What Playwrights Can Learn from Intimacy Directors
A Conversation with Gaby Labotka
As the field of intimacy direction grows and its approaches are refined and codified, rehearsal practices are undergoing a transformation. Discussions around safety and consent are foregrounded, new lines of communication are established, and artist-authored standards, such as those created by the Chicago-founded Not in Our House movement, are being adopted.
At the same time, among playwrights (like myself), this sea change is inspiring a renewed examination of the ways we write about love and sex. Playwrights conceptualize moments of intimacy—moments often overlaid with racial, political, or other power dynamics—at our own discretion. This includes sensitive decisions about storylines involving sexual violence or exploitation. Handled responsibly, this can result in robust, emotionally resonant storytelling. But it is crucial writers remain conscientious not only of what narratives we serve our audience, but most centrally what we’re asking of our actors.
To learn how playwrights can support the work of intimacy directors and benefit from the knowledge they’ve accrued, I sat down (virtually) with Gaby Labotka, a rising star in the areas of intimacy direction and fight choreography in my hometown of Chicago. We discussed how intimacy directors approach a text, the importance of a well-chosen adverb, and the necessity of innovation, now more than ever, to keep performers healthy and safe.
Hallie Palladino: Your love scenes and fights appear stunningly real—from an Equity mainstage to the front row of a tiny storefront. What’s the first thing playwrights need to know about the alchemy that is stage intimacy?
Gaby Labotka: There is this fantasy about “chemistry,” but chemistry is not a magical thing. That is a fallacy! Chemistry is a science, a formula of actions and performances that can be created and followed, which will generate a perceived reality of connection for the characters that the audience witnesses. An intimacy director can help facilitate that je ne sais quoi, which is really just eye contact, breath, and closeness. It doesn’t matter if the actors feel it—what the audience experiences matters. The actors do not actually have to have any sort of attraction to each other to tell the story of intimacy.
Whenever I am brought in for an audition and a director has picked scenes where actors have to kiss, that’s already suspect. There is no way to consent to a kiss at an audition because of the power dynamics present in that situation. For the actors, it’s implied, “I’m not going to get the part if I don’t kiss my scene partner.”
Hallie: So playwrights can advocate for actors by starting this discussion early.
Gaby: Yes! Because, in an audition, what directors are actually trying to see is: Can these actors play off each other? The intimacy director can make it look like they’ve fallen in love or that they’re attracted to each other. But we need someone who can serve up a ball and someone to hit it back.
Hallie: I admit I’m guilty of buying into the idea of stage chemistry. But for me it’s all about the wordplay leading up to the kiss. And you’re so right, all of that is actable.
Gaby: I can make it look like people are kissing without them ever touching lips. But the more important question is: What is the kissing about? If you, as the writer, decide from here on out you are just going to write, “They kiss,” my job (and the director’s job) is to translate that relationship into action. Or, you can tell us what the kiss is about, and we get to excavate even deeper. My work is to help facilitate your creativity as opposed to add to your anxiety about protecting people.
An intimacy director can help facilitate that je ne sais quoi, which is really just eye contact, breath, and closeness. It doesn’t matter if the actors feel it—what the audience experiences matters.
Hallie: I appreciate that you’re making the connection between what is happening on and off the page. Writers can set the tone by being mindful of how we include actors in the development of a story to make sure they’re on board with our character decisions. To me, that’s essential for building trust and enriching the work.
Gaby: If you write, “He touches her,” and that’s all, I have to communicate with the actors: What is your character’s impulse to touch this person? What are your boundaries to being touched? Or, you may have a very specific thing in mind. You may write, “He touches her gently.” There’s an adverb. Or, “He touches her for a long period of time.” Or, “He touches her shoulder.” When playwrights leave very specific verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and imagery—those are nice gifts.
Hallie: So specificity is paramount, especially in the case where we writers have a clear idea of how we want the scene to play out.
Gaby: When I’m looking at a script as an intimacy director, I’m excavating why the actions are being done. What is the feeling of the moment? Who grabs whom and why? Sometimes it’s revealed in the dialogue and sometimes not. Sometimes we decide with the actors. Is it a character’s impulse to kiss? Or to grab? Or to touch? We start laying on choreography from there, working with the director to make sure it fits with what they want to invoke.
