes is the Pillars of Intimacy. As outlined by Siobhan Richardson, the 5 C’s of Intimacy are Context, Communication, Consent, Choreography, and Closure. You can read the linked article to get wider definitions of all of these.

What is Intimacy?

Being able to create a safe working environment where actors can explore scenes of a physical nature may be one definition of exploring intimacy in the performing arts. It may very well not apply to you. As an example, my need to discuss safe intimacy practices without the context of a specific scene or production is to:

  • Empower the performers in the room to make choices

  • Communicate emotional and physical boundaries

  • Work on scenes safely

  • Build a comfort within the group about the work

  • Create enhanced and believable scenes of physical and emotional intimacy

An intimate scene in a play, film set, or dance performance can consist of a moment with physical proximity where performers have to express vulnerability in complete silence. It may also be the performers separated by a great deal of space and yelling at each other in loud voices. The majority of the time we may not be worried about the scene with physical distance versus the scene where the performers embrace in silence. It is, perhaps, interesting to note that many of the principles that explore intimacy in performance come from ideas generated in fight choreography. But, then again, it also points to the obvious importance we give physical safety while perhaps overlooking the psychological safety of performers doing intimate work. In this blog I will try to talk about physical and emotional intimacy through a series of activities. This guide is meant to be an introduction and is in no way a substitute for a course, but it should remove the stigma in trying to apply these practices and taking a course for yourself or your arts organization.

Image from Planned Parenthood

According to Planned Parenthood, CONSENT can be defined with the acronym FRIES:

🍟 FREELY GIVEN: Consent is a choice you make without pressure, manipulation or under the influence of drugs and alcohol. Consent cannot be validly given by a person who is incapacitated.

🍟RETRACTABLE: Anyone can change their mind about what they feel like doing, at any time. Even if you’ve done it before, and even if it was your idea in the first place.

🍟 INFORMED: Your partner must know what they’re consenting to. If a partner was to remove a condom, without informing the other, that is not consent. A person cannot give consent if they are drunk, asleep or otherwise incapacitated.

🍟 ENTHUSIASTIC: You should want to do whatever it is that you’re consenting to, not because you feel under pressure or as if you’re expected to because you “led someone on.” You don’t owe anyone your consent..

🍟 SPECIFIC: Be sure that you are clear with what your partner is consenting to. Going back to someone’s home could mean many things to different people.

FRIES is designed to define consent in sexual encounters but the same principles can be applied to scene work of any kind. Any of the rules above could function just as easily in a rehearsal space. It is important to remember that something a performer may have agreed to do in a previous scene is not an action a co-performer can assume is ok to do in another scene. For example, an actor consenting to a kiss in one scene doesn’t mean they have consented to being kissed in another scene (see Context in the 5 C’s). As a director and a co-performer it is important to ask each time for consent for any kind of physical contact. This may sound unusual for improvisers or devisers who make things up on the spot, but the following activities can clarify how you can clear up rules of consent before starting a scene even without pre-available text.

A short message before introducing these activities. Do make sure that each activity has a director or facilitator observing outside the scene, at least, initially to make sure the performers have someone besides their co-performer to vocalise their reactions or concerns

Body Scan : Go / No-Go

A simple practice is to use your hands starting from the top of your head and as you touch each part indicate whether it is a “Go” area (ok to touch or interact with) or “No Go” (not ok to touch or interact with).As you continue to do this start indicating what type of interaction you are or are not comfortable with. For example, “My neck is a go area, but no pinching, squeezing or poking.” or “Avoid any areas that are covered by underwear and please no fingers in any holes: nose, mouth, ears or anywhere else.’

Image by Ashleigh Green

You might be surprised to learn some of the specifics of what people are or not comfortable with. My own specifics are that I am OK with being touched with open hands anywhere including my genitalia, but I am not comfortable with single fingers on my skin. I also am not comfortable with having my sides squeezed, or to have breath on my ears.

Another important thing to note here is that you do not have to offer any reason or logic for why you are uncomfortable. Any performer can respect that someone does not wish to physically be interacted with in a certain way without needing an explanation or justification for it.

The Language of Consent: Permissions and Negotiation

In our Creating Safe Intimacy in Improv Class we were able to navigate how to navigate physical consent in scene work pretty straightforwardly.

  1. Two actors are given a relationship. Over the course of the class, each scene is played by characters who know each other more intimately. For example, the first scene may be two strangers who meet at a bus stop, in a later scene they play siblings, and finally they can play romantic partners. The gradual approach can allow performers to build rapport over the scenes.

  2. Ask permission for physical contact. One character in the scene asks, “May I…” and asks permission to do a physical action, e.g. “May I hold your hand?” “May I hug you?”. Encourage performers to try variations of their own such, “Would it be OK if…”, or “Can I…” As a facilitator or director of this exercise

The Language of Consent: Learning to Say No

Just as important what we are comfortable doing it is important to practice saying “no” to offers Especially when we don’t know someone and are in a professional environment we may be tuned to being cooperative and trying to fulfill the requirements of the work. In my experience, I have readily agreed to do things I am uncomfortable with just because someone misheard me saying I was uncomfortable doing it. I learned something important from this. By agreeing to do something I was not entirely comfortable with I endangered not just myself but also my scene partner, who was operating with the impression I was comfortable doing something I wasn’t. The facilitators said something I found useful, “When you can trust their no, you can trust their yes.”

