Michael Phillips: Performing a kiss or a caress can be taught. A Chicago intimacy coordinator discusses the fine art of making an actor’s job less weird

Tribune Content Agency

CHICAGO — “OK. We’re going to go through kissing right now.”

That isn’t quite what it sounds like. With nine of his Columbia College Chicago undergraduate students, in Room 226 of the 916 Wabash Building, Greg Geffrard crisscrosses the classroom studio. His mission: Teach the next generation of theater and film workers what it takes to guide actors in moments of intimacy you actually believe. And do it so that future performers can deliver these tricky, often nakedly revealing moments of storytelling, or violence, or emotional devastation, without suffering undue post-performance fallout.

The class: Intimacy Choreography/Directing. Columbia College is building on the newly popular stage and screen intimacy field with a 16-credit, graduate-level certificate program new this fall called, simply, Intimacy for Stage and Screen. It’s the first of its kind, according to school officials, in any accredited American college or university.

Geffrard’s class this particular day focuses on a two-person, four-line script. It goes like this:

That was fun


Good night

Good night

The students pair off and deliver their lines different ways. Sometimes it’s a scene between two friends saying goodnight. Sometimes Character A thinks it’s a date, and Character B does not. Then it transforms into a fully consensual date, leading to a fully consensual kiss.

But the kiss is not a kiss, at least not at this point in the semester. The students use “placeholders,” in which a high-five signifies a closed-mouth kiss, an open-mouth kiss is indicated by the interlacing of fingers. It’s intimacy plus metaphor, and even in the classroom, metaphors have ways of making you see and feel something anew.

When HBO hired intimacy coordinator and Intimacy Directors International co-founder Alicia Rodis in 2018, putting her to work on “The Deuce” and many other projects, it was clear: The winds of change, post-Harvey Weinstein, post-#MeToo, had shifted at long last.

Out of this, the growth field of intimacy coordination (the film/TV term) and intimacy consultation or choreography (the stage terms) carries the aura of destiny. The field is predominantly female; Geffrard is an exception, and a busy one.

A Chicagoan since 2012, following graduate theater studies at the University of Iowa, Geffrard has acted extensively around town and more recently served as intimacy consultant for several shows at Steppenwolf Theatre Company. He consulted with Chicago Shakespeare Theater on “The Comedy of Errors.” He traveled to Boston this week to continue work in the same capacity on Huntington Theatre Company’s production of “K-I-S-S-I-N-G,” which involves, yes, a lot of actors kissing in some scenes. Geffrard is also serving as intimacy consultant on the musical version of “The Color Purple” at the Denver Center Theatre Company.

His goal as an intimacy expert, he told me, is simple: “to give actors tools, the language, and peace of mind. And freedom.” The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Q: Walk me through the last few years in the rise of intimacy coordination and choreography, can you?

A: I’d say the first time that word “intimacy” came into the zeitgeist was in 2008. Tonia Sima wrote a master’s thesis saying there’s a different competency that’s needed for scenes of intimacy. At the time, combat choreographers would get called in to choreograph a fight, but then that might turn into, “Oh, by the way, there’s this one big kiss in the play — can you work on that, too? Real quick?”

I mean, clearly, those were different things altogether. So Tonia wrote about that.

Q. This is long before the detailed revelations about Harvey Weinstein came out —

A: Nine years before that, right. Then, in 2011 Adam Noble created the teaching of E.S.P., or Extreme Stage Physicality, dealing with both stage violence and intimacy. In 2018, Tonia comes up with a set of “kissing protocols.” And here in Chicago, around the same time, we went through the entire story of Not In Our House, which came out of the Profiles Theatre scandal. The year 2016, that’s when Intimacy Directors International launched their organization. And then in 2017, about a month before the Weinstein scandal broke, Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard created Theatrical Intimacy Education. (TIE goes by the motto “Make it less weird.”)

With all that, plus Weinstein, everybody finally started saying “Oh. We need to be paying attention to this.”

