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Intimacy choreographer Jenny McKnight coaches consent onstage in 'Haus of Mirth'



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Jenny McKnight is an intimacy choreographer and faculty professor at IU. Intimacy choreography is a relatively new field in the theater, film and entertainment industry. Courtesy Photo Buy Photos

In IU’s upcoming play “Haus of Mirth,” actresses Carina Lastimosa and Christin Cato must kiss. At rehearsal early Sunday morning, they came together slowly, rested their bodies against each other and leaned in.

Intimacy choreographer Jenny McKnight asked them to pause.

“Does somebody initiate it, or is it a mutual decision?” McKnight asked.

She talked the actresses through the moment, down to the specifics of hand placement, the steps, the touch. When the time came, the two held each other close, looked at each other but did not kiss.

“Kiss,” they both said and continued rehearsal.

McKnight is an intimacy choreographer and faculty professor at IU. Intimacy choreography is a relatively new field in the theater, film and entertainment industry.

Intimacy choreography is a method of guidelines and protocols to ensure safe, healthy and comfortable production of intimate moments on stage and in other acting jobs, McKnight said.

“For years and years, actors and directors have been left to their own devices when developing intimate moments on stage or in film,” McKnight said. “In some cases, that’s resulted in some abusive or compromising situations. It’s also resulted in the work not being as good as it could be because people are unsure or feel uncomfortable about those moments.”

On Jan. 15, 2015, Chicago actress Lori Myers spurred the creation of the #NotInOurHouse organization in response to long-standing accounts of sexual harassment by an artistic director at the Profiles Theatre. After receiving strong social media support and solidarity, Myers and others in #NotInOurHouse drafted the Chicago Theatre Standards, a set of stage intimacy safety protocols intended for both nonunion and union theaters.

Years before the Chicago Theatre Standards, Tonia Sina noticed a need for choreographing intimacy while she was a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University. Her 2006 thesis was titled, “Intimate Encounters; Staging Intimacy and Sensuality.

In 2016, Sina helped found Intimacy Directors International, or IDI, one of the first major organizations to standardize intimacy protocols for theater and film. McKnight has trained as an intimacy choreographer through IDI.

Intimacy choreography is similar to fight choreography in a lot of ways, McKnight said.

“You would never give an actor some weapons and say, ‘See what this feels like,’” McKnight said. “That can be really tricky, and it can be sometimes traumatizing for the people who are participating.”

When she worked with Lastimosa and Cato, McKnight helped form a clear understanding of what the kiss meant to the characters, what it should indicate about the show and the level of intimacy the actresses felt were required. McKnight and the actresses used the IDI’s one to 10 scale of the intensity of a moment to help make those emotions concrete.

“It’s a really helpful way to quantify all of these things we’re feeling as actors that we don’t know how to process,” said Joseph D’Ambrosi, the director for "Haus of Mirth."

In recent years, the #MeToo movement has bolstered awareness for intimacy direction in the entertainment industry, where allegations of sexual abuse by big-name actors and producers had long gone unheard.

“People who work in the industry are starting to understand that they don't have to expect these kinds of behaviors from people they work with,” McKnight said. “They actually do have a voice, they can speak up when they see something outside the bounds of propriety or safety.”

Intimacy direction has grown tremendously alongside #MeToo, both in theater and on screen. The Netflix show “Sex Education,” a series where a teenager provides sex advice for other high schoolers brought on intimacy director Ita O’Brien, who has developed and taught in British drama schools since 2015.

Students today are very concerned with taking care of each other, McKnight said.

“For me, that’s been really exciting,” she said. “They’ve all been very eager to say, ‘We want to include this in the way we do theater from now on.’”

Ellise Chase, the actress playing Julie Trenor in “Haus of Mirth,” was in a play outside of IU where she was in a sex scene with someone. There was no intimacy director.

“It got so, so awkward and unhealthy, and the actor I was working with developed feelings on a personal level that became unhealthy,” Chase said. “Coming to IU, they respect intimacy as a real piece of work. It’s not something that you should just do, it’s been a godsend to me.”

McKnight worked with the actors of “Haus of Mirth” to understand and apply the IDI’s five pillars of safe intimacy to the rehearsal process: context, communication, consent, choreography and closure.

McKnight helped build the choreography of the kiss move by move, from the steps they take toward each other to the way Cato rests her head against Lastimosa.

“We are creating a template for the actors to work within,” McKnight said. “One of the worst things that can happen in a moment of intimacy is that it’s not well-defined.”

Chase has a scene with intimate touching and straddling with another actress. The cast developed this part of the scene before eventually reworking it with McKnight, but they initially never did anything beyond simple, basic motions and movements.

“It’s gone through a lot of different phases,” Chase said. “The key word is consent. ‘Is this okay? Can I touch you here? Can I straddle you? Can I kiss your cheek?’”

Toward the end of rehearsal, McKnight talked to Lastimosa and Cato about the scene.

“If you guys are ready to kiss today, we can do that now, or we can wait,” McKnight said.

“I’m cool if you’re cool,” Lastimosa said.

“I’m cool, too,” Cato said.

The two came together again, rehearsing the steps, the hands, resting their characters’ weary bodies against each other. They looked at each other, and in a tender, silent moment, kissed.

“That was really good guys,” McKnight said. “How does that feel?”

Cato stepped away and wiped tears from her eyes. 

“Really nice,” she said.

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