Intimacy Direction and Opera : Safety, Context, and Boundaries

This article is part of the July 2022 issue of Classical Singer magazine. Click HERE to read all of the articles from this issue or visit the Classical Singer Library.

While common in theatre and film, intimacy direction becomes increasingly important in opera. Read on to discover the importance of intimacy direction and choreography, consent in the context of scene partnership, and developing a dialogue about the physicality of intimacy.

 

As accountability and safety continue to become far more central to work in the performance world—on screen, on stage, and in the rehearsal room—so is the presence of intimacy directors and coordinators on creative teams in theater, film and opera. This past season at the Metropolitan Opera, intimacy directors were engaged for no fewer than six productions. To learn more, I reached out to two individuals at the center of the field of intimacy direction and intimacy direction in the opera world. 

I spoke with Alicia Rodis, creative director of Intimacy Directors & Coordinators (IDC), and Doug Scholz-Carlson, an intimacy director with IDC who, along with IDC intimacy director Rocío Mendez, provided intimacy direction and consultation for the Met’s 2021–22 productions of Fire Shut Up in My Bones, Eurydice, Rigoletto, Don Carlos, Lucia Di Lammermoor, and Hamlet.   

Indiewire.com provides an excellent description of Alicia Rodis and her work: “Not only is Rodis the gold standard of intimacy coordinators, she also has defined the standards, training a growing network of acolytes in methods and protocols. Rodis is a founding member of Intimacy Directors & Coordinators, the leading organization for intimacy professionals in the entertainment industry.” 

Rodis, who also serves as HBO’s in-house intimacy coordinator, shared with me about her journey from actor, to stunt person, to her current positions and the formation of Intimacy Directors International (IDI), its mission and core values. Rodis provided background information about Tonia Sina, credited as being the first person to use the term intimacy choreographer, and creator of the program Intimacy for the Stage. Rodis and Sina connected, and the results continue to be far reaching:

“I think it was in 2004, and I looked her up and we ended up meeting up when she was in New York soon after, and we decided to start working together. And so we created a small not-for-profit called Intimacy Directors International [along with] Siobhan Richardson, and we created something called The Pillars, which are the five pillars of intimacy work, which we ask everyone to consider when going into it. And that’s context, consent, communication, choreography, and closure.

“And you know, if I were to add another one—after doing this work for a good amount of time now, I would add collaboration, because truly the entire thing is not one person in there, it’s not one power dynamic or it’s not one that’s in there that’s telling everyone what to do—but it’s the collaboration of everyone involved that helps make it consensual and helps make us understand the context and go through all those other pillars. IDI is no longer, but we have a new company called Intimacy Directors & Coordinators, which is the leading training organization for intimacy directors and coordinators.” 

Rodis provided practical advice for those in the university and conservatory setting, and our conversation centered on consent, boundaries, and safety. “I actually do a good amount of academic work. I helped Julliard and Columbia, and now I’m helping NYU with their intimacy protocols for both in the classroom and shows, but also help them source intimacy directors and coordinators when they need them. But there is a level of this work that I don’t think you need someone for every hand hold, for every kiss, if it all goes right back to that first pillar of context: How are the actors feeling about it? How’s the director feeling confidence-wise in their language and ability to work with the actors and work with all the other departments in order to make sure that there’s not unintentional coercion?

“I would say first look at the context of what is it exactly that you’re asking? And I tell student filmmakers and student directors all the time, be explicit with your asks. If you are casting something and you want them to be kissing, you have to let them know. You are going to get a better process and product by doing these things. Be explicit in your ask of what you want at casting. And if you don’t know, you even say, ‘As far as this, but I want at least this.’ And sometimes it’s letting directors know you have the right—it’s not weird, it’s not creepy for you to say, ‘I would like Juliet to show some nudity in this scene, and this is why.’ 

“We still get to have artistic asks for things that might be considered risqué because we don’t want to censor. But actors also get to have the right to know that before they’re going in, so they’re not put in a pressured situation where they suddenly have something to lose. And what I tell actors all the time is if you see a casting notice and they say, ‘It’s going to be simulating sex, and it’s going to be this,’ maybe it’s not your time to play that role then.” 

She adds, “It goes into that whole idea with conservatory that we were all held to—that you have to do whatever it takes and throw yourself in and at the cost of your sanity and your personal life and everything. We’re learning now that’s just not the case. And what it does is it just makes a sickening cycle. So we’re trying to do better now. 

“And then when you get to those scenes, you treat them like any other scene that you are working on as far as storytelling, as far as making sure that you talk about why it’s happening, why the playwright made that choice, why you as the director are making that choice, why the actors are making that choice, to really open up the dialogue. And remember, you’re talking about characters, not the actors, because we’re not talking about what that person’s instinct are. We’re talking about what the character’s instincts are and why they are doing something.”