Sometimes we’re guided by very specific stage directions, like in Ryan Olivera’s play Desire in a Tinier House. They were specific and impossible. It was a gift and a challenge. For instance:
Carlos plucks the last grape but doesn’t devour it. Instead, he trails up to Trevin’s face. /He lets out a spray of grape juice onto it. /A teasing gush of rain. /And Carlos breathes. /And Trevin breathes. /They beckon through breaths, /In whistles and whispers until.... /One. Two. Three./ Carlos collapses into Trevin. Trevin into Carlos. /Mouth to mouth. /Chest to chest. /They come together. /The stars explode.
Through these directions, Ryan told me how he wanted his story to feel. The stage directions were about impossible lives and impossible joys, and that was exciting to create. As opposed to him being like, “I’m just gonna change the stage directions so it’s easier.”
Hallie: Meaning he didn’t feel pressured to compromise the poetic symbolism of exploding stars to make it more “stageable.”
Hallie: As an audience member, I’ve occasionally felt uncomfortable or even furious when an actor has been put in a certain position onstage by a playwright in a scene that felt gratuitous and not in service of the story. And that causes me to reflect back on scenes I’ve written and wonder whether I myself am going too far.
Gaby: Consent is always a dialogue. You never have to limit your creativity as a playwright. We never know what an actor’s trauma is unless they tell us. We cannot ask them about their trauma, saying something like: “Tell me everything about your childhood.” It’s not necessary information to the work, and it’s impossible to write for that—how can you possibly predict the lives of every actor who might play that role? But the actor gets to measure their boundaries and what stories they want to tell. Intimacy directors can help them in a way that makes them safe and confident in performing these stories.
The playwright must decide how technical to get. For instance, I’ve seen, “They kiss, they fall into bed, and the lights go out.” At the other extreme, a sex scene in The First Deep Breath by Lee Edward Colston II was a full page of stage directions.
There is a difference between danger and discomfort, harm and discomfort. Making theatre—being human—is uncomfortable. Living is uncomfortable. Feelings in general are uncomfortable. And what we try to do, as theatremakers, is disturb the comfortable and comfort the disturbed. We are trying to move through the uncomfortable. Discomfort is okay; harm is not okay. Intimacy directors are there to prevent and hopefully eliminate harm.
Hallie: That’s a crucial distinction because you’re saying that sometimes discomfort can alert us when we need to pay more attention. Sometimes we can navigate through it to avoid harm. And other times there is definitely something that’s not going to be okay—and that’s probably going to be different for every artist and every production.
Gaby: Exactly. When I make this distinction, I’m not discounting the importance of tuning into our discomfort. That’s a huge part of what we do.
When playwrights leave very specific verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and imagery—those are nice gifts.
Hallie: When you worked on Susan-Lori Parks’s In the Blood at Chicago’s Red Tape Theatre in 2019, how did you approach that project?
Gaby: Those stage directions are both really specific and really vague. Sometimes there are just pages that say: “Breathe.” What a beautiful gift, that open, general, giant word.
The director, Chika Ike, came to me with an image for the doctor scene. It was a painting about “the father of gynecology”and in it there’s a Black woman on a stool with three white men examining her. I made sure the composition of that painting was echoed in the staging.
Hallie: In that scene, for those who aren’t familiar with the play, the protagonist, Hester (a Black mother), undergoes an intrusive pelvic exam by a white doctor with a history of exploiting her. Ike’s production was staged in an alley configuration with actors just inches from the audience.
Gaby: In the text, the doctor has to look up in between Hester’s legs. My job is to ask: How do we accomplish that with the actors feeling safe? Sometimes as we generated choreography, the actors would have a visceral reaction and, when I checked in, they might say, “I’m thinking about what the audience is seeing and that’s so creepy.” Or maybe they’d be like, “Actually that’s a little too much for me.” If that happened, we would collaborate on how to tell the story without crossing the actor’s boundaries. The result still made the audience cringe and the character cringe, but the actors were safe the entire time.