  1. Start by asking actors to simply exit or end scenes without a reason or narrative reasoning. Practice exiting the scene and the different ways in which you can do that. Whether it’s physically exiting the space, saying “scene” or “time-out”, using a physical gesture such as wiping motion or a time-out gesture or holding both hands up. For the actor remaining in the scene they can choose to end or even use a monologue to close the scene.

  2. Have the actors ask each other permission to perform a physical action and have the actor respond with “No.” without elaborating further. The actor who asked can choose to say “thank you” to indicate acknowledgment or remain silent. Again, for the purpose of this exercise please don’t ask for justifications or explanations.

That is why leading the group through a practice where they simply say “No” to offers and requests for physical contact is important as habit-building. The more the actors practice saying no in this situation, the more likely they will build up an ability to say “no” when they really need to say it.

The Heat / Weight Analogy

In order for actors to practice intimacy, the “Heat / Weight” analogy gives your performers specific situations to navigate boundaries and build rapport. It also allows you to bring in Choreography (from the Pillars of Intimacy). It breaks down like this:

The “Heat” - these are the emotions that the situation can create. The higher the heat means the more emotionally charged it is, e.g. a car accident, a job interview (Both of these can be scenes with strangers but can have a very high level of emotion)

The “Weight” - these are the logistics of the relationship, i.e. who is the other person to your character? And why are they important? (the scene can be siblings, a married couple to have “high weight”, or they can be two strangers at a bus stop, new office colleagues to have “low weight”

Here is a breakdown of 5 scenes, about 3 minutes each where you can explore the heat / weight analogy, while incorporating the permissions of “May I…?” and indicating which parts of your body you are willing to let your partner engage with:

Scene 1 - Rather than throwing actors immediately into the terminology, allow them a moment to reflect. Explain how you are touching your own body. Play out a scene where you take three pauses. Each pause will be an opportunity to explain what your body is doing and what it expresses. This can allow you to reflect on what your body is naturally doing and what are the things that you do physically to express an emotion. Scene prompt: This is a goodbye

Scene 2 - Try out a scene of caring for someone. A medical scene can open up the language of “May I…?” and “Would it be OK if I..?” to offer help and allow the performers to set boundaries of physical touch. So, someone on the street having a minor scrape or fall can be low weight / low heat. Scene prompt: Someone fell over on the street, but they are OK.

Scene 3 - High Weight / Low Heat. Now we get into a scene where people know each other very well (high weight), but are negotiating an ordinary day without any particularly important event/incident taking place. (low weight) Scene prompt example: Two office works who have known each other for a long time, but just talking about an ordinary day at the office.

Scene 4 - High Heat / High Weight When two people know each other very well and are negotiating an emotionally charged scene. Here is when, perhaps, scenes of sexual intimacy can be explored in romantic relationships such as a married couple. But it does not preclude you from exploring close relationships like siblings, business partners, parent and child in intense situations like a breakup, having to sell the business or finding out someone has been cheating. Scene prompt: The two office workers from the previous scene find out a secret about each other OR a close couple talk about their sexual dissatisfaction.

Scene 5 - High Heat / Low Weight - A high heat scene with low weight can be quite dangerous to play out. The fact that the characters don’t really know each other, but are in a stressful situation can make the language of consent and intimacy harder to navigate. This can range from strangers in a car accident, to a job interview with a boss and an aspirant, to two people on a first date. Scene prompt: A job interview or a first date.

Navigating the “mood” of scenes of physical / sexual Intimacy

Along with the aforementioned pillars, using descriptive language to describe the “mood”, the “vibe” or the “feeling” of the scene by the performers can be very helpful to achieve the result intended by the director. This can feel awkward at first, especially as you try to navigate past the most common phrases that don’t really have an easily applicable approach. For example, to say a scene has to be “hot” or “steamy” may make sense to a director but not the actors. It is important to note that the director is looking at the scene from the outside and is focused on the result they want to see. Whereas the actors have to negotiate how to execute the “mood” or “emotion” as actions. This is where it can be helpful to have a wide exposure to languages. While some of the other students in my course pointed to useful phrases such as desperate, tender, and passionate, I could rely on my language of Spanish to remember breathless and infatuated. More interestingly, Indians may be familiar with seven stage of love from the Mani Ratnam’s movie Dil Se (1998) or Dedh Ishqiya

And finally...

Simple Check-ins and Check-outs

The final thing I should mention is to incorporate Closure (from the Pillars of Intimacy) into these activities. Knowing that you’re working is just as important as knowing that the work is complete and you can let go of a scene or a character. My own view is that it is naive to think we as people won’t be affected by the emotion of the material we are playing out. So, we need a system to enter into it and let it go, so it doesn’t stay with us. A simple check-in and check-out to do with your partner before you begin and after you end the scene is to:

  1. Face your partner, you can choose to look at each other or close your eyes

  2. Raise your hands palm up to about chest height towards each other

  3. Take a deep breath in

  4. Alternate counting from 1 to 3, i.e. one actor says 1, the other says 2, and the first one says 3

  5. Breathe out and push your hands away from you with your breath

Make sure you do this, even if you don’t think it was a “heavy scene” or that it took much. Building this, and all the other activities, as habits is more important than to do them just once in a moment. These practices over time can allow you to explore difficult or intimate material in a way that protects your actors and creates a more inclusive space.

Please do feel free to contact me with questions, clarifications or corrections to this article. The intent here is to share a resource, but also to keep re-evaluating and seeing what else can be incorporated.


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