Intimacy Training Prepares Theatre Students for SMU Productions and Beyond

With the concept of intimacy choreography becoming more widespread in the industry, Meadows gives students the tools to navigate intimate scenes with workshop training.

Acting students in a class

Following the societal shift of 2020 and the rise of the #MeToo movement, the practice of intimacy training and choreography has become more prevalent in both stage and film productions. And though Hollywood and Broadway have largely adopted this practice, SMU is one of the few institutions that requires mandatory intimacy training for all students in the theatre program at Meadows.

An incident during her own graduate school experience led assistant theatre professor Kara-Lynn Vaeni to get accredited in Theatrical Intimacy Training and, when she began teaching at Meadows, incorporate that training into all of her classes. This year, the theatre department decided to expand that training into a course for all theatre students. So on the first Saturday of the semester, theatre majors from first year up to graduate students participated in a mandatory stage intimacy workshop.

“What I focus on with the students is the idea of consent, boundaries and self-staging,” says Professor Vaeni. “I want my students to have tools that provide a structure so when they have to rehearse scenes without an adult or director present, both parties know exactly what that structure is and there are no surprises.”

While intimacy is not necessarily a focal point of theatre or screen work, it is something that often comes up in an actors’ career. And anytime there is intimacy involved in acting, especially at a young age like most college students, sometimes it is hard to separate the bodies’ natural response to intimate physical contact from the scene and job itself. This is where the importance of intimacy training and choreography comes into play. Just like a dance sequence or a sword fight is choreographed, intimacy should be choreographed as well. On stage, the choreography of a dance or the winner of a sword fight does not vary from production to production and intimate scenes should be planned in the same way.

“It’s really easy for actors, when we get in front of an audience, to sometimes feel like you can or want to do more with what you’ve rehearsed because there’s so much energy and adrenaline,” explains Annelise Wall ’24, a junior in the Meadows Division of Theatre. “But you wouldn’t change a dance sequence or a fight scene because then it becomes a safety issue, and it’s the same with intimacy.”

Establishing boundaries when rehearsing and choreographing intimate scenes is crucial. Professor Vaeni encourages students to each choose two to three personal boundaries that are always in place and scenes will be informed by those chosen boundaries. Regardless of what the stage directions indicate, there is always room for interpretation of a scene. Just because a kiss has been scripted, does not mean a kiss is the only device to move the story forward and make the audience experience the intended emotions.

“Before students ever do an intimate moment, we talk about the story of the kiss: what does the audience learn about my character and how do we want the audience to feel when they watch this,” says Vaeni. “At the end of the day, it’s about conveying what the kiss means more so than the kiss itself.”

With boundaries, ways to check in and out with scene partners, and other tools provided through intimacy training and choreography, students can feel safe and comfortable, even when doing things that might be considered a little abnormal to do at “work.” In an industry where intimate work is far from rare, the foundations and skills that theatre students have learned during their intimacy training at Meadows will serve invaluable as they move through their college careers and out into the world of stage and screen acting post-graduation.