Cliff Williams III was intimacy director for Familiar at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Co. in Washington, D.C. Pictured are Drew Kopas and Sharina Martin. Picture: Scott Suchman

Washington - When it was time for the big sex scene in the world premiere of Switch at the Fringe Logan Arts Space in Washington DC last month, it wasn't enough to let the actors wing it.

It was time to call in an intimacy consultant.

Just as plays have used fight consultants for decades, both for the safety of the actors onstage and to ensure convincing portrayals, now the title of intimacy director, choreographer or consultant is appearing more often in the credits.

"As an actor, I can't tell you the number of times where I've been told by a director, 'So, kiss there,' without any further direction or insight on where a person's hands go, who initiates, who stops, how long does it go?" says Emily Sucher, intimacy consultant for Switch.

"If somebody is involved in a kiss, and an actor slips a tongue in somebody's mouth when they're not expecting it, that could really startle somebody," she says.

The effect on the actor would be to become tense onstage and affect the performance. But it could go deeper.

"I don't think it's a stretch to say that a lot of people have experienced some type of trauma. Someone could innocently stumble upon something that could make someone else freeze up. They may not mean to, but if the boundaries aren't set from the beginning, if they don't have clear, precise choreography, someone could end up being hurt," Sucher says.

Leaving actors to fend for themselves can be unpredictable, even among actors who mean well.

Intimacy consultant Emily Sucher. Picture: Courtesy Emily Sucher

And certainly, there are some actors who don't mean well, she adds. "We've definitely read stories in the news about people willfully taking advantage of another actor. When there's nobody responsible for setting clear boundaries, it gets very confusing."

Sucher became aware of the need for intimacy direction after reading about the Profiles Theater scandal in Chicago, where an artistic director and actor was accused of taking advantage of cast members for years. (The company has since closed.)

Sucher is studying with Intimacy Directors International, which began two years ago, and is creating a standardized approach to intimacy direction that stresses context, communication, consent, choreography and closure.

Arena Stage Deputy Artistic Director Seema Sueko says she first encountered intimacy consulting at a 2013 workshop titled Acting Intimate: Romance, Sex and Violence presented at the theater company she ran in San Diego.

So when it came time to direct a production of Vietgone at Denver Center of the Performing Arts this summer, she hired one.

Although many intimacy directors began their practice fight directing, Sucher says, she was influenced more by her work in the medical field.

"I teach medical students how to do breast and pelvic exams and how to speak with their patients, establish consent, using appropriate language during those exams to put their patient at ease and empower them as much as possible, so they can speak up for themselves," Sucher says.

That's the way it is for Sina. "We want to treat intimacy just like choreography of any other style. It's not something to be ashamed of, just because it's about intimacy," she says.

"We actually do a lot of de-sensitivity with my intimacy directors, so that we don't blush when we talk about body parts. It's just another body part. It's an arm, it's an elbow, it's a breast. There are names for those things."

The Washington Post