Toby Vera Bercovici '11G finds a better way to bring intimacy to the stage
By Anna-Maria Goossens | Friday, April 12, 2019
By Anna-Maria Goossens
Friday, April 12, 2019
Most directors nowadays wouldn’t stage a fight without checking in with a fight choreographer, a professional charged with making conflict look exciting while keeping actors safe. So why would a director stage a sex scene — another fraught interaction — without making sure someone was helping actors look convincingly in the moment while staying safe?
The answer to this question is a new field, called intimacy directing, and UMass Theater MFA directing alumna Toby Vera Bercovici ‘11G is among those entering it. While she uses her training in intimacy directing mostly in her own directing, she also offers intimacy directing workshops, including one for UMass Theater personnel on April 26, as well as one with her own Real Live Theatre company on April 28 that is open to the community.
Intimacy directing is a natural outgrowth of what interests Bercovici as a director.
“I started doing this before I knew what to call it,” she said, explaining that she has always been drawn to projects that allow her to investigate the human spirit and “plumb the depths of human relationships.” (At UMass, she directed The House of Bernarda Alba, Night on the Galactic Railroad, and Spring Awakening: A Sin of Omission for our mainstage.) Her work with actors has long included exercises — many drawn from acting methods such as Michael Chekov’s work, as well as dance or contact improvisation — that ask actors to consider the kinesthetic history between people and how touch is affected by the relationships people have. A couple that’s been together for decades would have a different vocabulary of touch than a pair who are just beginning a love affair. Even the way people say a name can be influenced by the history between people, Bercovici noted.
A few years ago, students at Colby College, where she was a visiting professor, expressed interest in learning about intimacy direction and she built a class unit around their request. Bercovici explained that the idea of intimacy directors, choreographers, and coordinators — related and overlapping positions in this new field — came out of work done by Tonia Sina, an actor and movement teacher, who wrote about the need for sex-scene choreography analogous to fight choreography for her master’s thesis. Sina found a kindred spirit in Alicia Rodis, and together they founded Intimacy Directors International (IDI), which Bercovici used as a touchstone in her research. The group is now certifying intimacy directors who complete their full training. (As a side note, many intimacy directors are also fight choreographers and vice versa.)
Bercovici hasn’t been certified through the organization (only a few people have, as it’s still so new), but uses some of the IDI guidelines, has taken the group’s workshop and uses their resources extensively. She compiled what became a protocol for intimacy directing that she left the Colby Theater and Dance Department faculty and staff, and which she uses in her own work.
Much of the work revolves around what Bercovici termed “building a safe container” for an intimate scene in a collaborative way, instead of a director telling the actors “to go make out and find some heat,” which used to be a more common practice. “At this point, in this moment, it’s important that universities and colleges have clear guidelines. Students shouldn’t really be doing scenes with intimacy on their own,” Bercovici said. “People can be well-intentioned, but unintentionally create a lot of trauma” when they don’t set clear parameters for safely staging sexually-charged moments in the script.
It’s important, she said, to differentiate between the actor and the character. Bercovici also stresses consent, respecting an actor’s boundaries about what sorts of touch they welcome, and finding clarity about what’s being asked of everyone in the room. And just as fight choreographers create a moment at the end of a rehearsal for actors to exchange a friendly gesture (high-fives, hugs, etc.), so is it important to put closure on intimate moments in a way that allows everyone to leave the moment safely in the rehearsal space.
The details of each intimacy-directing assignment can differ. Recently, Bercovici worked at Asolo Repertory Theatre in Florida as an assistant director, and in that role, she did some intimacy work on two of the three productions she was part of. She advised two straight actors who portrayed a lesbian couple, “didn’t have a sense of how women were with each other” and wanted help. She also coached another pair of older actors, who had to portray a married couple, in developing a language of touch that conveyed their long relationship.
For those who raise the concern that too much negotiation around consent and character vs actor removes the thrill from the moments, Bercovici is unequivocal in her opinion. “The safer and clearer the structure, the sexier the choreography’s going to be. If (actors don’t feel) safe, it will never look the way you want it to look.” It’s often not where actors touch, but “the build-up to touch” that creates heat, she said.
Bercovici noted that there’s a difference between comfort and safety. “You’re striving for safety,” she said, but that still allows for exploration of uncomfortable or difficult truths in one’s art. “You allow the messiness and discomfort in, within the safety of the container.”
More about the upcoming Intimacy Directing workshop at Real Live Theatre: https://reallivetheatre.net/classesworkshops
More about Intimacy Directors International: https://www.teamidi.org/
Toby Vera Bercovici is directing The Annotated Taming: Or, Out of the Saddle, a feminist take on Taming of the Shrew featuring music by fellow UMass alumni Sam Perry and Emma Ayres of Old Flame, at Hampshire Shakespeare, running July 17-21 and 24-28: https://hampshireshakespeare.com/performances/season/