Northwestern's intimacy choreographers set the stage for consent in theatre.

Photo by Nikita Amir

“Are you comfortable with your face being touched?”

In this scene, Jay Towns and Riley Mulcahy lean in for a kiss. At the last second, they turn away and break into song, kissing only once the verse has ended. Kira Nutter plans out the actors’ every move, leaving no room for ambiguity. Mulcahy tilts her head left instead of right when leaning in, and Nutter gently corrects her. During the next run, the actors decide it’s more natural for both of them to tilt their heads to the left. Nutter notes the change.

“Let’s go with nature,” she says.

Nutter, a Communication third-year, aspiring intimacy choreographer and certified fight choreographer, is serving as the intimacy choreographer on Monty Python’s Spamalot, produced by student theatre board Lovers & Madmen (L&M). She stages the kiss scene between King Arthur, played by Communication second-year Towns, and the Lady of the Lake, played by Communication second-year Mulcahy. Nutter works step-by-step, making sure both actors are comfortable with each movement.

Theatre companies hire intimacy directors or choreographers to stage vulnerable exchanges, such as kisses, embraces and simulated sex, between actors. They prioritize comfort and safety onstage while maintaining the director’s artistic vision. At Northwestern, students like Nutter have taken interest in the field of intimacy choreography, gaining experience in part by working on Student Theatre Coalition (StuCo) productions including Spamalot, Burlesque and She Loves Me.

One of Nutter’s methods to create a safe environment for actors is to have them mentally “check in” and “check out” before and after running an intimate scene, so actors can explore the scene as their characters and later discuss boundaries as actors.

“It’s an added level of separation, which I think is lovely,” Nutter says. “We’re defining, ‘Okay, we’re entering worlds as our characters; we’re going to explore this intimate moment. We’re going to check out, and now we can discuss it from this new perspective at a distance.’”

During an evening rehearsal in the Wirtz Center for Performing Arts, Towns and Mulcahy check in. They place their hands together, look each other in the eyes, inhale, exhale and release. Then they run the scene, which ends in a four-second, closed-mouth kiss. After two seconds, Towns kicks up his leg in a gesture reminiscent of a romantic comedy. Another two seconds pass, and they release.

“Bye, Arthur! Goodbye,” Mulcahy ad-libs, smiling and waving.

Towns pretends to gallop away and others in the rehearsal room begin to giggle. Nutter looks up from the script on the floor and laughs. Before moving on, Nutter reminds the actors to check out, ensuring that they separate from their characters before discussing the scene.

Nutter is certified in fight choreography through the Society of American Fight Directors. The Spamalot team hired her for fight as well as intimacy choreography, for which she is not technically certified. Despite this, Nutter has gained experience by shadowing a certified intimacy choreographer and working on many student theatre productions on campus.

Nutter says her goal is to be warm and welcoming, and to create a space where actors feel safe, advocated for and empowered to defend their own comfort and safety. She says she wants to emphasize the idea that actors are human beings, first and foremost.

“You can change that character, but there is only one version of every person in this world, so you just have to meet them where they are,” Nutter says.

"Art should heal. Art should not harm. If I can be a piece of the healing that art is there to do, then that is wonderful." - Sarah Scanlon, intimacy choreographer

Communication third-year Gracie Cashman, who worked with Nutter on She Loves Me, describes her as having warm, inviting energy, but also as being laid-back, saying she “made you feel comfortable with whatever weird thing you were doing.”

Communication second-year Brandon Acosta and Cashman say their high schools never used an intimacy choreographer.

“It was like, ‘You’re going to kiss at this part. Go somewhere and get comfortable. Figure out what you’re gonna do,’” Acosta says.

Cashman says she had a similar experience when she performed opposite her then-boyfriend. She says it was uncomfortable in part because of their offstage relationship. Still, their director encouraged them to commit to the intimacy.

“It was just odd, and I think that having an intimacy choreographer brings a lot of clarity to those moments,” she says, adding that having an intimacy choreographer might have prevented some of the discomfort surrounding that production.

Being thrown into a scene without clear direction, Cashman and Acosta agree, can be awkward. Intimacy choreographers plan out each movement, eliminating the ambiguity that causes tension in intimate scenes, they make the action more realistic while minimizing discomfort.

“One of the things Kira talked about was ... choreographing where your hand goes and how your body reacts to that touch. It looks and feels much more natural,” Acosta says.

He says that while he’s always worked with people he trusts, having an intimacy choreographer is extra reassurance that everyone feels comfortable.