There are ways of navigating actor boundaries so everybody feels safe and confident. Sometimes we can do that through lights, sometimes through costumes, sometimes through really clever angles. This is how we uplift both consent and storytelling.
Hallie: Sex and violence often converge in disquieting ways, in life and in drama. How does your experience as a fight choreographer inform your work as an intimacy director?
Gaby: When you perform stage violence, you don’t grow “in hate” toward the person you have to kill every night or who kills you every night. But with intimacy… Humans are smart, and our hearts are smart, but our bodies are stupid. So if we do things that simulate or activate a vascular reaction in an “everyday life” context, our bodies can’t quite tell the difference. Our bodies react, and that’s where we get showmances. Actors have to have measures or practices in place to remind their bodies that what’s happening is not real. Just like every other non-theatre person in the world, actors should be able to have their own lives, without being traumatized or falling in love every time they go up there and work.
Hallie: Yes, and the showmance trope is perennially romanticized in countless books and TV shows. I was recently reading my seven-year old a chapter book about mice auditioning for their school play and of course each mouse wants to get cast with their crush so they can kiss. And I’m like, this is perpetuating a damaging myth about the theatrical profession!
We probably won’t be able to kiss on stage for another year. And I think that’s okay because this is where we get to be creative in the stories we’re trying to tell and how we tell them.
Hallie: Your job in large part is to keep performers safe. How are you imagining a post-COVID-19 theatrical landscape? What part will intimacy directors play?
Gaby: Intimacy directors are going to be stewards of how we come back. We are trained in navigating boundaries. And now, globally, people are aware of six feet of distance, we’re supposed to be wearing masks. We are engaging in physical, measurable boundaries with consequences in a way that I think will be productive, because so much of the uphill work is reminding actors, “Hey, you deserve boundaries, and you probably have boundaries and you might have been ignoring them.” But now we are in a place where everybody knows that boundaries are vital.
Even before the pandemic, our choreography had to remain somewhat changeable because of illness. For instance, if one character kisses another character and one actor gets the flu and their understudy gets the flu, the actor still has to perform. How can we tell the story without the actors endangering each other or getting each other sick? Choreography is creative problem-solving.
Also, part of intimacy direction is trying to undo some myths that still cause harm, like the expendability of actors and their boundaries, and the romanticization of trauma for craft. Yes, art costs something, but it shouldn’t cost artists their emotional well-being and physical health, and it certainly shouldn’t cost them their lives. This pause, this great intermission, is when theatre will be able to change.
There are critics who are trying to get us back to what we were doing before, which is astoundingly inconsiderate because coming back now or even soon is putting actual lives at risk.
Hallie: How can playwrights think about writing moments of physical contact in our plays under these circumstances? Should we avoid writing physical intimacy altogether? Or do you think theatre simply won’t come back until it’s safe to have contact again, since performing any kind of theatre is such a high-touch proposition?
Gaby: We probably won’t be able to kiss on stage for another year. And I think that’s okay because this is where we get to be creative in the stories we’re trying to tell and how we tell them. Playwrights and theatremakers can ask, “Why do I want these characters to kiss here? What does this kiss mean for them? Is there a way to accomplish this same sentiment and action without putting actors at risk?” A kiss could mean two people have truly connected, they’re being vulnerable, so how can we make the audience feel that connection and vulnerability? That’s the creative thing we all get to solve together when, hopefully, we’re in a rehearsal room again.
If it’s about vulnerability, instead of a kiss, maybe there could be a disrobing or a theatrical gesture connecting to what the audience witnesses as an erogenous zone, like the wrist or neck. Or everyone touching their own lips, even if they are six feet apart, moving toward a more stylized interpretation of the stories we want to tell.
It’s that old adage of creativity flourishing within limitation. It’s true of navigating boundaries and of interpreting text. And that creative problem solving can cause the audience to use their imaginations a little bit more.
Hallie: And isn’t imagination what makes theatre, or really anything, sexy in the first place?
Gaby: It sure is. “Sexy” is a creative and subjective story, and the more clearly, safely, and respectfully we can tell that story, the more freely everyone can engage with it.