Q: You were a working actor at that point here in Chicago.

A: Yes, and about to become a sexual assault prevention educator. Here’s the thing: I was working with military personnel on how to create consent-based work environments, and working also on upstander intervention training. I was doing all this work on creating consent in the workplace. But I kept not seeing it in my primary space, which was the theater in Chicago.

What happened at Profiles, I mean, that was something everyone knew about. Friends didn’t let friends work at that theater — but nobody was actually doing anything to stop what was happening, during the run of “Killer Joe” (and other plays). When the scandal went public it felt odd. What a lot of us realized is that it all sort of related to this idea of Chicago theater, raw! In your face!

Q. Which is one of the more harmful cliches that ever hit this town.

A. Right! That harmful behavior was right there on stage, in our faces. And we wanted more of it. People were getting slapped around for real, pushed around, really beaten up. And that show got rave reviews. All of that (stage violence) should have been simulated.

Q: With film vs. theater in the intimacy realm, do you think it’s easier, more common to see performers become “gotcha” victims on camera, coerced into something they don’t feel safe doing?

A: Oddly it may be more of an issue with stage work. Film and television, it’s less about rehearsal. With film it’s usually clear about what’s happening for actors going into a scene. In the theater, you’re rehearsing for a few weeks. The actors likely know there’ll be intimacy in this or that scene, or if a scene requires nudity of some kind. But it’s often less specific on the page. It’s more like, “We’ll figure it out in the rehearsal room,” so actors are constantly working from a place of not enough information. The intimacy coordinator on a film or TV project can usually say, no, that wasn’t agreed upon. If the director wants to add something (to a scene), even if the actor agrees to it, they have to be given an additional 24 hours before it’s actually filmed.

Q: College-age students right now, they’re dealing with a heavy set of social-emotional challenges, coming through COVID. Working on intimacy staging and film work with young students, is your experience very different from your experience with older adults?

A: What I’m finding with young people is what’s happening with all people, really. Three things: One, we’re coming out of a period where we’ve been deprived of touch. That’s something we really need to be talking about more. What has that done to people? They’re literally out of touch with their community. Young people deprived of ordinary human touch, they’re also watching the world engage in a conversation they may not ever have had about what consent looks like, and the rules of asking permission.

One of the first tools I give students is the ability to say no to things. Right now that’s with undergraduates here at Columbia, teaching intimacy classes. A lot of people think that we’re there to “shut down” the work. No. I’m here to ask people what they need (for intimate scenes), and to help them not suffer through something to get there.

I still get looks sometimes when I walk into a room, for two reasons. One, This is a field dominated by women, and folks think of this as “care work,” which historically is women’s work. And two, if we’re being frank about it: As a Black man, historically I am not the face of safety. I’m the only cis-het Black male I know doing this work, which was also true when I was doing sexual assault prevention work.

I won’t lie and say everyone has embraced having an intimacy consultant or choreographer in the rehearsal room. There are folks who think: “I’ve done this kind of work. I know what my process looks like. And I don’t want anyone coming in to potentially hinder that work.” Now, it may be that if you’re a director who needs complete and utter dominance in your rehearsal room, you’re probably not running a great room, to begin with. But in many cases, these people are simply working with other people who might not be at the same place in their careers, or the same comfort level. This is why we have to build blueprints around these moments of intimacy.

It’s all about setting up a plan, and then a plan B. If a scene calls for nudity on stage, do the performers understand what’s meant by nudity? Specifically? Full frontal? Backside? Do they need modesty garments? Who’s going to be in the wings while the scene is happening? Will there be someone there to hand them robes after they walk offstage? It’s all stage management in a way, and putting plans in motion.

There are folks who may be reluctant to see the value in what I’m doing. They might have come up a different way, at a different time, when (actors) were expected to come in, do the work, just deal with it, whatever “it” was. But I want to be in a space where intimacy is not just a trending topic.