To help actors feel safe during sex scenes, Salt Lake Acting Company tries new ‘intimacy directing’

(Photo courtesy of Photos by dav.d daniels of dav.d photography via Salt Lake Acting Company) From left to right, actors Marion Markham, Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, Annette Wright and Chris Duval are performing in "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City" at Salt Lake Acting Company.

As an audience watches, Don grasps Karla around her waist, carries her into a bathroom, sets her atop a sink and removes her pants and underwear.

In the past, actors might have been told to sort out the kissing and touching themselves as they prepared for this scene from “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City.”

That approach could leave actors feeling uncomfortable or even harassed or abused on the job. But instead of the makings of another #MeToo moment, this is a story about consent.

For the production of “A Funny Thing …” now playing at Salt Lake Acting Company, director Sarah Shippobotham used her recent training in intimacy directing — deliberate negotiations and planning for touch and exposure. The strategy has become more common since allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein set off a national conversation about sexual assault and harassment.

“Acting is a skill, and if we choreograph violence,” Shippobotham said, “why aren’t we interested in choreographing intimacy, particularly sexual intimacy?”

Cynthia Fleming, SLAC’s executive artistic director, adds: “The respect this [#MeToo] movement has provoked is gorgeous.”

Actors are less likely now to face an expectation that “just because the play says it, they have to do it,” Fleming said. “Now, it’s like, ‘Is it OK if I move you? Is it OK if I touch you?’ As a producer, I wanted to make sure the actors were completely comfortable.”

Cassandra Stokes-Wylie, who plays Karla, says the scene and the play are fun.

“The first time I read the play, I laughed out loud, which is very rare,” she said. “This scene, yeah, it gave me a little bit of pause. … I never thought, ‘Do I really want to do this?’ It was more, ‘How are we going to do this so that I feel safe?’”

‘A much safer place’

The play takes place in a double hospital room, complete with a pink and blue color scheme that’s meant to be cheery but is instead oppressively institutional. There we meet Karla, who delivers the first line of the play: “I’ve been single for so long I’ve started having sexual fantasies about my vibrator.”

She’s a raunchy stand-up comedian practicing lines for her sleeping mother, who is being treated for cancer. Don, a sad, schlubby-looking millionaire, walks in to visit his own cancer-stricken mother and is aghast at what he’s hearing.

From there, they fight and connect and fight again, building up to the consensual sex scene in the bathroom. While actor Chris DuVal, who plays Don, does remove Stokes-Wylie’s clothing, the audience does not glimpse any nudity.

The scene is humorous, which is why Fleming wanted the actors to have as much “fun as the Lucille Ball chocolate-eating moment” on the “I Love Lucy” show, she said. “If not, we wouldn’t see [the sex scene], we could just hear it” in the language of the play.

Shippobotham said it was important to talk about the scene in a clinical and adult way “and put the onus on the fact acting is a skill and this is about creating an illusion for people, as opposed to doing it for real.”

Shippobotham, a professor in acting at the University of Utah, became interested in learning about intimacy directing with the rise of #MeToo and after hearing about a Chicago actor’s portrayals of violence in the play “Killer Joe” that had crossed into real abuse of his fellow actors.

She attended a workshop in New York City earlier this year, where she said she learned “how important it is to help actors understand they have power in the room and they can say, ‘No,’ and how as a director, I need to be OK with them saying, ‘No.’”

The workshop leader, Claire Warden, is listed as an intimacy director consultant in the SLAC playbill.

Shippobotham, Stokes-Wylie and DuVal choreographed the sex scene and wrote a template for its movements and timing, a record that can be referred to if something goes wrong, the workshop training pointed out.

During rehearsals, Stokes-Wylie and DuVal chose to say “kiss” instead of kissing because it wasn’t necessary. DuVal, who has a background in fight directing, said the scene was built like a fight scene, in how they mapped out their physical actions.

Stokes-Wylie said she appreciated that it was so technical. “For me, that’s a much safer place to live as an actor than being thrown a scene and being told, ‘Hey, go make this work.’”

