Physical contact is a key component of theater, and ensuring that every member of the cast is comfortable is key to a successful show. To accomplish this comfort level, director Jamil Jude, who leads an upcoming ACT and 5th Avenue coproduction of “Choir Boy” (running at ACT Sept. 9-Oct. 23), emphasized the impact that intimacy choreographer Kaja Dunn’s work has had on the cast. He pointed to an exercise Dunn led with the “Choir Boy” cast, working with them to determine where each actor is comfortable being touched. Jude said that taking the time to learn what makes each person physically comfortable resulted in the trust in the rehearsal room going up.
Intimacy choreographers do much more than just work on scenes of intimacy in a play, or moments where there is intimate or sexual physical contact between actors. Much like a fight choreographer is charged with meticulously planning out every detail of a fight to ensure every moment is safe for the actors, an intimacy choreographer plots out how intimate moments on stage should play out. Even a 2020 Playbill article makes the equivalency while making the argument for every production to start hiring intimacy directors in the wake of the #MeToo movement. But there’s more to it.
“People were paying a lot of attention to gender and not so much the racial element of intimacy,” explained Dunn, who also serves as the production’s fight director.
This limited idea of the work has led some, like actor Sean Bean, to believe the work of intimacy choreographers and coordinators “spoil the spontaneity” of intimate scenes — a viewpoint that has been met with plenty of backlash. Dunn pushed back on this mindset, saying she sees this work as a way to expand the vocabulary artists are able to use when working together.
“When people know where other people’s boundaries are,” Dunn said, “then you feel really safe to play within those boundaries.”
For Dunn and Jude, intimacy work moves well beyond just blocking out scenes of intimacy and ventures to truly care for the actors who are working on stage. The level of trust that Dunn and Jude were able to achieve through efforts like Dunn’s exercise are especially important when working with their adult cast to truthfully tell a story like “Choir Boy” and capture the youth and vulnerability of the students central to the story.
In “Choir Boy,” Academy Award winner Tarell Alvin McCraney tells a coming of age story through the eyes and experiences of a group of young Black students at Charles R. Drew Prep School for Boys. One student, Pharus, is the leader of the school’s renowned gospel choir, but when he sings the school’s anthem at a graduation ceremony, he’s met with homophobic slurs from a fellow student. McCraney’s play explores themes of sexuality, race, bullying and acceptance within the lives of these students.
Though the play does include scenes of nudity, Jude and Dunn explained that caring for their cast of Black actors means extending that care to all aspects of the production process. By doing so, they create a space for the actors to comfortably play with the innocence of a first kiss or work on balancing the awkwardness of these young men discovering many feelings for the first time in their lives.
“One of the things we had discussions about is, the two groups that don’t get to be children are Black boys and queer youth,” Dunn said. “They’re aged up because people sexualize them. They’re aged up because people literally cannot see them for the age that they are.”
Dunn estimated she’s taught over 500 intimacy choreographers in her career so far, leading workshops around the world. When she teaches the work, Dunn traces the ideas of it back to Black feminism. She pointed to influential figures like Barbara Ann Teer, the founder of Harlem’s National Black Theatre, and efforts to talk about the psychological effects of doing 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 may be tough to shake. These are all steps in an effort to create a professional workspace for the actors.
Jude said this is one of the first times he’s worked with an intimacy choreographer — one of his few previous experiences came during production of “Paradise Blue” in Atlanta, where Jude serves as artistic director of True Colors Theatre Company. And though Dunn and Jude have known each other for about three years, working on short projects together, they were finally able to work more extensively together in these particular roles while working on a previous production of “Choir Boy” that ran earlier this year at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts.
“What helped us with ‘Choir Boy’ was not just in navigating the nudity, but establishing a vocabulary that everybody felt like they could build from,” Jude said. “The room has set a tone of informed consent, of asking for permission, of taking care of the other people and their safety and privacy. I can’t imagine now having a process that doesn’t involve that level of caretaking in the beginning, whether there are ‘intimate scenes’ to be choreographed or not.”
Jude believes these principles that come with intimacy work should be incorporated into ground-setting conversations that take place at the beginning of 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 includes considering the relationship between the actors on stage and the audience watching them.
“What is it that we want to leave the audience feeling?” Jude discussed with Dunn, particularly around a delicate point in the play where a sweet, intimate moment between two of the students turns into a moment of violence. “How do we want to invite the audience to not be voyeurs, but feel like they are in a position of privilege to watch the joy two young Black boys can find with one another?”
Jude recalled being told during his work on “Choir Boy” in Denver, that many in the audience might be seeing a nude Black man on stage for the first time. Dunn said she had recently met with the front of house team in Seattle to make sure everyone is working together to ensure audience members keep their cellphones off. It’s an especially crucial conversation following the leaked footage of Jesse Williams during a nude scene on Broadway in “Take Me Out,” a recently revived 2002 play about biracial baseball star who publicly comes out as gay.
Jude emphasized the value of being able to share a story that engages with 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 rewarding that we get to share this gift with the audience,” Jude said. “As an audience member, you are taught how to better love Black boys.”
Dunn credits Jude for creating such a truly inviting, collaborative room for Black artists, adding, “that’s no small feat in predominantly white institutions.” Dunn said that as the mother of three sons, she’s actively thinking about the fact that two of them want to go into theater.
“So what are we creating for them?” Dunn said. “This is aspirational to me. This is the room I hope both my students and my sons find themselves in — one that people are being this thoughtful and this creative.”