What is intimacy? How does this work in theater? What does it have to do with Shakespeare? As the American Shakespeare Center moves forward after navigating the initial phases of the pandemic, one of the new investments is in a Resident Intimacy Director. Natasia Reinhardt, previously seen on stage as First Witch in Macbeth and Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol, leads our charge into this new world. In an interview with Reinhardt, we discussed her training and experience on how Shakespeare and Intimacy work with Romeo and Juliet.
How’d you get your start with intimacy work?
It stems from my graduate work. My first master’s degree was a MA in Trauma Theory and how the body works with it for acting what it means to portray physical intimacies with trauma. Then my second MFA is around gender expression and intimacy. I’ve also studied with Theatrical Intimacy Education, Intimacy Directors, and Coordinators and written articles on intimacy. This all started for me about six years ago. With my first master’s degree, I realized how closely intimacy is related to somatic experience, which I was studying. Somatic experience is the healthy way to acknowledge what is happening in the body instead of relying solely on the psychology of the experience. Intimacy work brought in how boundaries work with your body and psychology. It is all to stay safe and have longevity in your career.
How would you define intimacy on stage?
It’s interesting because I used to say intimacy is bodies encountering each other in space, but it is so much more than just your body. It’s also the mental emotions breath, which are parts of your body, but I want to emphasize it’s the whole thing, not just features.
Anything specific prompt this change?
Studying more about what happens to people and researching the different types of intimacy is not just sexual; it’s familial, romantic partner hood, and friends. It is also dependent on the culture, and that is where that change was prompted, I’d say.
What was one of the first ‘AHA’ moments when you started your intimacy work?
Probably, I need about 15 more tools under my belt than I had at the time. It was so easy to see my gaps in knowledge; it wasn’t because I needed all 15 tools at that moment, but I saw how someone might need them and how I could have that support for people. I realized I wanted to be that encyclopedia of knowledge, but not that I wanted to be the keeper of touch or intimacy. People know how to use the tools, but by getting the language out to everyone then, we don’t end up needing a specialty, but at that point, it could become the culture we have in theatre. Across the board is what I want and how I want it to grow. I want theatre to be where there are no more stories of abuse and coercion in theatrical spaces. People understand and acknowledge their positions of power as either director, actor, or producer. Specifically, at the ASC, I want this place to become the consent and kind-based place for theatre-makers. Then it will open our theatre up to those who have been excluded because of their boundaries.
How does Shakespeare work with intimacy?
It is -ridiculous- the early modern canon and Shakespeare specifically; Shakespeare says the words kiss, embrace and touch over 400 times. I’d say he was really interested in having people interact that way on stage. If you go beyond that, I’m not even including sexual assault or intimate violence- which is EVERYWHERE- in the early modern canon whether they are talking about it or performing it, and Shakespeare, I’ve heard a lot about how he stays because he’s relevant. After all, it’s just humans being humans as we have been for hundreds of years, which means the intimacy is human. It has been occurring; how do we tell those stories and not gate keep them?
What do you think is the best thing to come from intimacy direction?
Open doors. Like I said earlier, I would love for people who haven’t been able to be in this industry or see work or perform it because their boundaries come into the fold. I’m seeing more people have ways to talk about their limitations. In our work here at the ASC, I’m seeing people formulate in their heads how to keep the story going, how to tell it a different way, and how to do it in a way I haven’t seen done before. It has started a change. Intimacy choreography is making space for people and, most importantly, underrepresented groups especially. Shakespeare touches on so many of those groups- I can’t think of an underrepresented group that is not touched on in Shakespeare’s works. In Shakespeare’s works, he talks about women, transgender bodies (even though the language they used is not the same as what we use,) black people, indigeneity, queerness, disabled bodies, they are all in those works. Now, with intimacy, we can support them being on stage, where they always should have been.
How do you start your process in the rehearsal room?
As the resident intimacy choreographer, it starts with giving the company the language to support themselves. We have a self-care cue called ‘button,’ using desexualized and deloaded language. Everything is consent-based; consent conversations surround all our work. It will always be consent-based here at the ASC, especially while I am around. My role in the rehearsal room is to be an active listener. If someone calls ‘button,’ my job is first to say “thank you, and how can I support you in this moment?” Sometimes it’s flagging things like “oh, I see you want there to contact here,” and to the actors and director, I ask, “do you all need language for that?” It is essential to keep this space [the rehearsal room] a consent-based space that is kind, and I want to make sure everyone has what they need.
How do you work with preconceived notions that actors might come in with?
