Let’s Get Real: Truth vs. Reality in Staging Intimacy

It was late on a Sunday night. I was doing my nightly ritual of unwinding in bed and scrolling through my facebook feed. As I scrolled, I came across a Cosmopolitan article entitled “10 Movies Where the Actors Have Actual Sex.” (You don't need to read it, but if want to, it's here.) The subtitle was three shocked emoji faces.

I clicked on the link and instead of finding an article with that explained the obvious problem, I found a photo gallery with brief subtitles describing the “Actual Sex” the actors have in each film. Many of the descriptions in the list mention that the unsimulated sex was performed by body doubles in the porn industry whereas the actors performed simulated sex. The article wasn't what I had been expecting. It didn't seem to acknowledge the awfulness of this practice. It didn't offer any solutions. 

This led me to ponder, why do we have this fascination with “real” and “authentic” performance? Why do we as an industry and society value actors making a commitment to full immersion into a role, even to the point of actually performing a sex act? I worry that student actors coming up through academic theatre read articles like this one and think, “Well, I want to be an actor. This is what I have to do to achieve my dream.”

But we know that just isn’t true.

As educators, directors, and artists, we need to shift away from this narrative around “real” and “authentic” acting. Instead, at Theatrical Intimacy Education, we promote the idea of “truth.” Do you have a truthful connection to your partner? Do you have a truthful sense of what your character is going through? Do you have a truthful way to perform what you as the character are living this experience? “Real” slams down pressure onto actors to go to the ends of the earth to authenticate their own performance by “feeling” it. “Truth” alleviates this pressure by encouraging actors to access these feelings, thoughts, and emotions with honesty and with what they know. This conflation between reality and truth has become a dangerous game for our actors.    

This problem of truth vs. reality isn’t limited to film, either. In 2014, Thomas Bradshaw’s Intimacy was staged off-Broadway by The New Group. In it, several actors in the production appear nude and perform simulated sex acts with each other, even using prosthetics that ejaculate (specifically onto an audience member/plant). Austen Cauldwell, the actor who performed this act, stated, “We’re not trying to make sexy images, we’re trying to be real.” This attempt to be real was extended to one of the actors in this show who actually masturbated onstage during this production. Had I been involved in this production, I would never allow actors to go to this extreme extent, no matter how comfortable with their own bodies in performance they are, because it is simply unnecessary to do so. 

This also applies to the ways we stage violence. I have had more conversations with actors who have insisted on actual violence to help their performance seem “real” to them. No matter how much detail I go into of the number of injuries that could occur and the risks involved in performing real violence, I have been met with stubbornness. The Profiles Theatre scandal in Chicago proves that this is still a massive issue beyond any one person's anecdotes.

To be clear, I wholeheartedly believe in the exploration of staging intimacy. If you are directing actors, or you are an actor who desires to explore the extreme vulnerability of performing a sex act onstage, it is absolutely within your right to do so. What I object to is putting actors in positions that they feel like they might not be able to get out of in fear of being a “problem actor” or being labeled as “difficult to work with.” Making matters worse, these are fears that I most often hear from women and actors of color.

Not sure what I mean?

Let’s revisit the Cosmo list that prompted this blog post. In one of the films, the director was also the actor on which the sex act was being performed (Editor's Note: WHOA). I think back to some of my own acting classes and productions I have been a part of over my time in academia where professors whom I respected and adored told me to “just do it” or “just get over it” without me or my scene partner being able to have a discussion regarding how our kiss was to take place (if you haven’t already, check out Laura’s fabulous blog post that I wish I would have had as an undergrad here).

Our goal at Theatrical Intimacy Education is to empower the actor to have the tools to navigate these sticky situations. We want actors to know what to do if they don’t want to go to the level of “real” and reframe the narrative of the scenario around “truth.” Truth encourages actors to be honest about their own personal boundaries. If you want me to hit/kiss you because that makes the experience of being hit/kissed “real” for you, expect my truthful response that I am really not comfortable doing so, and that is okay as my personal boundary for acting.  We also want to empower the director with the knowledge to stage these scenes in truthful ways that does not compromise the integrity and agency of the actors or the director.

“Truth” allows actors to explore that Stanislavskian “Magic If” more than “Real” could ever permit because reality is unachievable on the stage.

This change in narrative from reality to truth will take time and effort on all of our parts. We hope that Theatrical Intimacy Education will spread this message and empower actors emerging into the industry to know what their guidelines are for navigating these waters (whether it be Title IX, SAG-AFTRA, AEA, or EOCC) in a positive and productive way so they will never have to fear being labeled the “problem actor” while not compromising their agency and integrity.