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MSU professors add consent, care to intimate moments on stage

April 12, 2023
<p>MSU head of Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage Management and a professor in the theater department, Tina Newhauser poses with her book "Supporting Staged Intimacy" before her Advanced Stage Management class in Snyder-Phillips Hall on April 4, 2023. She co-authored the book alongside her colleague Alexis Black.</p>

MSU head of Bachelor of Fine Arts in Stage Management and a professor in the theater department, Tina Newhauser poses with her book "Supporting Staged Intimacy" before her Advanced Stage Management class in Snyder-Phillips Hall on April 4, 2023. She co-authored the book alongside her colleague Alexis Black.

For years, instances of on-stage intimacy were dealt with in simple terms: the director would tell the actors to go off into another room and “figure something out.” The actors would then present what they came up with and be given little, if any, notes from the director.

This way of doing things carried on for a long time, mostly due to a lack of care for these shared intimate moments, according to Tina Newhauser, an academic specialist in stage, arts and cultural management at Michigan State University.

However, she said, these moments can tell a whole story in just the smallest of movements and that it's important for them to be approached in a much more nuanced way.

Newhauser said that productions would never expect actors to “figure out” choreography for stage combat or fight direction, since there is a sense of physical danger that actors could face if not given the proper instruction. The same logic should be applied to intimacy direction, she said. 

 “People are starting to realize that there's also a sense of ... emotional harm or something that we want to just make sure we're doing everything in our power to prevent that from happening,” Newhauser said. “We just want to work in a way that builds a culture of consent, a culture of care where everyone is being considered ... and we're doing everything we can to just treat each other with the utmost respect and grace.”

Because intimacy direction and this mindset towards it is so new, Newhauser hadn't heard much about it until the fall of 2018, when acting movement professor Alexis Black came to MSU.

Black is a certified intimacy director who started off working with fight direction and choreography. In 2016 she started hearing from a colleague about their work in intimacy direction. She was “floored” and immediately excited.

 “As a fight director, I had been sometimes asked to work on scenes of sexual violence and I felt like I had the tools to work with the violence part,” Black said. “I was still helping the actors work with the moments that were more of the ‘consent’ and the ‘touches partners,’ but I didn't have all the tools that I wanted.”

Black then began training to become an intimacy director, which she has now been doing for several years.

When Newhauser heard of Black’s expertise, she was eager to meet with her and learn everything she could about intimacy direction. She invited Black to her advanced stage management class and started working with students on how stage managers should act during intimate moments on-stage. 

They realized the conversations they were having didn't seem to be occurring anywhere else, Newhauser said. 

“We started to put together this toolkit and we realized that it should not just be limited to our students in this classroom or our students in my program,” Newhauser said.

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Key components of this toolkit included incorporating methods of consent into direction and finding ways to support actors during moments of intimacy since they are in their most vulnerable moment as a performer. They also focus on how the entire production crew — not just the actors or the director — can become involved in creating a positive culture around intimacy.

After leading workshops about intimacy direction, the pair realized there was interest in the topic among the entire theatre industry — not just stage managers. They decided to write a book, titled "Supporting Staged Intimacy."

Since coming to MSU and writing the book, Black has learned just how hungry people are for this knowledge, specifically students. Often times, she said, professionals who have been in the business for a long time sometimes have a “but wait, that’s not how we did it” kind of attitude. Students, however, are eager and excited to bring new methods of consent with intimacy direction into the norm.

 “There's been a culture of coersion that is kind of built into theater," Black said. "Saying ‘yes, and’ is what we're supposed to do no matter what."

However, Black and Newhauser seek to alter this way of thinking. Ultimately, they want to help create an environment where people uplift and support each other.

Black and Newhauser are excited about the possibilities of expanding their work. But Black said it's inspiring to watch students at MSU absorb the information and become a part of changing culture.

 “At MSU I feel like we create, in this program, innovative entrepreneurs who are going to go out and create theater in all different ways,” Black said. “And I think that they're going to be leaders in this wave of consent because of their training here.”

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