Consent in Conversation

SH My name is Sarah Harlett. I am the Intimacy Director on The Bed Trick. I work with actors and directors to create choreography that is consent-based, that works within boundaries of the actors, and tells a specific story.

AK I’m Anna Klein. I’m the Youth and Engagement Manager at Seattle Shakespeare. One of my many hats is that I direct the high school productions, which is an amazing honor. Young people and actors are often taught that they have to say yes, that they’re replaceable, and that if they set a boundary, they’re difficult to work with. I want to make sure that my students, even those who are not going into performance fields, have the ability to express boundaries, learn how to say no, learn how to articulate what they need. So consent and boundaries became an emphasis in the way that I direct and practice in education.

SH That’s a huge thing, isn’t it? In the theater world we’re taught, we’re literally taught “yes and.” We’re supposed to say “Yes, and I’ll also do this. Of course, whatever you ask.” It is a newer practice to consciously ask for boundaries, whether they’re physical, whether it’s subject matter, whatever that boundary is. We’re at a place where we are starting to understand that we can say no. And in fact, “no is a complete sentence.” 

SSC Consent is an important part of all of the projects that we have been working on, but how has The Bed Trick been different as a play that is really about consent?

SH It’s a super interesting play, because yes, it is absolutely about consent. A bed trick is a non-consensual trick. I worked with our director, Makaela, to also do some dramaturgy for the actors on consent and power dynamics. And there are characters in this play who are college students, 18 year olds, freshly into college, what’s the language around consent that students in college are getting these days? What are the power dynamics that pop up throughout the play that affect whether or not a character feels like they’re able to give consent?

AK Young people nowadays are learning the language of advocating for themselves, but they’re also really hungry to exist in the world. So sometimes you have to help them take that step back and reflect. Intimacy work is not specifically physical or sexual, and I try to make sure that that’s super clear because intimacy is a very scary word!

Actors don’t have any barrier between their bodies, their selves, and the work that they do. So learning what it means to step into a character, what it means to advocate for your boundaries, what it means to revoke boundaries when things don’t feel right or when a situation gets sticky—all of those things can be hard for a young person to lean into until they get in a situation where they realize why we need it. And hopefully many of them haven’t been in that situation yet, but I want to prepare them for when that situation comes.

I heard from a parent that one of my students was in a stage combat workshop and they weren’t comfortable making the transition from wooden dowels to metal swords, so they started employing the skills they learned in intimacy direction to ask for what they needed in order to feel successful.

Later that same student reached out to me and said they were doing a school play, but the directors knew nothing about intimacy coordination. They wanted their fellow actors to know about it, so they asked for resources. They wanted to lead the way, to support their educators in learning. And young people advocating in their spaces is so exciting to me because it is so brave and so scary to go to a teacher, an educator, a person in power and say, “I need something different than what you’re giving me.”

Genuinely, every time I get one of those emails, I start crying. If I do nothing else in this world but leave students with the ability to advocate for themselves and others, I did my job.

SH That’s so fantastic.

AK I think every person I know in intimacy has gotten into it because there’s been a very specific situation where they realized, “that’s something I wish I had.” I started in college because I was in a production of Romeo and Juliet where the actor playing Romeo got really creepy and I didn’t have the language to stop any of the things that were happening to me. So I felt icky and I didn’t know why and I didn’t know how to really process that.

Then I was allowed to direct my own show for the first time and I knew I didn’t want my actors feeling like that. So I got into the intimacy deep dive and I started using consent-informed practices in the rehearsal space. And because the field is so new, I feel like I’m learning new things every day.

SH I feel exactly the same way. I teach at Cornish College of the Arts and in 2019 we had an intimacy professional  from Intimacy Directors International who did an in-person workshop with several members of the faculty. At that workshop I thought—“Oh my God, there’s so much I haven’t been doing.” And there’s so much that you wonder, why didn’t I know this? Whether it’s in relation to teaching or being a human or being a creative person in the world.

Once the pandemic hit, I started taking more classes online. Like you said, Anna, this is a relatively new field so we’re still developing practices.  I take workshops all the time and talk to other people in the community about what they’re seeing, what they’re noticing, in order to continue to learn and adjust the best practices.

