Physical contact is a key part of acting, and making sure every cast member is comfortable is key to a successful show. To achieve this level of comfort, director Jamil Jude, who is directing an upcoming ACT and 5th Avenue co-production of “Choir Boy” (presenting on ACT from September 9 to October 23), highlighted the impact that the work of the choreographer of intimacy Kaja Dunn had on the cast. He pointed to an exercise Dunn conducted with the “Choir Boy” cast, working with them to figure out where each actor is comfortable being touched. Jude said taking the time to learn what makes each person physically comfortable has led to an increase in confidence in the rehearsal room.
Intimacy choreographers do more than just work on scenes of intimacy in a room, or moments where there is intimate physical or sexual contact between actors. Just as a fight choreographer is responsible for meticulously planning every detail of a fight to ensure every moment is safe for the actors, an intimacy choreographer maps out how intimate moments on stage should unfold. Even a 2020 Playbill article makes the equivalence while pleading for every production to start hiring intimacy directors in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But there is more than that.
“People were paying a lot of attention to gender and not so much to the racial element of intimacy,” explained Dunn, who is also the production’s combat director.
This limited idea of work has led some, like actor Sean Bean, to believe that the work of choreographers and intimacy coordinators “spoils the spontaneity” of intimate scenes – a view that has been met with much support. backlash. Dunn pushed back against that mindset, saying she sees this work as a way to expand the vocabulary artists can use when working together.
“When people know where other people’s boundaries are,” Dunn said, “then you feel really safe playing within those boundaries.”
For Dunn and Jude, intimacy work goes far beyond just blocking out intimacy scenes and ventures into truly nurturing the actors working on stage. The level of confidence Dunn and Jude have been able to achieve through efforts like Dunn’s exercise is especially important when working with their adult cast to honestly tell a story like “Choir Boy” and capture the youth and vulnerability of students at the heart of the story.
In “Choir Boy,” Oscar-winning Tarell Alvin McCraney tells a coming-of-age story through the eyes and experiences of a group of young black students at the Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. A student, Pharus, is the leader of the school’s famous gospel choir, but when he sings the school anthem at a graduation ceremony, he is met with homophobic slurs from of a classmate. McCraney’s play explores themes of sexuality, race, bullying and acceptance in the lives of these students.
Although the play includes nudity, Jude and Dunn explained that caring for their cast of black actors means extending that care to all aspects of the production process. In doing so, they create space for actors to comfortably play with the innocence of a first kiss or work to balance the awkwardness of these young men discovering many feelings for the first time in their lives.
“One of the things we’ve had discussions about is that the two groups that don’t become kids are black boys and young gay men,” Dunn said. “They age because people sexualize them. They’ve aged because people literally can’t see them for their age.
Dunn has estimated that she has taught over 500 intimacy choreographers in her career so far, leading workshops around the world. When teaching the work, Dunn traces its ideas back to black feminism. She pointed to influential figures like Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of the National Black Theater in Harlem, and efforts to talk about the psychological effects of theater on black bodies. That’s why, as Dunn explained, the work also extends to efforts like helping actors find ways to get out of character when the emotional nature of a scene can be hard to shake. These are all steps towards creating a professional workspace for actors.
Jude said it was one of the first times he worked with an intimacy choreographer – one of his few previous experiences came during the production of “Paradise Blue” in Atlanta, where Jude is director artistry of the True Colors Theater Company. And although Dunn and Jude have known each other for about three years, working together on short projects, they were finally able to work more intensely together in these particular roles while working on a previous production of “Choir Boy” which aired earlier. this year at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
“What helped us with ‘Choir Boy’ wasn’t just navigating nudity, but establishing a vocabulary that everyone felt they could build on,” Jude said. “The room set the tone of informed consent, asking permission, caring for other people, their safety and privacy. I can’t imagine having a process now that doesn’t involve that level of care at the start, whether there are “intimate scenes” to choreograph or not.
Jude thinks these principles that come with working on intimacy should be incorporated into the preparatory conversations that take place early in the production process. This tone then extends to everyone who comes into contact with the production, including other members of the theater company. But it also involves considering the relationship between the actors on stage and the audience watching them.
“What do we want to leave to the public? Jude chatted with Dunn, especially around a delicate point in the play where a sweet and intimate moment between two of the students turns into a moment of violence. “How do we want to invite the audience not to be voyeurs, but to feel in a privileged position to watch the joy that two young black boys can find with each other?”
Jude recalled being told while working on “Choir Boy” in Denver that many audiences might be seeing a naked black man on stage for the first time. Dunn said she recently met with the venue team in Seattle to make sure everyone is working together to make sure members of the public keep their cellphones off. It’s a particularly crucial conversation after footage of Jesse Williams leaked during a Broadway nude scene in “Take Me Out,” a recently revived 2002 play about a biracial baseball star who comes out publicly as gay.
Jude emphasized the value of being able to share a story that addresses concepts of masculinity and what it means for this group of young black students to find ways to support each other.
“I find it so gratifying that we can share this gift with the public,” Jude said. “As a member of the public, you are taught to like black boys better.”
Dunn credits Jude with creating such an inviting collaboration room for black artists, adding that “it’s no small feat in predominantly white institutions.” Dunn said that as a mother of three sons, she actively considered two of them wanting to do acting.
“So what are we creating for them? Dunn said. “It’s an aspiration for me. It’s the room I hope my students and my sons will end up in – a room where people are also thoughtful and creative.