At a time when men in Hollywood and halls of power throughout the nation are being called to account for past sexual misconduct, McLennan Community College associate theater professor Elizabeth Talbot’s lessons about on-stage intimacy take on a new resonance.
In a recent exercise, six of her students paired off to explore various stages of platonic and romantic relationships through only gazes and physical touches. The most intimate touch in the exercise would be a hug, Talbot told the students up front, along with an important caveat: The students can stop participating at any time.
Talbot specializes in what she calls “Title IX for the theater,” guidelines designed to protect the safety of actors performing scenes with kissing, sex, rape or anything requiring heightened emotional vulnerability.
Specific direction, such as how to tilt heads during a kiss or where each finger will be while touching, is pivotal to the comfort of actors and success of any scene, as is with frequent communication, consent and understanding of context, she said.
Among the most recent allegations of sexual misconduct against powerful men is a Los Angeles radio broadcaster’s statement Thursday that Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, forcibly kissed her while rehearsing a scene for a USO show in 2006, when Franken was a working comedian.
While many theaters are only armed with unwritten human resources policies, directors hold most of the power when workplace issues arise, Talbot said.
Abuse by a director was uncovered last year at the Profiles Theatre in Chicago, she said.
“The director was able to abuse that power really easily and affect so many people in different emotional states,” Talbot said.
MCC theater student Alec Ehringer said intimacy direction could prove especially useful to high school productions.
“There’s a lot of wanton kissing being done on stage that’s led by the kids, and it just isn’t being done in a context that is emotionally vulnerable,” Ehringer said.
The four pillars of intimacy direction — context, communication, consent and choreography — would clarify for young actors how to go about that process properly, he said.
Intimacy direction can use an intimacy scale: a one to 10 value marking the passion of the scene, and agreements on that value should be made, Talbot said.
Another student, Hannah Young, said there are warped societal expectations of college-age students that lead to uncomfortable situations on stage.
“There’s also this weird thing with our generation where there’s this pressure to feel OK with just kissing whoever, or acting with whoever, and not being allowed to be a person who is physically withdrawn or very closed off to people,” Young said. “It’s like, ‘You’re in college now, and you should be able to kiss whoever and do the scene and you’ll be fine.’ That’s a pressure that’s not always said but is felt.”
As the entertainment industry has been inundated with reports of sexual misconduct since alleged assaults by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein were made public, colleges and universities, including Baylor University, have also hastened in recent years to overhaul institutional responses to students who endure sexual violence.
Less sexual violence
Talbot said she believes widespread intimacy direction and related education could decrease the possibility of sexual violence.
“I have found that everyone is desperate to be safe on stage,” she said. “I haven’t had an experience where someone’s given me any kickback from it.”
While working in the United Kingdom, Talbot said a female actor noticed a male actor slowly moving his hand closer to her breast during a kiss scene as production continued. Because added pressure comes to actors who know how easily replaceable they are, instances like these must be corrected, she said.
There are signs of hope. The next generation of actors has less tolerance for shoddy direction of intimate scenes than their predecessors, she said.
“A lot of this has come out of millennials, which is brilliant because we’ve been telling millennials forever that they have rights,” Talbot said. “And now they’re going, yes, we actually do have rights. As a millennial myself I think it’s really important that those rights are heard.”