One of the things is when setting up the boundaries and ‘button’ as the self-care cue, and you are someone who can hear the word ‘no’ or ‘button’ and respond appropriately. It’s one thing to talk the talk, but you need to show people the safety in saying no. Then you also have to offer it whenever you think necessary, I don’t mean interrupting rehearsal, but if somebody is looking uncomfortable, you can offer the possibility. If they want to provide an alternative, saying “yes, that works for me.” We have an abundance of flexibility with storytelling. I often reiterate that people’s consent is conditional, and I can work with any boundaries and parameters. It can change day to day, and we can still work to make these things happen. We can find that joy again.
How do you deal with actors who have been taught/told they need to be ‘yes people’ to work?
There is nothing wrong with being a yes person; you don’t have to have boundaries, gates, or fences all the time. It knows that if you do, it is okay, and it is okay to show up how you are.
Beyond the stage, what do you think these teaching and tenants of intimacy give to actors?
It gives them longevity in the field. Once you understand consent, boundaries, and how to advocate for yourself, I think the possibility of working as long as you want increases exponentially because you aren’t carrying around that heaviness. Sometimes it doesn’t work out, and we let it go, but it lets them know your body is always yours. I hope everyone that comes through the ASC and might go to a new artistic home takes this with them and shares this work.
Any stigmas against intimacy you’ve dealt with?
Oh yes. What I get the most is “it’s too mushy-gushy,” “it’s too particular,” or “You can’t really have boundaries and work professionally,” and it makes me sad! It does feel like it comes from a place of hurt or a growing field, and they could have had an intimacy choreographer that they didn’t vibe with. This isn’t that uncommon, you might have a fight director you don’t vibe with, and they might have given you a bad feeling about it. It comes back to walking the walk and talking the talk. Also, one thing I mentioned is it is not gatekeeping touch. As the choreographer/director, I don’t always need to be in the room. Once people have the language and tools in the first few rehearsals, they can practice and make it work. Whoever comes in that space can do the check-ins with each other in whatever way they need to advocate for themselves.
Romeo and Juliet specific, intimacy is written in the text; it has been staged consistently since its inception. How do you approach this play?
It’s funny because I use Romeo and Juliet as my example when doing workshops. After all, it is everywhere. What I have done here at the ASC, since we haven’t been working with a director for some time, I ask Jose what his opinion on the scene is, what story he wants to tell? I then translate it to that desexualized language before giving it to the actors. Reiterating throughout the process, if they have something they’d like to try, or if you have a better way of moving your body than I have allowed you to do, please call ‘button,’ and we will work it out. It is making sure they have the space to advocate for themselves and give them a framework, so they don’t have to come up with it themselves. Breaking it down for all of the kisses, “it is a four-count on this level of pressure, and your hands will end up in this position.” within that, they have to act, make eye contact, breathe, etc., and we work to finesse it together. We are verbalizing all of the parts before any physical contact happens. Like combat, you say things before you do them to stay on the same page as your partner.
What are the workarounds for the day-to-day if any actor comes in and says, “I’m not feeling up to this bit today.”
We have a high five that actors can put in place for any intimacy. They will high five, count it out, and then continue with the scene. If it comes to a performance, we have workarounds as well. We can cut a particular part of the intimacy out and determine where to pick up in the story. It is the same with combat here. We always do the check-ins to ensure everyone is on the same page.
Romeo and Juliet might garner some preconceived notions for the famous moments; how do you work with that?
To curb some anxieties, I like to focus on the conversations with the directors and actors for what story we are telling now, not this other production. Juliet’s “Gallop apace” monologue might be seen as overtly sexual, and the director might have a completely different way of approaching this speech. Another one is what intimacy looks like depending on the relationship; Romeo and Juliet, in particular, are young people, and they deserve so much grace for their intimacy. If the movements are jagged and awkward or poised and smooth, there is no limit to the grace they should be given. I’m sorry, but Shakespeare is dead, and he can’t tell us what to do with this production.
The Comedy of Errors is also in our spring season, opening March 31st; how does your approach differ for these two productions?
Romeo and Juliet had a lot of specific rehearsals for choreography, and I don’t see Comedy having that same level of particular rehearsals. It would be more physical boundaries, and intimacy is still there even if not touching. I’d say the focus is more on the other types of intimacy like familial, employees, and even the nonconsensual touches and experience, not because it is assault. Still, the crux of that play is two sets of twins running around being mistaken for each other. The characters have no idea what’s going on there.
Words of wisdom for young theatre-makers?
Be kind and practice talking about your boundaries. As we make this a destigmatized practice, everyone can contribute by talking about boundaries and consent. As a newer field, intimacy direction continues to grow and evolve.