Intimacy choreography is gaining attention in the film and theatre worlds in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which has drawn public concern to sexual harassment and assault and has advocated for political and social change.

Intimacy Directors International (IDI), the main provider for intimacy choreography certification, was founded in 2016, not long before allegations of sexual assault against Harvey Weinstein spawned the #MeToo movement.

Despite the importance of trained intimacy choreographers in campus productions, certification through IDI isn’t easily accessible for students. While The Actors Gymnasium offers students training in fight direction, there isn’t a set location to receive training for intimacy choreography.

IDI requires aspiring intimacy choreographers to complete their apprenticeship program, which accepts only 20 applicants each year and costs $120 annually, before certification. According to the IDI website, applicants must spend at least 50 hours training with an IDI Lead Instructor before even applying to the apprenticeship program.

The lack of accessibility surrounding certification sometimes leads student intimacy choreographers to feel insecure in their abilities. Communication third-year Maggie Dalzell says she doesn’t work on campus productions because she doesn’t feel qualified to do it herself.

“No one’s certified, so we all know that you have to tread lightly and not be too prescriptive,” Dalzell says.

Several IDI-certified intimacy choreographers reside in the Chicago area, including Gaby Labotka, who consulted on Lipstick Theatre’s annual Burlesque. Still, Jessica Nekritz, Spamalot’s producer, expresses concern about how difficult the certification process is, especially since college students create theatre around the country, and intimacy can be uncomfortable without proper guidance.

“Most [students] are comfortable swinging swords around, but not everyone’s comfortable being touched and kissed and taking their clothes off,” Nekritz says.

Certified intimacy choreographer Sarah Scanlon says she’s faced different challenges when working with college students versus professionals. She’s noticed college students bring their work home with them and says she encourages students to practice “good emotional hygiene” by only rehearsing intimate scenes with a third party present.

Cashman has noticed a similar trend. She says that the college theatre world is insular and that offstage life is more likely to impact relationships onstage, which can bring a different energy to the performance.

“You’re going to do this show with that person tonight, and then you’re going to be in class with them tomorrow,” she says.

Wirtz hired certified intimacy choreographer Britain Willcock to work on shows like last year’s Mary Stuart. Willcock is on leave this quarter, so Scanlon is working as Wirtz’s intimacy choreographer. Northwestern’s theatre program has also incorporated intimacy training into classes related to directing, production and a freshman seminar to introduce students to the field.

Many student theatre boards use precautionary measures throughout their processes to ensure safety is a priority. Though she acknowledges her perspective is limited, Nutter says they’re leaders in the field of intimacy choreography.

L&M asks what they call a “Romeo and Juliet question” during petitions, StuCo’s version of auditions. It’s a hypothetical question in which an actor expresses discomfort with the kiss scene in a production of Romeo and Juliet, and the director must decide how to proceed. This way, the board can find directors who will prioritize actor safety over their artistic vision.

Lipstick Theatre, another theatre board, has also hosted workshops to teach interested students the basic principles behind intimacy choreography. Burlesque hired Labotka this year to host an intimacy choreography workshop with its directors and producers.

In addition to working with Nutter, the Spamalot team elected a “non-equity deputy,” who actors can express concerns to if they don’t want to go to the production team directly. If an actor expressed discomfort with scripted intimacy, the team would re- block the scene to show the same level of emotional intimacy while preserving their comfort and safety.

“This is student theatre. We’re not creating Broadway-level work. Comfort and learning and working together is the most important thing,” Nekritz says.

Though Nutter says she thinks that Northwestern overall is “ahead of the game,” she says Wirtz has struggled to keep up with StuCo in the field of intimacy choreography.

“People who have been in it for so long, all of our professionals here, they’re relearning and they’re trying to figure it out,” she says. “Our undergrad students here feel a lot more flexible and a lot more enthusiastic that this is something we need in the room and we need to do it right, which is very exciting.”

Scanlon understands these concerns, which she says professionals in the industry share. Still, she says, Northwestern’s recent efforts, including hiring intimacy choreographers and working intimacy into the curriculum, illustrate the school’s desire to hear student concerns.

“I do agree that there likely has been a feeling of a lag behind, but I know that there are people, specifically at Northwestern, who are really advocating for this position and really advocating for the students,” she says.

Ultimately, Scanlon says her job is to tell the story in the most dynamic way possible, uplifting the team’s vision and ensuring everyone consents enthusiastically.

“Art should heal. Art should not harm,” Scanlon says. “If I can be a piece of the healing that art is there to do, then that is wonderful.”