LOGAN, Utah — The Utah State University Department of Theatre Arts contracted with Alli St. John, a guest intimacy director, to work both with theater students participating in the upcoming performance of Spring Awakening, as well as hosting workshops for students in the theater department. St. John visited the USU campus for two weeks in mid-September, working with both BFA acting students as well as students in theater education.
An intimacy director, or intimacy coordinator in the case of film or television, is someone who specializes in staging theatrical intimacy. They are choreographers, advocates for actors, and act as a liaison between actors and other production personnel for scenes that involve intimate physical contact, simulated sexual acts, or that involve nudity or hyper exposure. Intimacy training is a field in theatre arts that is growing in both exposure and importance.
“Speaking with Alli, I thought she would be a really good fit here,” said Paul Mitri, department head of the USU Department of Theatre Arts. “She not only loves working with actors and doing shows, but she really wants to focus on training high school and undergraduate students and working with theater education majors. We were very lucky to get to get Alli.”
Intimacy training is a growing cultural shift in the theater field, empowering actors and directors to build cultures of consent. This focus on power dynamics helps actors feel comfortable setting boundaries, saying no when they do not feel safe, and not assuming everyone is comfortable with certain types of scenes without asking. This opens a dialogue where actors can discuss aspects of the script with directors, and both can work together to achieve the artistic vision of the work while respecting boundaries.
“As an industry, we're really trying to better our culture to support our actors,” St. John said. “Traditionally, actors are trained to always say yes. They have historically been taught that if you're choosing to be an actor, you are giving yourself over to the art and you no longer have boundaries, and you should be willing to do whatever you are asked to do. And it has caused a lot of harm and trauma for actors. I really believe we need to see this cultural shift and really advocating for actors and giving their autonomy back in the rehearsal space.”
In addition to working with actors, St. John enjoys working with future educators and teaching them how to work with adolescents. She feels that the cultural shift in the industry must begin in middle schools and high schools, where expectations and norms can be learned early.
“Intimacy directing is a newer field,” she said. “There are a lot of students who are really excited about it and want to learn how to do it. If we are looking for this cultural shift, I think it starts at the educational level, so I specifically focus my intimacy directing work at the university and high school level. For the theater ed students, they're going to go into middle school and high school classrooms and be teachers and directors. This training will give them the tools to be able to work with students and will show them what building a culture of consent looks like in an educational space, specifically with minors.”
According to Mitri, the students have enjoyed having this type of training, and it is something the department hopes to implement into future education and productions.
“We're really finding the students are very, very interested in this field,” he said. “If we can give them the opportunity to learn and practice, it'll just give them a step up in their careers.”
Throughout her visit, St. John, worked with actors in the Spring Awakening cast. Together, St. John learned the boundaries of each actor and then worked with the show director to create choreography that both suited the director’s vision as well as respected the boundaries of the actors. St. John worked with the actors to find what worked best for them but also what helped best convey the sentiment of the show. St. John will continue to work with the actors as the production nears its opening night.
“I hope these students carry these things into the future with them,” St. John said. “These students are in the actor training program, so the hope is that they are going to be professional actors. I hope they take these things with them and can advocate for themselves in the professional spaces that they work in.”
Performances of Spring Awakening will be Oct. 21-22 and 26-29 at the Morgan Theatre in the Chase Fine Arts Center. For more information, visit the Caine College of the Arts website.
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