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Intimate Encounters

Noble

Noble (center) gives intimacy direction to Kyle Clark and Catherine Thomas on The Debasers at the University of Houston. Photo by Christian Rodriguez.

Whenever there is dancing onstage, performing arts organizations hire a choreographer. When there is fighting, they hire a fight director. But when there are sexually charged scenes, most companies until recently have left them up to the director and the performers to handle.

However, in the wake of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, that is changing, and industries are making new efforts to ensure performers have a voice during intimate stagings. Last October, the cable channel HBO announced it would have an intimacy coordinator on set for all scenes that involve sexual encounters, and theaters and opera companies are increasingly turning to these professionals. For Don Giovanni, Houston Grand Opera has hired an intimacy director (ID) for the first time—Adam Noble, a movement specialist certified by Intimacy Directors International (IDI). In addition to his duties as associate professor in the Theater and Dance Department at the University of Houston, Noble works as a freelance fight director—he will also be fight director for Don Giovanni—and as an actor, director, movement coach, choreographer, and stunt performer.

Noble recalls teaching an advanced scene study course as a visiting professor at California State University, Fresno. The students chose their own partners and their own scenes, which were to be rehearsed independently and then presented in class. One female student came to Noble in confusion because she wasn’t sure if her partner had sexually assaulted her in the course of rehearsing. The scene they were working on, from A Streetcar Named Desire, “is basically a rape scene,” Noble says. He then realized that there was an issue with the ways such scenes are approached and that performers and stage directors don’t always have the tools to deal with them.

Because it’s not unusual for theater students to rehearse on their own, Noble began to develop his own program to help them work together on intimate scenes with or without a director present and began workshopping it around 2008, in both academic and non-academic settings. He called it “Extreme Stage Physicality,” because it dealt not only with intimacy but also aggression.

Noble developed Extreme Stage Physicality independently of the IDI’s methodology, but the two share many similarities. The IDI’s “Five C’s” help to summarize the key concepts of both: Communication and consent underpin the entire process—the ID must create a culture in which intimacy can be openly discussed and the performers are empowered to give or withhold consent. The performers must understand the context of the intimate scene and how it serves the story. Choreography—the actual movement in the scene—is set and cannot be changed unless it is discussed and agreed to by all. This is intended to prevent performers from going rogue and changing the choreography because they are “in the moment.” Closure involves rituals of self-care at the end of a rehearsal or performance, which help the performers acknowledge that the scene is not real life and allow them to leave it behind when they go home.

While Extreme Stage Physicality and the IDI both predate the #MeToo movement, today’s climate has certainly brought new attention to intimacy onstage. “We are just now catching up to the need,” Noble says. “We’re realizing there is an easier way, that we can create a safer environment in which everyone can offer their best work.”

—Laura Chandler