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Bringing Identity to Staged Intimacy

A Conversation with Adi Cabral

An actor touches the face of another actor while standing on a darkened stage.

Olivia Smihula and Abby Rosen in rehearsal for Spring Awakening by Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik at the University of Nevada, Reno. Directed by Adi Cabral. Choreographed by Nate Hodges. Music Direction by CJ Greer. Scenic Design by Michael Fernbach. Costume Design by Kendra Bell. Lighting Design by Ann Archbold. Photo by Benjamin Engel.

Ann James: Hi, Adi! Thanks for taking some time at the end of the semester to talk about where you are in your intimacy, consent, and boundary practice. Thank you for going there, as I like to say in these moments. First, I want to ask you the question, because I don’t know the answer. What brought you to the world of intimacy work?

Adi Cabral: I did my MFA in Theater (Performance) at Arizona State University, where Chelsea Pace was my classmate. I got to work with Chelsea when she began developing her approach to intimacy work. Simultaneously, my research focused on the intersections of voice, sexuality, and sexual identity. These thematic overlaps kept us in close contact. When Chelsea developed Theatrical Intimacy Education, I was enamored. As an educator and actor who has gone through… I think everyone who comes to intimacy can tell a little trauma story about their experience as an actor that called them to this work. Harm prevention is an impetus for me. I want to create a safe and brave space for my students and the next generation of actors.

Ann: Such a great scope of your entrée into this field. Thank you. I’m wondering how you bring equity, diversity, and inclusion into your work.

Adi: Equity, diversity, and inclusion are inherent parts of everything I do as an educator and artist. You can’t have intimacy without them. If don’t consider the individual experiences of every artist in the room, then I’m not doing my work as an intimacy professional. If I’m looking at you as just a body, then I haven’t figured out the humanity within the work on top of the choreography. I want to create concrete, desexualized, specific, and repeatable choreography that considers your individual needs around this material.

This requires me to broaden my scope past my lens. I’m socialized as male but am a non-binary person living a queer experience. I come to my work with my specific lens. My experience can’t overshadow or negate the individual perspectives of the artists I work with. So, I want to bring cultural competency, accessibility, gender diversity, and religious competency into my work. Because I think when we acknowledge people’s fullest selves, they can bring their full selves to their art safely. When I don’t do that, I’m creating damaging spaces for people and counteracting the purpose of having an intimacy director in the first place.

Harm prevention is an impetus for me. I want to create a safe and brave space for my students and the next generation of actors.

Ann: Letting ego get in the way of artistry has always been problematic. I tell the people I mentor, “Strive to be the most emotionally intelligent person in the room.” And that means looking at identity, cultural context, and the text or work itself—looking at the power dynamics within a room. It means getting in where you fit in, not coming in to protect and save the actors. Because that is a slippery slope. Come in with an understanding of who you are, and I know you know who you are. It’s one of the reasons why we are collaborators and co-conspirators in this intimacy world. I’ve felt that from you from the beginning, and watching you grow has been incredible.

Tell me about how your humanity or spirituality manifests in the work you do.

Adi: Do you know what’s funny? I’ve done a lot of work to remove myself from the work, and I’m learning to put it back in now. I am a Reiki healer and a witch who does rituals in practice for myself. But as an intimacy professional, I decide that’s not relevant and I need to focus on, “This is the choreography. This is what we do. These are your boundaries, and here’s how we move forward effectively in five minutes.” But when I take a step back and look at it, I can say, “No. Creating a positive, energetic space is something you do in your body and practice every day. Why do yourself and your fellow artists the disservice of keeping that opportunity from them?”

Ann: Or holding back a part of your identity.

Adi: Exactly! And I’m learning so much from you. When you did the workshop on Afrocentric Intimacy Principles, it was such an eye-opening moment for me. I have this language of energy, imagination, mythology, and spirit—

Ann: But why aren’t you bringing that to the table when it’s the most fun part of our personalities?

Adi: Right?

Ann: I have a human resources person, a director, and a producer living within me, and these are very tactical positions. The goddess in me, the spirit in me, the ancestors in my DNA—these things bring me joy and enthusiasm, and I’m willing to bring them to the table now. That is an idea I’m bringing forth in a book that’s been enriching for my practice moving forward.

I want to ask you: what inspires you in the classroom right now and gives you hope for the future?

