Editor’s Note: This essay was written before the Dec. 11 Artist Town Hall, in which Laura T. Fisher talked about the Chicago Code of Standards that was created for theaters in that community to adopt. We’ll have further comment on the town hall, which was a fantastic conversation, as The Whisper Network continues next week. Below you’ll read more about something that is thoroughly addressed in the code of standards: scene partnering in intimate scenes.
For working actors, simulating sexual situations appear to be a part of the job requirement. Woman 9 says, “If I were to stop auditioning for any role that included that sort of thing…that would’ve been incredibly limiting.” So, in order to work as an actor, you must be comfortable with on stage intimacy. Yet, this is also a situation where it is easy for actors to be taken advantage...in plain sight.
Imagine that you’re in a theatre production that contains a sexual encounter. For example, there’s a scene in the play in which two characters make out or simulate sex. You, the director, and your scene partner discuss how the physical actions will proceed. You identify the places on your body that are off limits. You map out every single touch. You determine how many stage kisses will occur. You make an agreement for the choreography. You rehearse. Your every move is planned. You know what to expect.
And yet during performances, your scene partner pushes the boundaries. These small trespasses make you uncomfortable, you ask them to stop after the scene is over. Your partner lingers a little bit longer in an embrace, they touch a new area of your body, they change stage kisses to full on French kisses, they inch closer to areas that were previously off limits. And yet, essentially you are alone on stage with this person night after night.
Can you imagine how it must feel to be in front of a hundred people or so people when this happens? And you feel as though you cannot say “stop.” You don’t want to break the illusion of the production; you’re a professional. You feel it is necessary to deal with it after the show. How long do you play along with this?
At every performance, you have to step on stage and trust that your scene partner will not take advantage of you again.
From the stories shared, the vital part of this conversation pertains to consent. What do you give permission happening to your our own body? An actor needs to know that their last physical boundary—their own body—is respected.
Woman 9 notes on the importance of planning intimate choreography and sticking to it. “But in my experience, the more choreographed and ‘set’ those moments can be with your scene partner, the more comfortable everyone feels about it. If you both know exactly what’s coming, then you can fully commit to whatever that is without fear of A) overstepping, or B) giving the other actor some kind of wrong impression about where your motivations are coming from. More often than not, for me, it’s been something that is kind of unspoken between two actors who respect each other. The director blocks it, you work it, and you sort of make a wordless pact to be consistent and protect each other. But I think we’ve entered an age where we’re all finally ready to admit that words are necessary. Looking someone in the eye and asking, ‘Is this okay?’ is necessary.”
This is not supposed to be real life. You shouldn’t have a sense of genuine violation as a performer in these situations. It’s like fight choreography, it’s a well-disciplined dance so that each person feels safe and in control of their own bodies.
These stories demonstrate how easy it is for another actor to show disregard to another person’s physical or emotional safety. They can’t fully commit to their character—their job—because they do not completely trust their scene partner. Without clear and enforced policies regarding sexual interactions on stage, the victims receive an array of reactions from the authority figures associated with the production. They range from immediate action to dismissive remarks to the person making the complaint.
Woman 9 recalls a moment many years ago in a production that changed her perspective of trusting a scene partner:
“My co-star had worked copping a feel into our ‘romantic’ moment on stage, and because the characters were married and he was supposed to be getting ‘fresh.’ It wasn't out of place for the scene but it was super out of place in that he was improvising without my consent.
I went to the producer. My hope and expectation was that they would be empathetic and that they would address it with the actor and things would change on stage. I really did think that’s what would happen. Instead, my feelings were belittled and I was made to feel foolish for bringing it up at all. It was a real blow, and it made me question myself in a very unhealthy way. The producer actually said that if I was honest, I wouldn't have minded if I found him attractive.
I was young and I didn't argue; I didn't say anything to him because I didn't want there to be tension on or off stage. I didn’t feel I had any recourse once the producer responded as they did, and it was a truly helpless feeling. I could either confront the actor myself with no support backing me up, or grit my teeth through being felt up against my will for the rest of closing weekend, which is what I ended up doing, I’m sad to say.
I was afraid of crying, of making a fool of myself. I blamed myself for that silence for a long time, but really, mentioning it to the producer should've been enough. And to be honest, even if there had been someone higher up to go to, after the way the producer spoke to me, I felt so little that I’m not sure I would have, anyway.
Women ignore their own health and comfort in order to be able to work all the time. In every industry. We’ve had to.”
If you’re doing a production over several weeks, the performance naturally changes over time. But that shouldn’t occur with intimate choreography (much like one doesn’t go around improvising sword fights). At times, a scene partner will see how far they can push boundaries—like putting a frog in water, slowly raising the temperature.
Woman 3 had an experience like this:
“I was in a show with a man who was in a committed relationship with a person I knew. He was very polite and friendly every time I had met him before this show, and I was looking forward to working with him. It started out well, but now, looking back, I can see how he was slowly building up to the incident.
He started giving me compliments that I thought were innocent. Things like 'You smell nice today, what perfume are you wearing? I'd like to get some for my girlfriend,’ 'Your eyes are so pretty,’ ‘Your hair looks so nice when you wear it down.’
After the show opened he would find me backstage when no one was around. He would rub my shoulders, and even just stand behind me and hug me until it was time to go on. I expressed my discomfort to another cast mate, and he made a point to keep an eye out after that to make sure this actor wouldn't do these things.
We had a scene where we were supposed to begin to have sex, but my character stops it before we get there. We did the choreography and at the time I was supposed to, I would say the line. Something like 'Stop, wait.' That would stop the action and move us on. After the first couple of shows he would keep going further and waiting longer to stop.