Along with context and communication, allow there to be blocking: Count out, how long is this kiss? Who initiates? How does the kiss end? Is it a light cue—make sure it’s all part of the story. If you want to have private rehearsals, go ahead and set those private rehearsals about who’s going be in those rehearsals and who isn’t. Allow communication and pathways to be there so that if there is something that’s off, the actors have somewhere to go to and someone to speak to so that it doesn’t become something that just exacerbates and turns into a big problem. You always have an exit—and they must remember that throughout their entire career.

Doug Scholz-Carlson, an intimacy director at IDC, is also an actor and the artistic director at the Great River Shakespeare Festival. I asked him to speak directly to intimacy direction, coordination, and choreography as they relate to opera. 

“What I see really often in opera, when I see opera performed, is the chorus all in a brothel and they’re all supposed to be people in a brothel, which means they need to be touching each other in a certain way. And what I see is a bunch of work colleagues touching themselves very, very politely and trying to—while touching each other very politely—simulate being in a brothel. And it really doesn’t work. And the reason that happens is because they are trying to protect each other’s boundaries without having had a conversation about what those boundaries are.

Alicia Rodis

“And the solution to that is to really get explicit about it. Have the conversation: ‘Hey, is it okay if I touch you this way?’ And then once you have that agreement, then you can lean in to telling the story fully again, and then you can honestly tell the story from the standpoint of a character rather than just have two terrified singers standing there on stage, hoping they’re not offending each other because they haven’t had a conversation about what offending each other would even mean.

“In terms of choreography, singers tend to have an incredible precision around the music and a real ability to be able to do something really precise inside of the music. But in terms of very precise physical movement, that traditionally hasn’t been something that opera singers have necessarily been expected to do. And that is very much changing, because young opera singers are very much trained to be actors. It’s changing really fast but, again, expectation is a little different.

“Breath is such an important part of how sensuality and intimacy are conveyed—that the different quality of breath can convey whether it’s consensual or nonconsensual. It can really convey sort of how into it someone is in terms of a moment of intimacy—and you can’t really choreograph the breath, because they need their breath to sing. They are already using their breath in an interesting way. When you’re choreographing, you just have to embrace that.” 

Doug Scholz-Carlson

Shifting the conversation to schools and workshop settings, Scholz-Carlson suggests, “There’s plenty of people teaching workshops. Even if you can’t bring in an intimacy director on a show, you can bring in a workshop, and you can have students understand the principles, and that can be relatively short. [With a workshop] you can start to deliver that message about consent, because I think that’s the paradigm shift that we’re really looking for, the idea that your boundaries are your own. You are allowed to express whatever your boundaries are. There’s always another way to tell the story. If you don’t want to be touched in a particular way, you can always find a different piece of choreography that’ll tell the story. 

Doug Scholz-Carlson with Rocio Mendez, Assistant Intimact Director for Fire Shut Up in My Bones at the Metropolitan Opera.

“The analogy that I often give is, you know, in fight choreography, if I had somebody that had a bad knee, I wouldn’t tell them, ‘You have to jump off this 10-foot platform. I’ve got no other way to tell the story.’ I would say, ‘You know, we’ll figure out a different way to do it because we wouldn’t do that to someone’s physical body.’ I think we’re getting more and more to the point where we’re not going to do that to people’s emotional health either. 

“Twenty-five years ago when I was first doing fight choreography in the opera world, fight choreography was a little bit new for the opera world. And then we very quickly came to the conclusion that we wanted to protect people’s physical bodies, and now it’s pretty ubiquitous: if there’s going be a fight moment, you’ve got a fight choreographer in there. And my suspicion is the same thing will happen with intimacy direction.”

Peter Thoresen

Peter Thoresen is an award-winning voice teacher, countertenor, and music director. His students appear regularly on Broadway (Dear Evan Hansen, Beetlejuice, Hamilton, Caroline, Or Change & more), in national tours, and on TV and film. He works internationally as a voice teacher, conductor, and music director in the Middle East and Southeast Asia with the Association of American Voices. He is an adjunct professor of voice at Pace University, and maintains a thriving private studio in New York City. Thoresen has served on the voice faculties of Interlochen Summer Arts Camp and Musical Theater College Auditions (MTCA), and holds a DM in voice from the IU Jacobs School of Music where he served as a visiting faculty member. He teaches a popular online vocal pedagogy course for new voice teachers, and performs throughout the U.S. and abroad. To learn more, visit peterthoresen.com @peter.thoresen (Insta) @DrPetesTweets (Twitter)