Adi: I love watching my students take risks while taking care of one another. It’s the quick check-in between two actors:

“Hey, we’re about to run this scene together and I was thinking about doing this physical action. How does that work for you today?”

“That sounds great. Let’s do it!”

“Cool!”

“Great!”

It seems like such a small shift. But when we look back at historical practices in higher education or theatre training studios it has been, “What can I trick my scene partner into doing today? How can I change their circumstance? How can I affect them on the most guttural level?” No.

Seeing our students taking care of one another in the space, taking risks and expanding as artists without sacrificing someone else’s humanity, safety, or artistry excites me in the classroom. And having my students call out my incognizance excites me, too. I might be looking at a scene in its historical context through my limited lens and they’ll bring up, “Did you notice this particular moment here is ableist?” I didn’t even see that. I love it. I think our next generation is smarter than us.

Seeing our students taking care of one another in the space, taking risks and expanding as artists without sacrificing someone else’s humanity, safety, or artistry excites me in the classroom.

Ann: I think they’re a lot smarter than we are, and we just have to get out of their way by giving them the tools we’re developing and learning through our expertise. And the potential and the hope in the air right now—especially in the American theatre, because it got thrown upside down for a minute, and we’ve been living through these past three years upside down—is exciting. It hasn’t changed completely, but with intimacy work happening in every form, consent and boundary work is changing the game.

Talking about what lies ahead and what you’re working on, I heard you had a friend who did an erotic audiobook. Could you talk about them and transfer some of their experiences over to us?

Adi: For sure. Kai Rubio is primarily a queer erotica audiobook narrator. So their work is bringing vocal life to written experiences for aural consumers of literature. They’ve told me about what it takes to find breath and vocalization that helps a listener connect to the story without giving too much of the experience away. It’s playing in a liminal space of, “I’m not doing auditory sex work”–which is valid and valuable– “but I’m also not just reading words at you.” So, Kai has to figure out within their boundaries, “Do I feel comfortable reading this? Do I feel comfortable giving voice to this experience? Though I’m not going to see the audience who will consume this product, do I still feel safe doing it? Does it read as problematic, or does it read as a positive experience for the consumer? Is it niche? Is it supposed to have mainstream reach?”

Ann: And specifically for the blind and visually impaired community, I would imagine this storytelling has a very high level of definition. And what a gift this must be to the blind and visually impaired community! As far as enriching the fabric of their imaginations and the consumption of this material in such a personal way.

Adi: And for intimacy directors and coordinators, romance novels are a great resource for detailed descriptions of how a moment might look. This is something scripts often don’t go into detail about because we don’t have the time, right? You don’t have six pages to tell me about how gorgeous the bedroom is.

Ann: Tennessee Williams did.

Adi: True, true. But if we as choreographers are ever at a point where we’re like, “Oh, God, I need inspiration. I don’t know what to do at this moment!” I can reference a romance novel or an erotic novel and see what they’ve structured that I can adapt to choreography within the actors’ boundaries. Especially for any intimacy choreographer who might not be comfortable exploring recorded sex acts as part of their research–viewing pornography to figure out what happens next.

I feel like sometimes people assume intimacy coordinators and directors just watch porn all day, or we’re having sex every moment of the day, and that’s how we build our body of knowledge.

Ann: Not! I don’t have time!

Adi: We don’t have time! We’re doing research. We’re doing deep research by reading books, reading stories, learning from our fellow intimacy professionals, and letting that inform how we physically tell stories. But also being observers of human communication. How do friends on the street greet one another? How do I observe people interacting and translate that to the stage, telling stories within the boundaries of the artists in the room?

When the only media representation or influence you have as a young person coming into your identity and sexuality is based on eroticization–specifically, the attempt to arouse the viewer–then you’re not connecting to your own body or experience. You’re connecting to what you look like when you do the thing.

Ann: It’s telling the true story that is inescapably human. That’s what we do. And the choreography can be symbolic. It could be shadow play. They could be two feet apart from one another and it can be just as exciting as a graphic demonstrative in-the-sheets scene. We can take pornography out of human sexuality. Although pornography has a place in our society.

