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WINTER THEATER SPECIAL Up close and personal: Intimacy design in February productions
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2019-01-29

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The myth of actors losing sight of the boundaries between their own personalities and those of their characters is exactly that—a fiction born of sensational fancy. Reflexive behavior forged over centuries of evolution is not always consciously governed, however, leading to special training for theater artists whose duties include creating low-risk illusions of corporal combat.

So how did so many other types of behavior likewise come to require referees? As audiences demanded increasingly realistic depictions of extravagant emotions, Intimacy Design was implemented to ensure a similar degree of safety during the execution of the beanbag-wrestling that playwrights too often confuse with romantic passion.

This February offers Chicago theatergoers the opportunity to view this often-misunderstood skill as it is practiced today: Broken Nose Theater's Chicago premiere production of Stephen Spotswood's Girl In The Red Corner ( fight design by John Tovar, direction by Elizabeth Laidlaw ), followed by Raven Theatre's revival of Paula Vogel's How I Learned To Drive ( intimacy design by Rachel Flesher-she, her, hers ) and finally, First Floor Theater's world premiere of Dan Giles' Mike Pence Sex Dream ( fight/intimacy design by Micah Figueroa-he/him ).

Windy City Times: Girl in The Red Corner is about a woman who achieves self-esteem through mixed-martial arts, How I Learned to Drive is about a teenage girl and her uncle who forge a quasi-sexual relationship and Mike Pence Sex Dream is about a gay man whose work life conflicts trigger bizarre nocturnal fantasies. Intimacy design isn't just sex and violence, though.

John Tovar: [Red Corner] doesn't involve intimacy in terms of sex, and sports violence is carefully regulated, but it still involves lots of body-to-body contact.

Rachel Flesher: "Intimacy" references familiarity, and vulnerability. This includes grief, shock, trauma, births, medical exams, nursing infants, nudity—virtually any kind of bodily function.

Micah Figueroa: Many scripted situations outside of explicit sex or violence need an intimacy designer, if only for consultation—depictions of active power dynamics, for example, even those without touching. Our play [Mike Pence] contains moments when actors are minimally dressed, or need to change their clothes, or engage in special effects involving their bodies. Anything that might put them in an uncomfortable position should be looked at.

WCT: One technique employed in stage combat to discourage actors from getting carried away on the adrenaline is to repeat the sequences until the novelty wanes, while another is to encourage group socializing outside rehearsal to take everybody out of "let's pretend" mode. Do Intimacy rehearsals utilize similar tactics?

RF: If the human body is replicating the shapes used in aggression and survival, it can react with the appropriate biochemical mechanisms, making for real-life responses to imaginary circumstances. Without some kind of closure to remind actors that there is a separation between themselves and their characters, this can lead to confusion.

MF: "Closers" can be anything that a performer associates with the end of the scene—an offstage sweet treat, a cup of tea, a stretch, a secret handshake. The purpose is to celebrate the conclusion of a difficult task.

Elizabeth Laidlaw: The important thing is to create a rehearsal atmosphere where everyone feels safe and heard. We are collaborators and co-workers, regardless of how much contact everyone has after they leave the room.

WCT: Preparation is paramount, obviously, but playgoers see only the results. What should audiences look for in well-executed intimacy design?

JT: The actors telling the story of the play in a consensual manner based in the needs of the script.

RF: Good intimacy design should always further the story. Every moment should reveal character intent.

MF: In real life, you know immediately when someone is uncomfortable in a situation. It's in their bodies—tense shoulders, clipped speech, wavering eye contact, feet turned in the opposite direction. These same non-verbal cues are present in faulty design and end up looking like faulty storytelling. Bad fight/intimacy design is easy to detect, but the good kind is almost impossible to recognize. You might talk afterward about how the intimate scenes made you feel, but if the intimacy was staged right, you probably would never think that a designer was necessary!

Girl in the Red Corner is slated to open Monday, Feb. 4 at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave; visit BrokenNoseTheatre.com . How I Learned to Drive is scheduled to start Monday, Feb. 11, at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.; see RavenTheatre.com . Mike Pence Sex Dream is slated to open Wed., Feb. 20, at the Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave.; visit FirstFloorTheater.com .


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