She said she and DuVal “talked specifically where we were comfortable being touched so we as actors knew where we could touch each other as characters without triggering something.”

The concept of intimacy directing gained national attention recently when actor Margaret Judson wrote for The New York Times about her experience playing a porn actor on the HBO TV series “The Deuce,” where intimacy director Alicia Rodis made her comfortable on set.

Rodis was “an advocate for colleagues at their most vulnerable workplace moments,” Judson wrote.

‘Do their best work without fear’

At Utah’s Plan-B Theatre, new standards call for producers to disclose in audition announcements whether a production will include scenes that depict violence or intimacy.

First rehearsals for such scenes will be closed, without designers present. Actors must agree to “strictly follow established blocking and choreography in these scenes during all rehearsals and performances and to graciously accept reminders from stage management if variation occurs,” the standards say.

The standards were written by a committee of eight women who, over the past six months, also created a comprehensive anti-discrimination and harassment policy that each employed artist must sign, said Artistic Director Jerry Rapier.

The standards were created so that the company is prepared to handle such scenes if and when they arise, he said. The goal was to “ensure we were truly creating a safe work environment for the artists that choose to work with us,” he wrote in an email.

Fran Pruyn, artistic director at Utah’s PYGmalion Productions, whose mission is to tell women’s stories, said the company has long had a “heightened sensitivity” around sexual harassment and assault issues. The company hasn’t depicted intimacy onstage recently, but not because of #MeToo.

“We have blessedly just been attracted to scripts that tell stories of women’s stories of growth, comedies about depression, and historic figures and achievements because that is what we believe our audiences wants to see,” Pruyn said in an email.

In the past, PYGmalion has produced shows including “The Vibrator Play” and “Sex Habits of American Women.” As director, she said, she let the actors set their parameters, deciding on their level of undress and how much or little intimacy they wanted to show onstage.

“We all talk together what the playwright’s intention and the director’s vision of the scene is,” she said, “about the costumes, what they think is appropriate for the characters, how comfortable or uncomfortable do we want the audience to be — most importantly, how they can do their best work without fear.”

‘Audiences are just going with it’

Fleming said no other plays in SLAC’s season have scenes of intimacy. But for an upcoming production of “The Wolves,” about an adolescent girls’ soccer team, actors’ physical movements are again being carefully planned to ensure they feel safe.

She has brought in a soccer coach to help the actors use proper technique and avoid injuries. And in a scene where a character is slapped, the fight was choreographed under the supervision of a fight director so that the actors aren’t harmed.

Fleming said she wasn’t worried that Utah audiences would be bothered by the sex scene in “A Funny Thing. …” By the time Karla and Don head to the bathroom, the audience has already laughed at Karla’s stand-up lines about vibrators and rape, and Don has retold a story about the life of a condom.

Fleming was concerned about the propriety of rape jokes. She had chosen the play before the #MeToo movement arose and in re-reading the script, it gave her pause.

But, she said, “The way it’s written in the play and the way … Sarah has directed, that isn’t an issue. Audiences are just going with it.”

At a recent performance, the audience was laughing during the sex scene. “That was hilarious,” said theatergoer Monisha Pasupathi, who thought it was well staged. “That was every bit as awkward as it would be in real life.”


What • Crass comedian Karla and sad nerd Don meet at the bedsides of their dying mothers in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Gynecologic Oncology Unit at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center of New York City,” written by Halley Feiffer.

When • Through Oct. 21 at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.

Tickets •  $15 to $44, depending on the performance, with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; see schedule and buy tickets at saltlakeactingcompany.org or call 801-363-7522.


What •  A finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Drama, “The Wolves” by playwright Sarah DeLappe explores the physical, mental and emotional waves experienced by members of a teenage girls’ soccer team. 

When • Oct. 10-Nov. 11 at Salt Lake Acting Company, 168 W. 500 North, Salt Lake City.

Tickets •  $15 to $44, depending on the performance, with discounts for students, seniors, groups and those under 30; see schedule and buy tickets at saltlakeactingcompany.org or call 801-363-7522.

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