On-stage intimacy — theater companies in Chicago are turning to performing arts industry pros for direction

The intimacy industry is booming, with Columbia College offering a graduate-level series of courses this fall.

SHARE On-stage intimacy — theater companies in Chicago are turning to performing arts industry pros for direction
Sheryl Williams, a professional intimacy coach, poses for a portrait outside of the Court Theatre in Hyde Park.

Sheryl Williams, a professional intimacy coach, is photographed outside of the Court Theatre in Hyde Park.

Victor Hilitski/For the Sun-Times

Sheryl Williams knew the kiss was a trick — that’s how the stage direction described it.

But after her male lead twitched his head from her cheek to her lips, as he was supposed to, she froze. The actor had slipped his tongue into her mouth.

“I said my two lines as stiffly as I could,” Williams said.

Williams confronted the actor a few moments later backstage and warned him never to do it again. He didn’t.

Williams was in college at the time, in Arizona. She now works in Chicago as an intimacy professional, part of an industry that’s trying to eradicate unwanted contact like that in the theater world, while also working side by side with directors — much like a fight choreographer does. Her local clients have included Court Theatre and Porchlight Music Theatre.

Kelli Simpkins and Deanna Myers star in “The Gulf” at About Face Theatre. The company utilized an intimacy choreographer for sensitive moments in the play. photos by Michael Brosilow

Kelli Simpkins and Deanna Myers star in “The Gulf” at About Face Theatre. The company utilized an intimacy choreographer for sensitive moments in the play.

Michael Brosilow

The intimacy industry is booming. Credit the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements. Locally, allegations of mistreatment of actors at the now-closed Profiles Theatre, for example, highlighted the need to better protect performers, stage professionals here say. Shuttered theaters during the pandemic also offered companies the opportunity to rethink how they take care of artists when presenting simulated love and sex scenes to an audience.

This fall, Columbia College Chicago will begin a yearlong, graduate-level program in stage and screen intimacy, leading to a certificate — the first of its kind, it says, offered at an accredited American college or university. On April 15, Facets, the Lincoln Park non-profit cinema center, is hosting a panel discussion about intimacy stage and screen work in Chicago.

Professor Laura Sturm (left) with her teaching assistant Elaine Brown, demonstrates to her class how to guide a fellow actor’s hand and show them where they are comfortable being physical touched during a theater intimacy class at Columbia College Chicago.

Professor Laura Sturm (left) with her teaching assistant Elaine Brown, demonstrates to her class how to guide a fellow actor’s hand and show them where they are comfortable being physically touched during a theater intimacy workshop — Intimacy and Physical Acting— at Columbia College Chicago in February.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts in England recently announced it soon would offer a degree in intimacy direction for TV and film — calling it the world’s first such degree (for film and TV, the job is titled intimacy coordinator; for stage, it’s an intimacy choreographer).

“This role is so new, and because it’s so new, there are not a lot of standards set for this role. It’s still a bit of the wild, wild west at times,” says Jessica Steinrock, one of the panelists for the Facets event and the CEO of the Chicago-based Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, which offers training in the field both online and in person.

A long overdue change

Intimacy professionals also have had to fight back against well-publicized criticism that they are an unnecessary interference.

Acclaimed actor Sean Bean (“Game of Thrones,” “The Lord of the Rings”) is not a fan of utilizing these experts during a film shoot, for example. Last year, he told The Times of London: “I think the natural way lovers behave would be ruined by someone bringing it right down to a technical exercise.”

But in the Chicago theater world, at least, intimacy choreographers appear to have been enthusiastically embraced.

Megan Carney, artistic director of About Face Theater in Wicker Park, calls the use of intimacy choreographers “one of the most valuable and important shifts in some of our work at About Face.”

Megan Carney, artistic director of About Face Theatre

Megan Carney, artistic director of About Face Theatre, says the company is fully committed to the use of intimacy choreographers for its productions.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

“There are a million different ways to get close to somebody else; there are a million ways to approach a kiss or any kind of intimate action with another person. The interpretation of those moments often is between the actors and the director,” Carney said. “I see the intimacy [choreographer] joining that team of interpretation.”

