Staging intimacy needs to be ethical, efficient, and effective because it’s not just about the intimate moment: it’s all about telling the story. At TIE, we know moments of theatrical intimacy need a little extra TLC, but the moments surrounding intimacy, or even around the idea of intimacy can cause problems of their own.
Social ideas of sexiness trick students into thinking sexy needs to look a certain way, sound a certain way, and move a certain way. Women try to make themselves impossibly small, restricting their breath, movement, and character choices. Men tax their bodies, straining their voices, creating tension, trying to perform a “manly” version of bigness. Non-binary actors can feel lost or forced to choose between hyper-binary ideas of how sexy “should” be.
It’s a real life behavioral Photoshop.
These ideas of “sexy” get in the way of truthful acting and they limit the types of stories actors have the opportunity to play. Missing the truth of the moment and “acting sexy” can drag a production down and can feel like a minefield to navigate as a director or educator. Giving an actor a note about untruthful “acting sexy” can make them feel nervous and actually make the problem worse. Trying to address it with action-based direction can help with the choices, but misses the vocal and physical issues. Fixing “acting sexy,” like staging intimacy, is all about having the right tools to describe the movement in a desexualized way.
Get out of the “Sexy” Trap
Always come back to the story. Just ask the actor to explain why their character is in the room. Ya know, acting stuff. It will help with the nerves.
Shallow breath is a giveaway of “acting sexy.” Try big sighs and shaking it out on a yawn. Think about letting the release of breath release your shoulders and shake it down into your pelvis. Those deep, full breaths will help with the next tip.
If the actor doesn’t understand their weight, it reads as nervous or stiff. There are lots of reasons actors are timid to be truthful with their own gravity. Help actors ground by trying some contact improvisation or weight sharing with partners.
It might seem a little out there, but nothing teaches grounding like squats. I know. Bear with me.
I highly recommend actors learn how to squat. Maybe even with a little (or a lot) of weight. The movement requires a supported core and causes the actor to literally drop their weight and engage their musculature. Pushing out of the bottom of a well-executed squat is a perfect opportunity to practice being fully grounded. Obviously, this isn’t an option for everyone, but it is one of my favorite shortcuts.
With any exercise-type of suggestion, I always drive home that this is about strengthening their instrument, not about physical appearance. Contact the student wellness center or a local gym and find a qualified instructor so everyone is working with excellent form.
“Acting sexy” lends itself to hyper extended thoracic spines for everyone! Focus on alignment and allowing the head to float to reduce the thoracic thrust forward. A good roll up and down the spine solves a lot of problems.
Nervous actors speed everything up and telling them to relax just makes it worse. Give them clear instructions about slower tempo to help tell the story of a more confident seduction. Or vary the tempo of a simple movement to help physically shape the story. If “slower” and “faster” aren’t doing it, try counts. For example: “That gesture is happening over about a three-count right now. Could we try an eight-count a big, low breath?”
The Confidence Trick
It can be tempting to encourage confidence in an actor when they seem reluctant to let their “sexy” mask go. Resist the urge to address their confidence. A nervous performer being told to be confident gets even more nervous. A performer that genuinely felt confident will now worry that they aren’t enough. Skip all of that worry and address the physical symptoms instead.
Images of sexualized bodies inundate us every day. Those ideas make their way onto stage, and we see real bodies trying to Photoshop themselves to look “sexy.”