An entire category of theater instruction exists to coach actors in what may or may not come naturally. Ironically, techniques used in stage combat apply to intimate scenes.
Tonia Sina Ellis, adjunct professor at the University of Oklahoma’s drama school, specializes in choreographing sexual intimacy for the stage. She wrote her master’s of fine arts thesis on the subject, which drew her interest after her own less than satisfying experiences as an actor.
“I had to come up with a technique to teach young actors how to handle intimate scenes without compromising their lives outside of the show,” Ellis said. “Sex is no different from any other obstacle an actor would face onstage. It’s a matter of being open to vulnerability and moving past your boundaries.”
She employs “contact improvisation” when first working with actors in an exercise she calls “water meets water.” Two actors face each other while one tries to reach past the other, say, to pick up an apple. Then Ellis gradually intensifies the exercise so the contact becomes more aggressive.
She also engages actors in breathing and eye-contact exercises. Such subtle opposites as inhaling and exhaling evoke different responses and change the energy between people, she said.
Her “kissing scale” ranges from 1 (least intense) to 10 (most intense). She may direct actors to start a smooch at 5 and change its intensity and length as the script demands. Kissing may be easy for actors in real life, but Ellis said “translating it onto the stage is not necessarily something they know how to do.”
Actors must be intimate with one another in ways their characters would.
“To know how the character is intimate, I find that really fun,” Ellis said.
She clarified expectations about nudity and same-sex scenes during auditions.
“As a director, I’m really in communication with my actors. I know if they’re uncomfortable with a scene before we touch it.”
Ellis considers local mores and even laws in directing intimate moments. She may stage scenes differently in different areas of the country.
Her “real rules” guide actors on the effects of various movements. For example, touching with a closed hand: not sexy; with an open palm: sexy. If characters are attracted to each other, the actors kiss “genitals to genitals.” Hips apart conveys a different message.
Last fall at OU, Ellis directed Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening, about adolescents dealing with sexual awareness. Although written in 1891, the play requires partial nudity, and she had the actors gradually expose more of their bodies in rehearsal.
“The actors were proud of themselves, and it contributed something to the show,” she said.