Intimacy and Boundaries in the Rehearsal Room

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of the Street Theatre’s production of Venus In Fur for the ACT Writers’ Centre’s blog Capital Letters. Venus In Fur is a captivating take on sexism and male power both in the theatre and in life. In response to my review, Sue Terry of Whispering Gums posed the question “How do you think the current Geoffrey Rush trial and the discussions about what seems to have been accepted or tolerated, in rehearsals and on stage, fits into the issues explored in this play?”

The verdict in Rush’s defamation case is yet to be delivered. The award-winning Melbourne-based critic Alison Croggon has provided a synopsis of the trial so far on her excellent site Witness. Importantly, she points out that neither Rush nor Eryn Jean Norvill is on trial. Rush’s defamation case centres on whether the Daily Telegraph had enough evidence to publish its claims about his alleged behaviour towards Ms Norvill on the set of the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of King Lear.

While I have no further comment on the Rush case, I feel Sue’s question warrants a look at the culture of the Australian arts scene more broadly, particularly as the #metoo movement progresses. This time last year, Alison Croggon wrote an informed and sensitive piece for Witness about the culture of sexism in Australian theatre [this is pay-walled but I encourage you to join]. Croggon wrote:

I put out a call on social media for anyone who wished to share their stories in confidence with me. The result has been some deeply distressing allegations, which run the gamut from harassment and bullying to serial predation and rape. They have come from women and men working not only in companies, as performers, back stage staff and so on, but in performing arts bureaucracies of every kind, in educational institutions, even in youth theatre. They include well known names and unknown names, and every level of theatre, from major state theatre to independent companies and venues.

Croggon also pointed out that inclusion is “are underwritten by a spectrum of behaviours that are in turn conditioned by grim histories, past and present, of sexual violence.”

When we talk about sexual harassment and violence in the arts, there are a couple of issues at play. One issue is how actors are asked to represent sex (and violence) and the implications for their own emotional, bodily and professional integrity, and another is about creating a safe working environment so that sexual harassment is not tolerated either on or off stage. A third issue relates to inclusion and diversity more broadly, and how the largely white, male gatekeepers create jobs for arts workers from certain backgrounds and perpetuate the telling of certain kinds of stories.

With regard to the first issue, I had until recently taken it for granted that rehearsals are negotiations of power and boundaries between performers. Surely, I thought, actors are carrying out a job, and during rehearsals they would agree on boundaries with their colleagues which should carry over to live performances. Boundaries are especially important where violence, physical contact or simulated sexual contact are directed.

But I was wrong to assume this automatically occurred. There is now a burgeoning profession called “intimacy coaching” which seeks to assist actors and directors navigate this space. An intimacy coach is a theatre professional who works alongside a cast to choreograph difficult scenes, but also, as Van Badham points out in an article for the Guardian, “facilitates a conversation between the production and the actors that affirms trust in what’s taking place.”

The ABC’s Beverley Wang spoke to Claire Warden, an intimacy coach based in New York, about the tenets of her practice. Warden says that because “when we’re acting, we have difficulty telling the difference between real and our imagination,” a key aspect of her practice is to help actors develop a shared sign for when a scene stops. She explains this technique as a reminder of the barrier between art and life:

And if you’re telling a particularly taxing emotional story, or if you’re a doing a particularly heavily intimate or sexual scene, it can be difficult if you don’t have a structure around it, and something that continually lets you know that this is work, and that we’re doing this to serve the story — and it isn’t real.

This is important because it draws a clear line. It is not unheard-of for an actor to use the explicit content of the play they are performing to carry on with sexualised behaviour off stage. It would be interesting to ask Ms O’Brien how this technique applies to a method actor, such as Daniel Day Lewis, given they do not distinguish between on and off screen.

It also seems to me that there is some confusion in public discussion about scenes created by two actors who “have chemistry,” and what actually constitutes that chemistry. In the Q&A episode of 29 October, filmed at the pop-up Globe in Sydney, the discussion turned to the negotiation of performances in sexual scenes. Tony Jones asked theatre director Neil Armfield whether the #metoo movement was having a “chilling effect” in the rehearsal room.  Armfield stated:

I think that there is …in the act of playing, whether…and acting, there is… sexual energy, which, in a sense, is part of an actor’s way of connecting to the audience, as much as connecting within the cast. And I just…and I think that means that we have to be particularly mindful and particularly respectful.

