Summer Arts showcase highlight: In ‘Creating With Consent,’ intimacy on stage and screen gets a fresh pair of eyes

Illusion is part of the appeal of acting. The whole goal is to make the audience think that real characters are living real lives up there on stage or screen.

That extends to when characters are intimate with each other. We don’t really believe that the actors are madly in love or lust, but it’s all part of that illusion that they are.

But how do you make it seem real while keeping the interaction professional and not crossing the line in terms of personal boundaries?

That’s where the relatively new position of intimacy coordinators in Hollywood and intimacy choreographers in live theater have become important.

As an audience member, you can get an insight into how this behind-the-scenes dynamic works in a free student showcase offered as part of the finale of the CSU Summer Arts festival. “Creating With Consent: Onstage Intimacies” (7:30 p.m. Friday, July 21, John Wright Theatre) will highlight the work of students who have spent two weeks learning from top folks in the field. It’s the first of its kind for Summer Arts.

Another Friday showcase highlight is “K-pop Dance” (4 p.m., at the John Wright Theatre. Jiselle Cardenas wrote about the topic and the workshop in the Fresno State Collegian.


I visited the “Creating With Consent” workshop to talk with two of the professionals who work in the field: Laura Rikard, a professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate and a founding member of Theatre Intimacy Education; and Amanda Rose Villarreal, a professor at Cal State Fullerton and founder of the Journal of Consent-Based Performance. Some takeaways:

Intimacy professionals may be new after the #Me Too movement, but the role isn’t.  “A lot of it was being handled by wardrobe people and by female stunt coordinators,” Rikard says. Part of that old-time paradigm was simply protective in nature; a wardrobe assistant might keep a partially unclothed female actor in a robe until she is ready to film. By giving the position a label and higher visibility, the ultimate goal — increased and better communication — can be more easily achieved.

Theater and film are quite different in terms of intimacy. Theater has to be more planned out because the scene has to be repeated night after night, eight times a week. With film, it’s more of what Rikard calls “guided movement.”

Despite the illusion of spontaneity, love scenes are planned. Not necessarily move by move, however. “I think that’s what people often think because you hear choreography and you think like dance choreography,” Rikard says. “Intimacy is different, in that it is its own choreographic discipline.” You’re in conversation with the actors and the directors and all of the different departments, sometimes a week or two weeks ahead of filming, to get everything in place. Not necessarily every single move or touch has been planned out. “But what we have talked about is, this area of the body is open for touch, right? And if you change your mind, you just let us know. And we’ll go a different way.”

Photo by Blake Wolf

Students in the “Creating With Consent” Summer Arts workshop.

Intimacy professionals are first and foremost mediators. It’s about talking things out beforehand and making sure that expectations are on the same page. “It definitely serves the most vulnerable in a way that they haven’t been served in our industry,” Rikard says. This is often most important when two actors in a scene have different experience levels, or when an actor doesn’t feel they have the clout to push back against a director who is wanting too much. “When you’re working with different levels of experience, you really serve as a mediator by sitting with the actor with more experience and say, ‘Hey, I just want to make you aware of the experience level of the other actor isn’t where yours is. So we might need to go a little bit slower than maybe you have in the past and get them on board in that way. And that’s part of your job.’ ”

Directors are in charge. But there are limits. This might be the touchiest part of an intimacy professional’s job. While the director’s creative vision is crucial, it can’t be all encompassing. Both Rikard and Villarreal have had pushback from directors who resented having their authority usurped. Among the toughest to convert are faculty directors, who have a great deal of power in terms of both casting and academics. “They control students grades, so students want to please them,” Villarreal says.

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University campuses are embracing intimacy education.  As the position of intimacy choreographer becomes more common, both on campus and in the industry, more universities will incorporate the study of the practice into curriculums. “Because it’s becoming so much more prevalent in the industry, university and actor training programs are starting to catch on to the fact that students might need to know what that is before they graduate,” Villareal says.

Community theaters can learn something about the new focus on intimacy choreography. Often times, intimate moments on stage can come across as tentative and fumbling because actors are worried about crossing boundaries. Villareal explains: “When they do boundary practice, what they’re doing is saying, ‘Here’s everywhere I give you permission to touch me today.’ And so what that does, is now I don’t have to be afraid every impulse I have, because we’ve already really clearly communicated.”

Finally, the chemistry between actors is about the acting, not sexual arousal. Rikard hates the term “chemistry” because she think it implies there has to be an actual physical attraction between actors. “And that the truth is, actors can totally hate each other and work really well together … I wish we could replace the word chemistry with let’s see how available these actors can be to each other. Because when actors are really available to each other, there is exciting energy, and there’s heightened listening, and they’re playing off of each other really well.”

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by Summer Arts, a performance time for the K-pop showcase was wrong in an earlier version of this story. 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (1)

  • Amy

    Sadly, the most important thing about any arts event is the correct time and place.
    After telling my eager students about the K-pop performance for CSU’s Summer Arts and sending out your online report of the date and time (7/20 at 4pm), I read your “updated” time (7/21 at 5 pm) and raced to make changes. Alas, after arriving at 5pm, I learned that the performance was actually at 4 pm. Sigh.


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