Intimacy Director Opens Narrative About Boundaries in Performance
Pacific University Theatre department is introducing a new form of actor training and education. With help from the cast and crew of Pacific’s winter and spring plays, alumni Leiana Petlewski ’21 is pioneering intimacy training in the department, a practice meant to encourage the establishment and enforcement of personal boundaries with theatre performers. The new coaching will involve a variety of scenes that include interpersonal contact, which Petlewski hopes will cultivate a positive, accepting, and persistent attitude toward personal boundaries in the theatre as a whole.
Pacific Index: When did you start working in intimacy training?
Leiana Petlewski: I started my training last fall and did my first show this January, and I’m working on Pacific’s spring show currently. The department decided that this training was something they wanted in the future for all their shows, so that worked out really well.
Index: How has working with Pacific University Theater differed from other places you’ve worked?
LP: Working in a college setting is much different than working in a professional setting. Though this isn’t the case for all students, the average student is much younger than the average professional actor and has much less experience. They’ve never had an intimacy director come in, so being able to come in and take the teaching route and give the students a toolkit for intimacy they can use to pursue a career in acting is rewarding. The setting of a school also differs. With students, it’s like, “We are here to teach,” whilst with professional actors, it’s “We’re here to do a job.”
Index: How do you respond to an actor saying they’re uncomfortable in a situation, or them saying “no” to doing a certain scene? How do you go about that?
LP: My training and the work that I do is built on consent and boundaries. We also have certain tools that we use to make sure that the actor is not put in the position where they feel like they can’t say, “no.” The acting world is often not fair, unfortunately, and most likely will never be fair but our job is to make it as ethical as possible. In doing so, we always go through boundary-based practices and what’s comfortable to be talked about. In choreography, I won’t suggest any scenes or movements that go beyond what the actors have established. We also use this other tool called open-ended questions, just to kinda avoid the pressure of saying “yes” to everything. Instead of saying, “Is it okay for actor A to touch your face?,” you would say, “How would you feel if actor A touched your face?” We have these things so the actor can voice why they feel uncomfortable so we can work through it.”
Index: In Constellations, there was not only a lot of romantic and physical intimacy, but a degree of violence. Could you describe the training that it takes for the actor to do violent scenes?
LP: A lot of people tend to group fight choreography and intimacy training together since they are similar and have similar training and boundaries, but I’d like to make the distinction between the two. Your average Joe isn’t going around in his daily life having intense and dramatic sword fight sequences. But we all experience intimacy in some way or another, and that’s why it gets so tricky dealing with these things on stage. The way to define it for acting is the moment when the actions of the characters parallel to the actor’s real lives. It could be those emotional moments, it could be stage violence, it could be anything. These scenes could be triggering for the actor. So we have this tool called “Button.” “Button” is this word that anyone can use during the scene to end it.”
Index: Like a safe word?
LP: Exactly. It’s reserved only to end a scene. There are other words used when someone’s about to sneeze or whatever, but “button” is just for when a scene is emotionally activating. For example, it could be used by an actor shouting, “Button, I just need to shake it off” or “Button, I need to take a break.” There’s also de-rolling, where an actor can state the character’s action. Like in Pacific’s production of Constellations, Luke Thompson, who played Roland, would say, “I, Roland, am going to slap your face whilst I, Luke, am going to raise my hand at a three point action and clap my other hand to give this effect.” We do these things so that the actors can separate the character and actor, and not take these interactions home. Our bodies don’t know the difference and it’s important to do as much to separate the two.
Index: Why is intimacy training so important? How do two actors who have been through intimacy training compare to two actors who are just thrown into doing a scene?”
LP: It helps them navigate these scenes and tell this story in a refined manner. It’s especially important when working with high school and college-aged people. What if there’s a scene where two characters kiss? How does an actor who’s never kissed before navigate the scene as well as the emotions that’ll arise? Intimacy training can both refine that and also give the actors a voice and the support in that scene.
— Luke Whitacker
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