She doesn’t buy Bean’s take on intimacy and says being on stage with him (she hasn’t had that opportunity) would be daunting.

“ ‘I wonder what’s going to happen tonight?’ That’s what I would be afraid of with Sean Bean on stage,” said Carney, who has worked in Chicago theater for the last 20 years. “No actor should have to go through that.”

A classroom approach

It’s a chilly winter evening on the 11th floor of a Columbia College building on South Michigan Avenue.

Laura Sturm asks the half dozen or so students in her class to touch themselves — all over. There are a few giggles, but it’s not sexual. The idea is for the student actors to show each other where they’re OK — and not OK — to be touched by a classroom partner.

Zoe Buda (second from left) guides classmate Charles Pierson’s hand, showing Pierson where Buda is comfortable being touched, during a theater intimacy class at Columbia College Chicago.

Zoe Buda (second from left) guides classmate Charles Pierson’s hand, showing Pierson where Buda is comfortable being touched, during a theater intimacy class at Columbia College Chicago.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

“The point is communication,” says Sturm, who teaches acting and movement for actors, as well as being a veteran stage performer and director. “It’s going to feel a little awkward.”

When a student reaches a place that’s off limits —or a “fence” — their hand pulls away, making a bubble shape over the spot.

“I saw a fence around the front of the chest,” Sturm tells one student.

Says another student: “I don’t have any fences.”

The intimacy workshop, held in February — Intimacy and Physical Acting — was a precursor of what’s going to be offered at Columbia in the fall.

And if a kiss is called for, does it need to be a peck or more passionate? How long should it last? Does it escalate? Directors, working with an intimacy choreographer, work through all of these issues during rehearsals so that everyone is on the same page before a show opens, Sturm says. It’s all written down, too — in case there are disagreements later.

“We aren’t the sex police. We are trying to make sex depicted on stage and screen as safe as possible,” Sturm says.

Most of the students here won’t go on to become intimacy professionals, but they’ll have the basic tools to navigate often-tricky situations in show rehearsals — either as actors or as directors.

Alison Dornheggen, who also teaches at Columbia, is both a fight and intimacy choreographer. She recently had to create the illusion of a gang rape for a production of “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert,” at Mercury Theater Chicago. In rehearsals, each movement was worked out almost in freeze-frame fashion.

“It’s important to create a safe environment and it’s important to create an environment where [actors] can say no,” Dornheggen said. “We do it over and over again … so that they get muscle memory; that way, when it’s the moment in the performance, they can be an actor, as opposed to worrying about themselves.”

Steinrock says not every production where actors are close needs an intimacy professional.

“There gets to be a little bit more of a gray area as far as intense kissing, light kissing or a peck on the cheek,” said Steinrock, whose company has provided training in intimacy standards to nearly 2,000 people nationwide since 2019.

She said that the Profiles scandal helped create momentum for the industry.

“It really caused a lot of major conversations, specifically [in] Chicago theater, but also New York, and really looking at, hey, we have to have better systems in place to prevent this,” Steinrock said.

It also led to the Chicago Theatre Standards, a 33-page set of guidelines for how to operate theaters big and small to “foster awareness of what artists should expect, and what companies can strive to provide in their spaces.”

When her company started in 2019, just as the pandemic was taking hold, Steinrock had three employees. She now has 30. She recognizes the pain that has been a boon to her industry.

“I don’t love that this is what’s happening, but I’m happy to be a part of the solution,” she said.

The Latest
Victoria Moreno, 35, faces counts of murder, aggravated battery and kidnapping charges after authorities said she threw Josiah Brown into the water on Sept. 19, 2022 and watched him sink without trying to help.
With trillions of red-eyed bugs here for a few weeks, furiously mating and laying the groundwork for the next generation, you have to wonder what humans are here for.
Thompson won 15 times on the Tour, but only one major at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, California.
Officers were on patrol in the 300 block of South Cicero Avenue just after 11:10 p.m. Monday when they came across a man attacking another man, police said. At least two officers fired shots, striking both the attacker and the victim, police said.
MLB
It’s safe to say the retired ump won’t be missed by a wide swath of baseball fans and players.