In a Shelby Park rehearsal space, a group of six actors stand in pairs, asking permission to touch various parts of their partners’ bodies: shoulders, stomachs, even their shoes.
According to Alicia Rodis, who stands by watching with a notebook, this is an easy exercise in on-stage consent — something she specializes in as an intimacy director.
“An intimacy director is a choreographer for the intimate moments in play or series or film, but is also an advocate for the actors in the room,” Rodis says.
Rodis is one of the founders of the New York City-based Intimacy Directors International. She’s worked in classrooms at Juilliard and with companies like the New York Shakespeare Exchange.
In most workplaces, physical contact is not part of the job description; but for actors, it’s often in the script. Rodis’ job is to help theatre companies establish procedures that ensure its members are comfortable with that touch — and also protect actors from harassment done under the guise of “It’s just acting.”
Tonight, she’s in Louisville working with Theatre 502 on a new play called “Nobody Bunny” by Eli Keel. The play draws from the legends of trickster gods in Native American and Norse mythology.
It follows one such god, a Bugs Bunny-esque rabbit figure, who in the 1950s decides he wants to be in the movies. Bunny, who shifts between male and female forms, begins to manipulate a talented young animator named Charlie.
And one of the ways Bunny does this is through sex.
There’s nothing too graphic shown in the actual play — a few forceful kisses and some light touching — but regardless, Rodis says her work is about establishing a safe work environment for the actors involved.
“The work that we do at IDI is threefold,” Rodis says. “It is an acting and movement technique, it is protocols and procedures for handling scenes of intimacy, and it’s about being an advocate for our actors.”
So what does this look like in practice? Take the first kiss between actors Remy Sisk and Maxwell Williams.
Rodis leads them through the kiss like it was a piece of choreography in a dance. They talk about motivation first and establish consent, then it’s done initially in slow-motion, with each movement counted out. Then they add lips and practice it at normal speed.
By the end of the session, the kiss looks natural and the actors remain comfortable.
“I think one of the things that really struck me was just counting out the movements of a kiss,” says Gil Reyes, the artistic director of Theatre 502. “Breaking it down, and then letting the emotion and tension later come to that, but building the structure for it. That’s not something I would have ever thought to do.”
Reyes says he learned a lot from Rodis’ visit with regards to the actual choreography of intimate scenes, but the most important thing he learned was encouraging his actors to continue checking in with each other about their boundaries and comfort zones.
And Rodis says this is perhaps the biggest key to creating a harassment-free theater space, something many people are considering in the wake of the #metoo movement and in light of last year’s #NotInOurHouse campaign after several Chicago actors came out with stories of sexual exploitation in local theaters.
“We forget, you know, a director or writer may be in a position of power and also instructing their actors to do something sexual, which at that moment you have the ability to be Harvey Weinstein,” Rodis says.