I was thrilled to be hired to direct Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) by Sheila Callaghan: it is one of the weirdest plays I’ve ever set my eyes on, makes me laugh constantly, and comes with an array of challenges of all sorts of shapes and sizes.
One of those challenges is that Janice, an 11-year-old girl with a past calamity making her act out in strange ways, has fantasies in which Justin Timberlake flies in through her window…in the shape of her father. And there are some intimate moments. Yeah. Between a character who is 11-years-old and her father as Justin Timberlake.
I knew that with intimate scenes as delicate as this, both for the actors playing Janice and Father/Justin Timberlake as well as for the audience, we would need some gentle loving attention to make sure everyone was cared for. Like a fight scene needs moment-to-moment choreography to keep everyone physically safe, an intimate scene like this needs moment-to-moment choreography to keep everyone emotionally safe. (Well, and physically safe, too.)
Enter Alicia Rodis. She is a SAG-AFTRA stunt performer, actor, and fight director, but most importantly to us, an intimacy director and co-founder of Intimacy Directors International. Since we knew we needed this attention but Raleigh has very limited options in terms of our own trained and certified intimacy directors, WTF was able to connect with Alicia to ensure Crumble could get the care it needed.
Flying down from New York, Alicia arrived and stepped right into workshop mode. With the cast of Crumble as well as several workshop participants, we were immersed into exercises to enhance our understanding of consent in the rehearsal room. Here are some takeaways from our exercises in consent with Alicia:
1. Yes means yes! Literally anything else means no.
This is the basic tenant of consent: yes, and only yes, means yes! We practiced exercises to test us to make sure we were only responding to enthusiastic yeses. If someone gave an “ehh” or anything else besides that sure “yes,” it meant no. A yes is clear (I understand what we are about to do, and I agree—no mumbled, half-hearted yeses allowed), ongoing (I must agree to everything along the way—just because I said you can touch my arm, doesn’t mean you can touch my shoulder!), and willing (although the director said this is our first option, I have full agency to say no to this blocking choice).
2. No is okay! Normalize no!
For most exercises, we were encouraged to say no at least once. The practice of saying and receiving no was tough at first. The attitude of “say yes!” was hard for some of us to let go, since we felt like we might be letting a partner down or excluding ourselves from the activity. On the flip side, some realized that it was hard to receive the no: somehow, even when it was clearly arbitrary as part of the exercise, it was hard to not take the no personally and feel shut down. But, as the exercises went on and those saying and receiving no became more confident, the no became more ordinary. The normalization of no is crucial to a rehearsal room: if everyone is comfortable saying and receiving no, the ensemble will be more comfortable and creative all the way through.
3. Exercises in consent help you learn what makes you comfortable (and what does not)!
Some exercises were simply partners asking to touch other parts of their partner’s body (“can I touch your upper left arm?” “can I touch your right foot?”). There was no story to be told in these exercises: the intent was simply to practice asking, thinking about where you are comfortable touching and being touched, and responding. Without any outside story pressure (“well, the stage directions say…” or “I need to touch this in order to get to here in our scene…”), participants in the exercise were simply asking, thinking, responding, but, most importantly, learning. This learning experience brought participants in touch with their own body experiences. In building this understanding, participants were more readily equipped for next time blocking choices may ask for consenting touch.
4. Practicing consent makes you more creative!
This is more of an insiders takeaway, since this lesson really set in when the workshop had cleared and Alicia had time to focus just on the Crumble crew. Without giving too much away, in everyone’s mind, there were preconceived notions about how the intimate moments would work. But, with our consent tools, we learned about certain limitations, physically and emotionally, with which we were entering the scene. With our newfound normalized no, we were able to offer an option, hear a no, and come up with new options! By constantly responding to what everyone was comfortable with, we were able to find creative solutions that perhaps may invoke more hilarity and creative success than if we had gone with the first option put on the table.
5. Get fit—emotionally fit!
Everyone, often actors most of all, understand the importance of healthy practices of eating, exercising, and living. Staying physically fit is a mark of health. But emotional fitness? Personally, that was a term I had not heard before it was uttered by Alicia at our workshop. But even without diving too far into it, the concept made perfect sense: especially in intimate theatrical work, but also in theatre work more broadly and in life, it pays to have a full emotional understanding of ourselves. How can we build relationships, control and manage feelings, feel aware and confident of the self, and empathize with others if we do not work on our emotional fitness—especially in a profession in which we build stories around these things? Emotional fitness is crucial to all, but especially those practicing theatre.
6. Consent builds a more comfortable, collaborative, and creative ensemble.
One of my personal greatest takeaways was to scribble down all of these exercises and keep them for future first days of rehearsal with ensemble-based work! After the workshop exercises, there was a palpable feeling of being more comfortable with ourselves and each other and real breakthroughs of understanding consent in the rehearsal room. With outcomes as a ground plan, ensembles can continue to build from one another, learning creative collaboration in which everyone feels included and understood.
7. Practice a closing procedure, like tapping out.
One last, excellent practice that increases the emotional health of the rehearsal room: finding ways to practice closure. Most theatre artists can point to a show that heavily weighed on their shoulders throughout the rehearsal process, and can remember how the lines between rehearsal or shows and real life became somewhat blurred. Perhaps this is not a magic fix-all, but one easy way to make those blurry lines have more defined edges is to have some fixed gesture that signifies “we are done with our work here.” Alicia demonstrated her practice of a double high-five to break the spell of emotional work and let everyone know it is time to release and move on from the work.
Consent is an awesome practice to cultivate in your rehearsal room. When we take the time tocheck in with everyone in the rehearsal room, the theatre magic really begins. Thank you, Alicia, for guiding us through better practices of consent.
Don’t forget to grab your tickets for Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) by Sheila Callaghan, playing at Burning Coal Theatre June 8, 18, 21, & 24 at 7:30pm and June 9 & 17 at 2pm.
This is Kayla M. Kaufman, tapping out.