Armfield subsequently went on to say that, though respect and trust are important, the ability to engage in play should not be affected. I have paraphrased Armfield here and a long discussion did ensue on the program, so make sure you watch the episode or read the transcript on the website.

My point in raising this, though, is to question whether the connection actors develop with each other is sexual energy in the literal sense. I recently read the excellent addition to Black Inc.’s Writers On Writers series Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee. Dovey discusses jouissance, the psychoanalytic concept of intellectual ecstasy that was developed by the French theorist Roland Barthes. She quotes French actress Juliette Binoche, who has said that when making a film she needs to have an erotic relationship with the director. Dovey explains that La Binoche does not mean she sleeps with the director, but that they have an intense intellectual relationship that gives rise to jouissance. I wonder if it is this form of connection that actors are, or should be, striving towards. Because if it is not- if it’s sexual connection in the literal sense- surely we run the risk of perpetuating the key message underpinning our society’s sexism: that women only amount to their bodies, and what they do with their bodies is determined by other people.

So does Venus In Fur have anything to say about sexual harassment in theatre? Sure. To recap, Ives’ play revolves around a playwright and director, Thomas Novachek, who is staging an adaptation of the (real life) nineteenth century sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch. The two main characters of the book (and the play that Novachek directs within the larger play) are Vanda von Dunayev and Severin Kushemski. Thomas agrees to let Wanda, an aspiring actress, do a read-through, during which she displays an uncanny grasp on the character of the fictional Vanda. As the read-through progresses, the line between acting and reality becomes blurred, and power constantly shifts as Wanda probes Thomas’s motivations and interpretations of Sacher-Masoch’s work.

By unsettling boundaries between the audition and the play, the audience is pushed to think hard about which character wields power. This is reinforced by the dialogue which explicitly reflects on the roles of the theatre director and actor. After succumbing to Wanda’s goading, he shows her how he would perform both the roles of Vanda and Kushemski. With the shoe on the other foot, Novachek exclaims “This is so hard. I can’t believe I put actors through this.”

By blurring play and reality, Ives is also able to examine the casting of women in theatre and how the roles written for them are generated within a patriarchal, and, potentially, misogynistic context. Novachek says, “[w]e’re all easily explicable. What we’re not is… easily extricable.” The question “extricable from what?” is left hanging, but it raises the spectre of our socially conditioned biases and how those in power are not pushed to reflect on, or change, their attitudes. Further on this point, as I argued in my original piece, there are suggestions in the play that Vanda’s role is a projection of Novachek’s own unconscious desires, which bleeds into the bigger question in theatre and film of the substance of women’s roles, and how women exercise control over the way we are represented in cultural texts.

As Venus In Fur progresses it gets very heated and there are some scenes that portray physical and sexual contact. While watching the performance, I wished I had been present in the rehearsal room to witness how the action had been choreographed. Given Caroline Stacey directed the play, I can safely assume that teasing out the nuanced performances of Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards would be a great lesson for us in all the negotiation of boundaries and the unpicking of our society’s misogyny.

One thought on “Intimacy and Boundaries in the Rehearsal Room”

  1. What a thorough and thoughtful answer to my question Amy! I too heard those interviews with the intimacy coach and found it all fascinating, because, like you, I had assumed all this would be negotiated between the actors and director but clearly not. (And, if I’d really thought about it, I would have realised not because we see so many examples of where the “pretend” relationship turns into a “real” one. Anyhow, you have teased out a lot of implications and ramifications of the wider issue. I was intrigued, for example, by your comment about the way we audience members often talk about “chemistry” but, as you say, what do we mean by that? We are, I’d say, romanticising it and “wanting” that blurring between fiction and reality (even while believing ourselves sophisticated and aware that we are watching a construction, a fiction.) I’m going to try to remember to talk to some friends about this. This blurring between fiction and reality underpins so much of the way we approach the arts.

    I liked your point about the “Geoffrey Rush trial” not being about Rush or Norvill being on trial but the newspaper which published the claims. I commented to my husband the other day, after a news report on the Craig McLachlan defamation case, that it feels strange or even skewed, really, that these cases have ended up with the accused male on the attack in a defamation case rather than the real issue – the harassment/abuse itself – being specifically tried. That’s another issue worth teasing out in this whole business, it seems to me. What does this say about the culture of sexism and how it plays out?

    Anyhow, thanks for this post. You’ve articulated your ideas well and I enjoyed it.

    Liked by 1 person

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