AK And there are really simple things you can learn in an afternoon that can make a huge difference. Just adding button to rehearsals, learning about placeholders. And then the more you build on that, the more you grow, the more you create safe spaces and more young people and artists know how to include and advocate for themselves. Because when they realize the importance of that, they want it. They want it so bad. It becomes a staple in their world.

SSC You mentioned placeholders and buttons and then check-ins and checkouts. Can you talk a little more about those?

SH A placeholder is a physical gesture you put in place of a kiss or another moment of intimacy. For example, if there is a kiss, then you and your scene partner might put the palms of your hands together to signify that moment until it is choreographed. This week with The Bed Trick, the actors will probably go back to using  placeholders  for intimacy because we’re in tech and they’re gonna be doing scenes over and over again. 

AK Oftentimes I will have students use placeholders to time how long moments are, so they have a tangible feeling of how long it is to touch that person, so it’s consistent. They know exactly how long they’re gonna be kissing that person or exactly how long they’re gonna be hugging.

Button is my favorite. I love button. Button is like calling line on boundaries. No is a hard word to say, so if you’re in the middle of the scene and it’s getting really heavy, you can say “Button. I need a breather.” Or  “Button. I need to go to the bathroom.” “Button. I need to drink a water before I can do this again.” “Button. I have no idea what’s going to happen in this moment and I would really like clarification.” Button is just a really easy word to throw out into the space to stop the action and express what you want.

SH It’s a self-care cue in the room. Other intimacy directors use the word “pause.” In Bed Trick we chose “pancake.” And we also chose a physical gesture if anybody is in a moment where they need to express a self-care cue but need a non-verbal cue.

AK Then checking or tapping in and out. It’s creating a tangible barrier between when you are your stage self versus when you are your physical human self. I might be your best friend in real life and also then need to murder you on stage. It’s something really specific and tangible, that says, “I am now in the world of play.”

Our bodies don’t know what’s real and what’s fake all the time. So giving us as much fortitude as possible to embrace the theatricality of a moment without lending our bodies to it fully is important.

SH There are some other terms that are used in the field right now for the same thing—closure practices or “de-roling.” Separating yourself from the character, so that you are delineating “that was my work, this is my life.”

Like Anna just said, physiologically our bodies do not necessarily know when we are acting. Our heart rate increases, our breath changes, our hands might start tingling, our blood moves to different places in our bodies. So this tool can help establish a practice to  shift out of that character space in order to return to it again later. 

AK The other day I had an audition and this person kept saying “people are so sensitive nowadays. I need somebody who’s just willing to do anything.” That’s not how this is gonna work. I have no desire to work with you after that. Everybody should be able to express what they need in the moment. Having the space to feel like a person allows you to be more creative. It allows you to express yourself more. I’m so excited to work on Romeo and Juliet next and explore this more with the students.

SH When I was first applying those specific tools in my education work, I had a student who was very uncomfortable with a kiss that was written into their scene. But we discussed his boundaries and got to ask “what story is this script asking us to tell?” We could tell that story 10,000 different ways. And once that student understood that flexibility, we were able to create choreography that told the story, that worked within his boundaries, and he was so free. He trusted the scene partner. He trusted what he was doing. The scene itself just took off because this pressure that he felt was on him was suddenly no longer there.

AK People feel successful when they feel safe and when they feel supported. If you know your space, if you know what’s expected of you, you then have room to put your best possible work forward. None of your focus is shifted towards fear or anxiety.

SH I think about it in terms of creating a framework. I understand what your boundaries are, you understand what my boundaries are. Now we’ve got a framework. We already have a framework when we have a play! If you got a bunch of actors together and you say go create something, with absolutely no guidelines or themes,  it can be very chaotic. So let’s say somebody comes in and gives you a script. All right, that’s a framework. Now we have something specific we can play inside of. I know where the boundaries of the story are. Intimacy direction can be just another framework. Now let’s find the best way to tell this story.

This dialog was edited for length and clarity.