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Staging intimacy: Is a choreographer needed?

Staging intimacy: Is a choreographer needed?

Local actors share their thoughts on love scenes
Staging intimacy: Is a choreographer needed?
Yvonne Perry and Laurence Lau share an intimate moment in Suzanne Bradbeer’s “The God Game,” from a 2014 production.
Photographer: Joe Schuyler

As a successful actress on stage and television, Yvonne Perry is fully aware of all the pitfalls that come with being a romantic lead.

She's hopeful, however, that intimacy choreography will alleviate some of those concerns. A relatively new term designed to help actors feel more comfortable during love scenes, intimacy choreography seems like an idea whose time has come, especially with accusations of inappropriate sexual behavior running rampant in the entertainment world. It's already popular in places like New York, Chicago and Toronto, and Perry would like to see the concept take hold in the Capital Region.

"I have a lot of personal experience dealing with awkward situations, and fortunately most of them have been handled pretty well," said Perry, a Voorheesville native and Actors Equity member who had  a long soap opera career in the 1990s on "As The World Turns" and "Guiding Light." "I come from soaps, and every single screen test or audition has a kiss in it. The producers want to make sure you can look comfortable doing a love scene."

actor comp.jpg
Clockwise from top left: Jenny Strassburg and Timothy Deenihan were the two romantic leads in the provocative 2013 production of "Venus in Fur" at Capital Repertory Theatre; actor J.J. Buechner; Brenny Rabine and Michael McKenzie in the 2013 production of "God and Carnage" at Capital Repertory Theatre; and actress Amy Lane.

After she was already hired to do "As The World Turns," Perry, who is currently teaching at Skidmore College and continues to perform and direct locally on stage, was asked by producers to help with their audition process.

"I got called in to help with the screen tests, and on one of the days I ended up kissing eight guys in a row," she remembered. "It could have been a very awkward situation, but there were people there who were kind and generous and that made it a lot easier for me. And yes, there is a choreography to it."

One of the primary goals is to make sure that during a love scene, or perhaps an intimate moment that includes some nudity, one actor doesn't improvise and surprise his or her scene partner. It's a good idea that all hands be in their proper location, and Schenectady's Amy Lane, who's performed at Curtain Call Theatre and the Schenectady Civic Playhouse, is OK keeping that kind of action well mapped out in advance.

"It never would have occurred to me to have someone different come in and choreograph a scene," said Lane. "Most of the time, I think the director and the actors can handle it. But regardless of what kind of interaction you have on stage, you need to be fully in control. You need to take care of the other person on stage with you, and make sure you're not getting hurt in any way physically or emotionally. So, if there's a coach or a third person who's going to help with all of that, then I guess I'm for it."

Intimacy choreography is coming to the forefront of the theater world thanks to the work of Tonia Sina, who as a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University produced a paper called "Intimate Encounters: Staging Intimacy and Sensuality." An Oklahoma City native, Sina has found plenty of opportunities to pursue her artistic exercise in major theatrical venues across the country. And New York University's Tisch School of the Arts seems to have bought into the idea, adding a new class to the curriculum in 2017 called "Sex on Stage."

In 2016, Sina formed Intimacy Directors International and began offering workshops for those hoping to become certified instructors. Perry is thinking about taking one of the classes this spring.

"I feel as a director I necessarily wouldn't need one because of my own experience, but since I first heard about intimacy choreography I was very interested in it," said Perry. "There's no one around here that has taken the training that I know of. We have stage combat and fight choreography and dance choreography, so why not this. I am seriously considering going to New York and getting certified."

Like Lane, Troy native Kathleen Carey, whose drawn favorable reviews at venues such as The Theater Barn, Hubbard Hall, Curtain Call and Albany Civic, also had very little knowledge of intimacy choreography.

"It's interesting, but it seems to me like that would be the director's job," said Carey. "At first I thought it sounded a little silly and over-the-top, but I read a couple of articles likening it to the specialty of stage combat and fight choreography, and I can get that. But if I'm working with an experienced and trusted director, I'm comfortable with them directing or choreographing the scene appropriately and respectfully, and making sure rehearsals are private to start, as has been my experience."

According to J.J. Buechner, who does a lot of acting and directing with the Local Actors Guild of Saratoga, not everyone is sold on intimacy choreography.

"I know actors who said it made things harder and others who say it works for them," he said. "I think making a big deal out of makes it worse. Most actors are aware of shows that call for intimate scenes and think two things: 1, 'I can do that,' or 2, 'I want to try to do this.' In the end there are so many ways to fix an issue like that on stage. I guess it's cool they have given it a name, but any good director can do the same job."

Brenny Rabine, a South Glens Falls native whose extensive resume includes work at Capital Repertory and Saratoga Shakespeare, said the job description makes sense to her.

"I have never worked with an intimacy choreographer, but I don't believe it's overthinking it at all," said Rabine, who also spends much of her time with  MopCo, an improv group in downtown Schenectady. "A friend of mine is a fight choreographer getting certified in this specialty, and given the intimate moments now depicted in stories on stage, having an artist in rehearsal with the actors involved seems like a great idea to me."

As an actor, adds Lane, it helps to know what you're capable of.

"Some people are comfortable taking off their clothes and some aren't," she said. "You have to know what you're comfort level is going in."

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