(NYTimes) STRATFORD, Ontario — On the last Saturday afternoon in May, when the season’s first productions at the Stratford Festival were still in previews, visitors to its Tom Patterson Theater were greeted with two warnings at the auditorium entrance. One was the usual kind of advisory, a heads-up that the show they were about to see contained fog, haze, strobe lighting and mature content.
The other sign, in a bold black frame, was more eyebrow-raising — partly because the phrase “mature content” had evidently been judged insufficient on its own. “This production includes explicit scenes of erotocism,” the second warning read.
Aside from the misspelling, it wasn’t wrong. The director Jillian Keiley’s feminist staging of “Bakkhai” — a new translation, by the poet and classicist Anne Carson, of Euripides’ ancient Greek tragedy “The Bacchae” — practically pulses with sexual pleasure, almost all of it female. The women in the play, followers of the god Dionysos, revel in their carnality without self-consciousness or shame — a theme Ms. Keiley was deeply interested in exploring in her dreamlike production, which is lush with music and dance.
She knew, though, that she would be embarrassed by some of the things she needed to ask her actors to do — not nudity, which she deemed unnecessary, but sexual touching, movement and sound. Even talking about sex, she can get shy, and she feared she might transmit that discomfort to her actors. “The last thing in the world that I would want to do is make people feel inhibited in rehearsal,” said Ms. Keiley, now in her fourth season at Stratford. So she called in an intimacy choreographer.
If you’ve never heard of such a thing, neither had Ms. Keiley until she read an article last year in the Toronto magazine Now, about an Oklahoma City woman, Tonia Sina, who teaches a codified method of approaching onstage intimacy. Rather than leaving actors to improvise their way through creating a sex scene, as often happens, Ms. Sina designs a choreography that is as structured as the steps of a dance or the pivots and parries of a sword fight
“I can certainly foresee that job description being useful,” said the director Mark Wing-Davey, who as chair of the graduate acting program at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts introduced a class this spring called Sex on Stage. Meant to give actors “confidence about boundaries and techniques” when a production asks them to simulate sex, it was taught by Mr. Wing-Davey, “partly because I’m used to staging scenes like that,” he said.
CreditAngela Lewis for The New York Times
To handle the steamier moments in “Bakkhai,” the Stratford Festival hired Ms. Sina. Late in the day after the show’s first preview, with Ms. Sina there to do some fine tuning, the actresses who play the bakkhai reassembled at the Patterson Theater, a converted curling rink a couple of doors down from a hockey arena. Onstage, the red centerpiece of the set looked like a leaf topped with a raised altar — and also, at certain angles, like a stylized vulva.
Ms. Keiley is not keen on having that resemblance, which is intentional, brought up. “I don’t want people to say, ‘Oh, that’s the show with the vulva set,’” she said. Ms. Sina, who comes across as constitutionally unflappable on matters of sex, seemed by contrast to relish it, freely pointing it out.
For Ms. Sina, the task in that rehearsal was to amp up the frenzy in an unbridled scene of group ecstasy — not quite an orgy, but something like it, all in a swirl of long veils and floor-length skirts. Seeking the performers’ consent for each sensitive adjustment, and fielding sporadic requests from Ms. Keiley, who watched from the sidelines, Ms. Sina added more kisses and roaming hands, more overlapping of bodies. And maybe it would be nice to have a pelvic thrust from one woman as she straddled another?
“But not like a jack rabbit,” Ms. Sina instructed Laura Condlln, who was doing the straddling. “We actually need to isolate the pelvis.”
“Wow,” Ms. Condlln said, about to try it. “I love that everybody’s watching this. Everybody, just close your eyes for a minute.” Her colleagues laughed warmly, and kept watching.
Ms. Sina was a graduate student at Virginia Commonwealth University, studying theater pedagogy with an emphasis in movement, when she began choreographing sex scenes for student productions. “I was noticing that it was very similar to fight directing,” she recalled in an interview. “It’s just a different side of the coin, and it had to be much more specific. Every finger was important.” Her thesis, in 2006, was titled “Intimate Encounters; Staging Intimacy and Sensuality.” More recently, she started an association called Intimacy Directors International, but so far it has only a handful of members.
Her method borrows from the protocols of fight direction, with the same allegiance to keeping actors safe in potentially dangerous circumstances. “With stage combat, you can get stabbed in the eye or punched in the face,” she said. “This is emotional and mental health, which is just as important.
CreditCylla von Tiedemann
The risks inherent in stage intimacy include sexual harassment and romantic entanglement. Ms. Sina said safety depended partly on clear and respectful discussion, partly on always having a third party in the room to observe any rehearsal and also on strict adherence to the choreography.
“Once they have the skeleton of the scene, then the actors can feel free to improv within the moves that I’ve given them,” Ms. Sina said. “And there’s no surprises. There’s no ‘Where is his hand going? Is he doing that on purpose? Is that him or is that the character? Do I have feelings for him now? Does he like me?’”
The Stratford Festival is Ms. Sina’s most prestigious gig thus far in a career built more on giving workshops about stage intimacy than on choreographing professional productions.
Ms. Condlln, who had done only one onstage sex scene before “Bakkhai,” said that Ms. Sina’s presence allowed the company to have “really fluid communication” about the moments of intimacy. Ms. Condlln, too, likened the practical, technical nature of the work to stage fighting, which is tightly planned even when it feels explosive to the audience.
“Inside the fight, it’s like paint by numbers,” she said. “And there’s something about Tonia’s building a vocabulary that she’s endeavoring to make the intimacy the same. So that in the throes of onstage passion, things never wander. Nobody ever gets lost along the way, and therefore everybody is safe.”
One of the most erotic moments in Ms. Keiley’s “Bakkhai” is the transformation of Pentheus, the play’s Dionysos-hating ruler, into a woman. The metamorphosis is simultaneous with Pentheus’s sexual awakening, and it culminates in an orgasm. Part of Ms. Sina’s job was helping Gordon S. Miller, who plays Pentheus, understand how to portray a woman’s orgasm.
“Tonia did a lot of vocalizations for me,” Mr. Miller said, “even recorded basically a track for me that I could follow from the get-go of how to escalate, how to use the breath — tension in the body and release.”
Ms. Sina, whose research included watching a lot of pornography created from a female point of view, also showed the women in the cast how to express an orgasm in performance.
“That was a really, really helpful thing to do,” Ms. Keiley said. “Nobody has to bring their personal experience onstage. Nobody has to say, ‘Well, this is what I’m like in the bedroom.’ That’s very exposing, you know, asking people to improvise that stuff. You really have to be aware that that’s private.”
There is a need, Mr. Miller said, for someone with the right set of skills — and here he included both Ms. Sina and Ms. Keiley — to guide actors in performing intimacy. “Because it is going to get personal,” he added. “It’s exhausting work because it demands so much vulnerability and sensitivity, and it can be emotional.”
The method he learned from Ms. Sina will travel with him to other productions, he said, and likewise the understanding that there is a better way to handle sex scenes than leaving actors to figure them out on their own.
As for Ms. Keiley, her work on “Bakkhai” has made her vastly more comfortable talking about sex and anatomy. Still, she is not sure she’s ready to forgo using an intimacy choreographer.
“There’s a language around intimacy that would make an actor feel vulnerable, and there’s a language that will make them feel that you’re just dealing with business,” she said. “I think I’d need to learn a bit more.”
But if she were to go it alone?
“I probably would be a bit braver,” she said good-humoredly. “I can certainly stage a pretty good kiss now.”