Measure for Measure

Friday, Jan. 11–Sunday, Jan. 27

8 p.m. Thu.–Sat./3 p.m. Sun., $14–$24

Raleigh Little Theatre, Raleigh

Rosemary Richards, who stars as Isabella in Measure for Measure at Raleigh Little Theatre, still remembers all of the guidance she got for one of her most intimate scenes on stage in high school.

“The director said, ‘OK, this is where you kiss. Figure it out,’” she recalls.

During a college production of Romeo and Juliet, Women’s Theatre Festival director Ashley Popio and her romantic scene partner were sent off to a room, alone, and told to “just practice until it looked realistic.” Measure’s director, Rebecca Blum, was also once dispatched to an empty room to work out a sex scene with a costar.

“It was very awkward and, frankly, unsafe,” Blum says. As neither she nor her partner knew exactly what the director wanted, further humiliation awaited when they ran the scene in rehearsal. “The director said, in front of everybody, that no one would believe we were lovers because our pelvises weren’t touching. At that stage in my life, it was all so embarrassing.”

Physical intimacy, from the tender to the traumatic, has been a part of the theater for as long as plays have been written. But until the advent of intimacy direction in recent years, no standard protocols have existed to ensure the safety of actors. The emerging discipline has been having a popular-culture moment since actor Emily Meade insisted that an intimacy director work with her on The Deuce, HBO’s series about New York City’s adult film industry in the 1970s. HBO subsequently announced that it would start using them in all series and films featuring intimate content. Meade’s demand didn’t just come as #MeToo was shaking the foundations of the entertainment industry; it also followed a series of infamous episodes in motion-picture history in which directors from Alfred Hitchcock to Darren Aronofsky filmed actors in dangerous or degrading circumstances without their informed consent.

In live theater, actors and directors have largely stumbled their way through intimate depictions in the best of circumstances. In the worst, sexual predators have exploited the situation, injuring others for their own gratification. In a recent Chicago Reader exposé that rocked the American theater community, more than thirty members of Chicago’s Profiles Theatre alleged that one of the company’s artistic directors had physically and psychologically abused costars, crew members, and acting students in serial episodes of sexual harassment and physical assaults dating back to the nineties. Those revelations closed the twenty-eight-year-old company and sparked an online group of theater members called Not in Our House to develop the Chicago Theatre Standards, a thirty-three-page document establishing protocols to prevent and respond to unsafe practices.

When Ashley Popio chose Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) for the 2018 Women’s Theatre Festival, staff members Katy Koop and Johannah Maynard Edwards asked Alicia Rodis, the cofounder of Intimacy Directors International—who worked with Meade on The Deuce—to help her create a scene with sexual interactions that were difficult to portray. Popio and local fight choreographer Jeff A.R. Jones brought Rodis to Raleigh in May to choreograph the scene and conduct a daylong workshop in intimacy direction for professionals. The next month, Popio invited intimacy director Cara Rawlings from Virginia Tech to conduct a shorter workshop for the festival’s twenty-four-hour OccupyCon.

“Actors and directors have been conditioned to think that when a director tells you what to do, you do it,” Popio says. “That’s particularly dangerous with sex scenes.”

Raleigh Little Theatre artistic director Patrick Torres notes the “huge perceived and concrete power differential” in theater, where actors who tell a director no for any reason have traditionally run the risk of being fired or gaining a reputation as being difficult, both detrimental to their careers.

“That’s how I often felt as an actor,” Blum says. “When would I ever work again?”

Torres was interested in looking at Measure for Measure through the lens of #MeToo. In Shakespeare’s drama, Isabella, a virtuous young woman about to enter a nunnery, runs afoul of corrupt, hypocritical Lord Angelo, who’s been temporarily left in charge of Vienna. Angelo has staged a high-profile morality campaign, supposedly to cleanse the city of its brothels and immoral sexual activity; Isabella has come to plead for the life of her brother, Claudio, who’s been condemned to death under Angelo’s reign for having premarital sex with his fiancée, Juliet. Angelo agrees to spare Claudio’s life, but only if Isabella will have sex with him. When she refuses and threatens to expose Angelo’s lechery, he smugly boasts that no one will believe her word against his.

“It speaks to the heart of the #MeToo movement,” Torres says. But he knew that he needed to hire both a female director and an intimacy director. That need became greater as Blum began exploring the present-day message of Measure.

“It means something different now,” she says. “It’s about the cycle of the way women are treated in society, on every level, from a man telling a woman to smile all the way up to physical assault. All this happens to women, and it crosses boundaries that affect women and men. I’m trying to say that these cycles continue until somebody stands up to stop them.”

To depict the coercion in Isabella’s encounters with Angelo (veteran performer Wade Newhouse), RLT brought Rawlings back to Raleigh. The theater also sponsored another intimacy direction workshop, which was filled within two days of its announcement. Rawlings worked with the actors to break down Angelo’s attack into a series of precise, individual physical gestures—the “choreography” of the fight between them. The actors repeatedly ran the moves without emotional content, “like a dance rehearsal,” Richards says. Then the group gradually began adding in the subtext, building the sequence into the scene. But the work was predicated on the vocal consent of the actors throughout the rehearsal, asking, moment to moment, if both felt safe before adding each gesture. When one didn’t, the group figured out a different, workaround gesture involving a different point of contact on the body. 

“Since implied consent isn’t sustainable anymore in theater, intimacy direction involves normalizing ‘no’ and naming your boundaries,” Torres says. “Everybody in the room has to own their own power, and the intimacy director becomes an advocate for the actor.”  

Popio anticipated that necessary safety measures might also dial down the sensuality of intimate scenes in Crumble, but she was surprised to find they did the opposite.

“The resulting intimacy was hotter,” she says. “Intimacy direction doesn’t just make the artists safer, it makes the art more visceral.”

Newhouse concurs. “When every beat is planned, I don’t have to worry that the other actor thinks I’m getting something I shouldn’t out of it. Within that framework, you have more freedom, more ability to be intense.” At the end of each fight call and intimate scene, Richards and Newhouse do a “tap-out”—a handshake, for closure.

“It just reminds us that we’re not our characters,” Richards says. “It says we’re both in a safe place and we trust each other.”

Reflecting on the emotional protection intimacy direction has given her, Richards says, “It’s something I’d been looking for as an actor for my entire life. I just wish I’d found it sooner.”