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Fighting Or Flirting? "Intimacy Design" in Hand to Hand

Hand In HandPlaygoers might be startled to see "violence/intimacy design" listed in the playbill for Akvavit Theatre's production of Hand in Hand. For centuries, the extent of sex-on-stage training for actors was learning how to kiss while facing the audience, but as playwrights demand ever-increasing levels of realism in scenes requiring physical interaction, whatever its motivation, the potential for accidental injury arising from an excess of adrenaline, not to mention inadvertent abuse by directors still stubbornly adhering to aesthetics of an earlier era, likewise escalates.

Richard Gilbert and Victor Bayona—together, the team of R & D Choreography—are no strangers to the stage business dubbed "sim-sex" in 1990 by Torso Theater's Billy Birmingham, their resumés encompassing a number of plays involving domestic violence, illegal assault of all kinds and even a whip-and-dagger match for a fetishwear fashion show. The hug-and-tug activity in Hand in Hand, however, is of the affectionate variety, with no danger to the lovers beyond crashing slapstick-style into furniture as they enter a darkened apartment in full body-lock, followed by a clearly consensual extended sexual encounter. So why should counterfeit canoodling call for coaches?

"A good playwright has reasons for putting sex scenes into the play, and if they aren't carefully designed, they end up telling the wrong story." says Gilbert, "Look at Game of Thrones, and how many television viewers see the sex as gratuitously coercive, but the show runners deny any intention of making it appear so—this is because the choreography is not telling the right story. If you have two people embracing, just something as small as whether one places his/her hand on the other's chest, or back, tells you how they feel about what they're doing."

The principles behind constructing a sex scene are no different than those of a fight scene, Gilbert insists. The designers' task is threefold: to create a believable illusion, to ensure that it is safe for the actors (both physically and emotionally), and to ascertain that it reflects the story of its individual moment. "For a long time, actors-women especially, though not exclusively-have been told that hesitation or refusal would compromise their careers. This needs to stop. The Not In Our House coalition has been working on a code of conduct for non-equity theater artists, and as fight designers, we support this, not only as a means of dealing with misconduct, but as guidelines for professional behavior in order to avoid intimidation, however unintentional. A responsible choreographer can address issues like communication, rehearsal conditions and outside spectators."

During the 1960s and 70s, many directors adopted the "sensitivity games" popularized by therapy groups, but Gilbert and Bayona take their own approach. "The exercises that we have actors do when rehearsing fights cover the basics of presenting physical struggle-issues of balance, control and other subtextual dynamics. The purpose of these introductory exercises is to encourage the participants to grant their partners permission to initiate body contact."

Does it make a difference when actors are already accustomed to engaging physically with each other? Chicago playgoers may recall the Writers Theatre production of A Streetcar Named Desire, for example, where Stanley and Stella, played by real-life husband-and-wife Matthew Hawkins and Stacy Stoltz, were required to "get those colored lights going" with their bed located barely eight feet away from their portrayers real-life parents.

While Gilbert doesn't recall ever coming up against a problem, he warns that such a situation might mandate extra vigilance in separating the couple's customary offstage activities with the psychological story-there's that word again-inherent in the fictional scenario. "It's not unlike a scene calling for violence. If you have two actors who enjoy boxing at the gym with one another in their free time, they might have problems sticking to a scripted fist-fight. Just because they don't mind being punched doesn't mean that I want them to trade actual punches."

Hand in Hand runs at the Den through Oct. 16

Mary Shen Barnidge
Contributing Writer

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