By the second week, he stopped stage kissing and started actually French kissing me. The final night of the run I said the line, ‘Stop it.’ And he kept going, more intensely. And I said the line again, and he slid his hand up my thigh, inserted himself a little in to me. And then I practically screamed the line, and the scene stopped.
I refused to be around him at all after this, and would leave any event he showed up to.”
Woman 14 recounts another story of a scene partner improvising intimate moments.
“I was in a production with an actor who was playing my husband. There was a particular scene where I would run down a flight of stairs, wait for my husband at the bottom, and we would share a ‘sweet but passionate’ kiss before running offstage. It was choreographed, rehearsed, and done the same way every night so that I was never uncomfortable.
Then, a short-notice understudy had to step in. At one point, the understudy asked if he could do something differently in this scene. The director told him no, that he needed to stick to the scene as blocked.
That night in the performance, in front of the audience, I ran down the stairs as I was blocked to, and when I reached the bottom the actor grabbed me roughly, turned me around, literally picked me up by my ass, pulled my legs apart around him, and then jammed his tongue in my mouth.
It was violent and violating and humiliating. It was also a direct rejection of what he had clearly been told to do by the director. He waited until we were in a live performance to do just what he wanted to do.
I’m one of the lucky ones in that I went to my stage manager and the managing director and told them what happened, and they immediately took action. They listened, validated me, confronted him, and ensured that he understood that there were repercussions to be had if he tried that again.”
Sometimes you and an actor may not even be in a scene where the content is explicitly sexual. And yet, a scene partner may still find ways to take advantage of being in close proximity to a person they are attracted to. Experiences of harassment can be sudden, and if it’s during the pressure cooker of a performance—the woman literally has no time to stop the harassment.
Woman 5 notes an encounter, with an actor/instructor when the cast set up for places. “I was standing in a doorway, facing away from him and he stuck his hand between my legs from behind. I yelled at him and he laughed and walked through the doorway to talk to the audience. So all I could do was be shocked for a second and then I was forced to move on because the show was starting for the first time. I didn’t even realize how wrong it was until I told friends I had done the show with a year later. I just didn’t really process it because there was so much going on in that moment.”
Woman 30 remarks on how an out of control actor added new blocking that put her in a humiliating situation.
“The owner of the theater was cast as the male lead of the show. He was a wild card as an actor. The director seemed to have little control over him and it seemed that this man just created his own blocking.
The director was blocking a big group scene: I was to come in, the actor was to twirl me towards a table of other cast members, I flirt with the table for a second, and then continue my conversation with this actor. Two weeks before we open, the actor invents new blocking. He twirls me to the table, bends me over, and physically touched me from behind. Did he really just do what I think he did?
After rehearsal, two of the actors at the table confirmed what I felt happen: he was humping me from behind. I consider myself professional when it comes to the art of theater: if a director blocks it, I will do it (within reason, of course).
This actor was never blocked to do this. He never asked for my consent to do this. I was humiliated. In a room of several other men, this guy bent me over and humped me from behind. No one said a word.
The next night we ran the scene again. Unbelievably, this actor tried to do it again. I straightened my back, I planted my feet; I would not allow it to happen again. I whispered, loud enough for him to hear, “Don’t do it.” He pushed harder. Once again, I had to steady myself on the table as he humped me from behind.
We finished the scene and I told him I was uncomfortable. He laughed it off.
I approached the director at break, and asked him if we could rework that scene. So the director gave the actor a note ‘not to do that.’ The actor fought the note. He said it was just ‘something his character would do.’ Here was a man doubling down on his inappropriate actions.
In a moment when I felt completely helpless, one other male actor spoke up telling the guy, ‘your character would not do that to her character.’ If that male actor who spoke up is reading this, thank you. It may have felt like a minor thing to do, but in a room full of people staying silent, your voice still echoes in my mind.
The actor conceded. We are two nights away from having an audience. We run the scene again, and I’m sweaty and anxious—will he just do the original blocking? As it turned out, no. He twirled me, bent me over, and I felt his hot breath on my neck. Not. Again. I stood up straight, turned around, and yelled, ‘DO NOT F*** ME IN THE ASS.’
Everything stopped. He laughed. I left the scene. I’m not happy with how I handled it in the moment, but at the same time, it is ridiculous that I feel I have to apologize for any of my behavior.
I approached the director again. The director then told us to come in on our own time and block it how we felt comfortable.
It felt insane. I could not make it more clear how unsafe I felt with this actor, now the director wanted us to work together alone to just figure it out? We worked the scene the next night; I made sure we waited until the director arrived.
There were no more issues with the scene.”
Thankfully, these are still aberrations in the community, but even one occurrence is one occurrence too many.
It places actors in a predicament, where some still have to negotiate with themselves about how much they are willing to tolerate. They cannot trust that the agreed upon boundaries will be respected or that someone else outside of their scene partner will ensure their safety.
I don’t think any of us want to say that this kind of behavior is simply part of the deal when we decide to work in this industry. I certainly didn’t agree to this when I decided to become a professional theatre-maker at 18.
When we consider ourselves “professionals,” that name designation comes certain expectations. We should be able to craft performances feeling respected, safe, and on equal terms with our collaborators.
» Previously in The Whisper Network:
- Part 1: Introduction to the series — Monday, Nov. 27
- Part 2: Inappropriate Comments — Thursday, Nov. 30
» Look for Part 4 on Monday, Dec. 18
» If you have comments or a story to share, email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org