I feel bad young people with a limited understanding of sexuality are thrust into the media where adults are portraying children as having these very sophisticated sexual relationships. Whereas, when you’re a teenager beginning your sexual journey, you are sloppy, awkward, giggly, and make lots of mistakes. Cause pain. Have to back up and be like, “Okay, wait. Let’s try this again in a moment.” And that’s being knocked out of the teenage story in the media right now. And there’s been some pushback about adults being in these teenage-centered stories simply because it’s legal for adults to engage in this kind of choreography that would be illegal for a child under eighteen to be asked to do on camera. What are your feelings about that?

Adi: I think the hyper-sexualization of minors in the media damages our young audiences. It does what people against pornography argue: it sets up unrealistic expectations and creates a toxic relationship with their sexuality. When the only media representation or influence you have as a young person coming into your identity and sexuality is based on eroticization–specifically, the attempt to arouse the viewer–then you’re not connecting to your own body or experience. You’re connecting to what you look like when you do the thing. Which creates non-gratifying experiences for young people.

There’s a show on Netflix called Heartstopper, with intimacy coordination by David Thackeray, which I think does a great job of exploring the development of romance and sexuality as young members of the LGBTQIA+ community without explicitly showing sex.

Ann: At that age it’s so mental; it’s so emotional and cerebral. We ask kids to grow up and mature visually, but not orally, sensually, or spiritually through intimate behavior. We want them to look a certain way so we can sell things! It’s a commercial capitalist engine around our youth and their sexual development.

I want to get onto productions and into writers’ rooms and producers’ offices to discuss the harm hyper sexualization does to a young person. Our youth often don’t have the wherewithal to understand these images do not reflect their experience and they don’t have to live up to those expectations. If I can change that culture, then I feel like I could leave the industry knowing I helped to make a change.

Okay, I have one last question, though I could talk to you forever. My final question is, have we left anything out?

Adi: Three things immediately come up for me. One of them is reminding your students or your artists that boundaries don’t just have to be physical. Boundaries can be emotional, and boundaries can be professional. You can use your boundaries to establish goals. A professional boundary may be, “I don’t want to do this kind of work on screen or stage.” Or it could be, “But I do want to do this on stage or screen.” So, developing a better relationship with your boundaries is going to help increase your artistry. Human connection specialist, Mark Groves says, “Walls keep everybody out. Boundaries teach people where the door is.” That gives us parameters in our creative practice and creates opportunities for creative problem-solving. It’s how we avoid repeating the same choreography formulaically.

Second, intimacy coordination, direction, and choreography aren’t always about sex or romance. The amount of simulated intimate acts I choreograph is minimal compared to the amount of work I do helping actors navigate traumatic material for the stage. Actors are asked to put highly charged material on stage. My work on Blood at the Root by Dominique Morisseau was to help the actors bring their intimate self to the material without harm. Intimacy directors provide advocacy for the actor, not just advocacy for the actors’ genitals.

Ann: Thank you.

Adi: And my last thing is that we’re not the consent police. Our job isn’t to come into the room and tell you all the things you’re doing wrong. We’re not here to make you feel bad. We’re not here to make you second guess everything. We’re here to gently usher in a better approach to sustainability in creative practice.

Ann: I love that. I have recently shifted my answer when people ask me what I do. It used to be about upholding policies of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and now it is boiled down to, “I’m in the business of creating longevity in acting careers.” I want actors to act for as long as they want to act and not be shut out of the system through retaliation for standing by their boundaries and not giving consent when it is not freely given. Not being damaged by the rehearsal process–and there’s still a lot of damage out there–and creating opportunities for them to be in constant conversation with their boundaries, grow within their boundaries, push their boundaries, and not hide behind their boundaries as artists. Because at the end of the day we are storytellers, and it is our job to shape and shift humanity to a better place by showing us where we’ve been.

Adi: And that’s the word on that.

Ann: And that’s the word. That’s our word. Thank you so much for chatting with me today.

Adi: Thank you for doing this. Thank you for facilitating this and for everything you do as a wonderful mentor.

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Thoughts from the curator

The intimacy industry is under pressure. While many creatives and artistic leaders see the benefits of intimacy direction and coordination as specific care and technical support for actors, the industry itself has not yet created an equitable and inclusive training process for marginalized people. In this series, Ann James, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color (ICOC), interviews eight queer and global majority intimacy specialists about the joys and challenges they face in the industry. What emerges from this series of interviews is a complex, multifaceted range of approaches, training models, and innovations for the future of intimacy that actively decenter whiteness, colonization, and appropriation.

Rebuilding for the Future: A Convergence of Thought Leaders in Intimacy Practice

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