Diversity & Inclusion Workshop: Intimacy in the Theatre

On January 13, 2021, the Diversity and Inclusion department held a workshop over Zoom entitled “Intimacy in Theatre: It’s More Than Sex.” The presenters were Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard, co-founders of Theatrical Intimacy Education

Pace and Rikard began by explaining what an intimacy choreographer does, and their role on a creative team, which is the “the consensual crafting and staging of stories with content of sexual nature, race, disability, religion or age with appropriate cultural context and competency.” That means that they consult on shows with highly charged content that interacts with the actor’s personal identity and protected characteristics, helping performers create art while operating within their physical and emotional boundaries. Many, but not all, intimacy choreographers help stage scenes with sexual intimacy. Intimacy specialists like Pace and Rikard also train other theatre artists in consent based and inclusive processes.
Pace went on to discuss boundaries, be they physical, like an actor who does not like having their hair touched, or cultural, such as the way hair is discussed and managed during the artistic process. She was clear that an intimacy director should not ask performers to disclose any trauma they might have around a difficult topic. 

“We're going to conduct ourselves in a way that is sensitive and professional to dealing with loaded or charged material, knowing that it might be potentially triggering or sensitive for someone,” she said. “So in a trauma informed practice, we're not leveraging actor's trauma. Instead, we're being really thoughtful in the language that we're choosing in the material that we're choosing and the way that we're approaching a process.” 

Rikard then introduced the concept of “Mental Health First Aid,” a certification program that equips lay people to help others in mental health situations, a bit like CPR certification for non-healthcare providers. She went on to talk about the notion of boundaries, which can seem confusing in theatrical settings: 

“There's that big myth out there about theatre folks. So- anything goes,” she said. “‘Oh, they love getting hugged— they’re a theatre person!’ ‘Oh, its rehearsal, I can say whatever I want, we're exploring, right?’ 

"We want to dispel this ‘anything goes’ myth. And we also want to encourage people with the authority in the space to really think about and recognize the power dynamics that exist... That's a new idea in our industry.” 

Rikard and Pace each went on to describe how exactly an intimacy choreographer operates in the workplace. Once they have facilitated conversation about establishing boundaries, the creative team and cast will choreograph the scene in question. Therefore, it is written, set and contracted as choreography, and will be written into the stage manager's handbook before opening night. The intimacy choreographer might also make an audio recording to help document the process without the greater exposure that video provides. If any choreography needs to change, the intimacy choreographer can both guide all parties through the process, as well as examine why the change was needed, and make sure everybody still feels safe in the workplace. They will also share resources concerning a sensitive topic or marginalized groups with the whole company. 

Rikard went on to express that many theatre professionals fear being branded as “hard to work with” if they set boundaries too firmly or often. She offered that workforces adapt a safe word, like saying “button” or clapping twice, as a cue for the whole team to take a breath and create a space for a worker to share a concern.

"We want to dispel this ‘anything goes’ myth. And we also want to encourage people with the authority in the space to really think about and recognize the power dynamics that exist... That's a new idea in our industry.”


Pace taught the group an exercise based on the "button" concept, where one partner explicitly delineates where another may touch them, and they make that physical contact where it is allowed. However, they hold the ability to say “button” at any time, creating a space to state a boundary, or ask for a modification to the exercise. 

“For a lot of actors, the first time they do a boundary exercise like this, it is the literal first time they have ever considered what their physical boundaries might be," said Pace. “Because of the ‘easy-to-work-with' myth and the power dynamics that are pervasive in our industry, it can feel like you have to say yes to everything. So you've never considered what you might actually want to say no to. So by taking the time to actually place your hands on your own body or actually point to areas of your own body, where you're giving this particular person permission to touch today, you're maybe for the first time able to learn as you go, what your own touch boundaries might be.” 

The facilitators shared other tools, including choreographing “placeholders,” such as rehearsing kissing using hands as a stand-in for mouths. 

Rikard and Pace urged members to advocate for themselves, to make their boundaries clear even in a production without an intimacy choreographer. This can even be done in a contract or through a rider. 

“And remember, those boundaries aren't just touch boundaries,” Pace urged, but “material you are and are not open to engaging with, experiences from your life, cultural, religious, social boundaries.” 

The panel concluded with a Q&A. Equity members can watch the whole workshop as well as access a transcript in the member portal.