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Jessica Morgan: Advancing the theatrical art of faking it

Jessica Morgan

She choreographs breaths around kisses so actors can sing while they smooch. With costumers, she ensures bucket skirts or cowboy hats don’t impede onstage embraces. And she workshops intensively with cast and directors to establish boundaries for everyone involved in intimate scenes.

Intimacy directors are becoming part of the creative team from the beginning as we realize it's not only about keeping people safe, which is a big part, but about the artistry. How can an intimacy director help tell the story?

Movement coach Jessica Morgan is one of theater's rising generation of intimacy directors, expert choreographers trained to create consensual, safe spaces onstage and off. 

It was West Virginia University’s 2018 student production of “Cloud Nine” that changed everything for Morgan. Caryl Churchill’s play didn’t involve nudity, but one scene had enough “touching and exploration,” she recalled, for her to see the importance of constructing a tightly choreographed experience for the actors. She needed to control the action in a way that would be coherent and compelling to the audience and comfortable and respectful for the cast.

Morgan found that process so productive that once the show wrapped, she kept searching for resources. She discovered that two years earlier, Intimacy Directors International (since dissolved and reformed as Intimacy Directors and Coordinators), had launched. IDI developed and promoted standards for handling scenes of emotional or physical intimacy, comparable to industry guidelines that already regulated scenes of violence. At the time Morgan got involved, the #MeToo movement had begun to draw serious attention from theater, film and television to the need for certified intimacy experts.

An associate professor of stage movement at WVU’s College of Creative Arts, Morgan was already a choreographer of swordplay and other stage combats when she discovered intimacy direction and underwent the extensive training required for professional certification. Over the course of numerous productions, she has helped to develop protocols and to refine best practices with IDC’s support. Her current research focuses on bringing consent and boundary vocabulary and practices into actor training programs and on helping to create inclusive spaces for trans and nonbinary actors.

Q: What kinds of scenes need an intimacy director?

A: When we think about intimacy, we think about romantic and sexual intimacy. But there’s familial intimacy, platonic intimacy. 

Now, are we at the point where someone is hiring an intimacy director to choreograph intimate moments between a mother and daughter? Maybe not. But I have done some of that, and people are starting to see that it’s not just about the sexual stories. 

Whispering in the ear is an intimate act that could be played as titillating or threatening. Whether or not the intimacy reads as sexual, having another actor’s breath on your ear or neck elicits real physical responses. Even if you don’t have someone come in and choreograph it, we have to talk about consent and boundaries. We might think about the angle you’re whispering from: Can we make it look like they’re whispering in your ear, but actually the breath is going completely past your face?

Intimacy directors are becoming part of the creative team from the beginning as we realize it's not only about keeping people safe, which is a big part, but about the artistry. How can an intimacy director help tell the story? 

Q: How do you go about keeping people safe?

A: I work as a liaison between the actors and director and sometimes a dance choreographer. I have conversations with the director first: What’s the vision? What are their ideas about the story? What do they want to see happening between these characters? 

Then I talk with the performers about consent and boundaries. This is a huge part because actors have been trained to say, “Yes, sure, I'll do it.” They want to work! But they’ll do better work if they're safe, they can explore, feel uncomfortable. We establish where each performer’s boundaries are, which sometimes they know going in and sometimes don’t discover until they’re in the moment. 

Q: You’re also responsible for choreographing the intimacy that happens on stage. What does that process involve?

A: Once I know where the directors and actors are coming from, I’m looking at the script. What’s the story the author gives us? What needs to happen? In some scripts you’ll have specific details – they kiss, embrace, hold hands. Sometimes what we work on isn’t in the script but is something the actors have rehearsed or the director wants to try. 

I just worked on a production of “Head over Heels” that told the stories of various couples, new and established. I worked with the actors to develop the physical vocabulary of each couple’s story. How do they look at each other? Is this the first time they've touched? How do you hold hands with someone for the first time?

We have a set structure where we know, “These things are off limits. These are things we want to try.” But I don’t come in with something choreographed and ready to go. I want to see who the actors are in these roles: their impulses, how they move. I guide them organically through the process of creating the moment, then we go back and create very specific, repeatable choreography: “I turn my head, I initiate this kiss, we hold it at a level three out of 10 for three seconds, then it revs up to a five out of 10 for four seconds. Then this character draws away, and I exhale here.” The actors know exactly what's happening in the moment so they can be more present to help tell the story. 

Q: Is there an extra layer to doing this work with WVU students who aren’t fully trained actors?

A: Students are vulnerable because of the power dynamics. They’re working with directors and choreographers who often are also instructors. They might be getting a grade for this production or the work they’re doing in this person's class. It’s important to acknowledge that when you’re working with student actors. 

But they’re also the group that wants this work. I've been doing consent and boundary workshops at universities over the last year, and a number of times it’s been students who have requested it. This generation of students knows about respect and inclusivity, and they're the ones who are demanding it.

Written by Micaela Morrissette

Photographed by Brian Persinger