Consent is sexy, even when the sex is fake. Just ask Iowa intimacy director Carrie Pozdol

Carrie Pozdol is a certified intimacy choreographer, hired by theater companies to consult on scenes involving nudity, kissing, touching, simulated sex, sexual violence and other scenes that can put actors in unsafe and uncomfortable positions if boundaries aren’t established. She can also help enhance the chemistry between actors, and the realism of an intimate scene. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

When Carrie Pozdol stands in front of the cast of Theatre Cedar Rapids’ winter musical, Kinky Boots, she wears a T-shirt that reads “make it less weird.” Because that is just what she is there to do.

Though she is an accomplished actor and director in her own right, Pozdol is at this rehearsal in her capacity as the show’s intimacy choreographer. Her job here is manifold and important, but you won’t be faulted if you’ve never heard of it. The practice of having an intimacy choreographer for theatrical productions is only a few years old.

In 1983, film director Peter Bogdanovich told Fresh Air host Terry Gross that “the main job of a director is to create an atmosphere in which the players feel comfortable and feel they can expose themselves without worrying about it because they trust me.” Many directors 39 years ago and today would agree that all you need for good direction is the requisite trust. I did, too, when I heard the January replay of his interview on IPR.

But after my conversation with Carrie Pozdol and introduction to the intimacy choreography movement, I realized that nowhere in this assertion is an explanation of how Bogdanovich earned his actors’ trust.

In the early 2000s, a number of innovative women began creating techniques for more intentional and boundary-led “choreography” for stage and film scenes depicting intimate encounters. But their work didn’t really catch on, as the structures in place simply demanded unfettered trust from actors, subject to the whims of their director. That is, it didn’t catch on until the groundswell of #MeToo and Hollywood’s Time’s Up movement turned the public eye on the long overlooked, predatory nature of show business power brokers like Harvey Weinstein. As we are finally growing aware, too many directors have misused and abused all of this personalized (and unearned) trust.

The founders and practitioners of intimacy choreography also believe the main job of a director is to create an environment for actors to feel free to take artistic and emotional risks with their work. But instead of Bogdanovich’s reliance on ex officio trust, the safe environment for actors to “expose themselves” is communally created using consent-based, boundary-led, concrete and learnable techniques whereby actors retain their physical and emotional autonomy.

Let’s look at three concrete takeaways from Pozdol’s work with the Kinky Boots cast: 1. Actors are led in exercises which establish and communicate their physical boundaries around touch from the outset. 2. Everyone is given and uses de-sexualized language for the actors’ movements. 3. Intimate moments between characters are choreographed and stay consistent, so everyone knows what to do and what to expect.

That last one is so important, given the way these scenes have often been directed in the past. Pozdol characterizes the old, all-too-common technique as: “I don’t know, just make out and be really hot!” But doesn’t it make more practical sense to treat a passionate encounter as a choreographed partner dance? Why not approach the physical movements that portray characters’ lust or tenderness as we do staged combat (the physical movements that portray characters’ hate or anger)? No director would hand two actors swords and say, “I don’t know, just go at it and be really violent!”

Intimacy choreographers offer a consent-based, desexualized blocking process whereby actors finally get some concrete direction and have the tools to separate the acted emotions from the real touch.

Hearing Pozdol talk about the gifts of this work, it becomes clear that she truly believes that actors who feel safe and in control create better art.

“Artistic folks have worried that allowing actors to have boundaries and then respecting those boundaries will somehow damage the work that is being done. That somehow we can’t do scary, daring and uncomfortable art with boundaries,” Pozdol said. “But the exact opposite is true. When people feel safe and trust the other people they are working with, they feel free to do things they might have never considered before. Actors can actually let their guard down, which allows for some really honest and intense moments to shine through.”

Born and raised in Dubuque, Pozdol remembers seeing her first staged production when she was 5 years old, and has been in love with theater magic-making ever since. She majored in theater at Simpson College in Indianola, then spent 10 years in Chicago, where she was involved in various storefront theaters, focusing on acting. She loves figuring out the puzzle of the character and what motivates them, and enjoys the immense satisfaction that comes from collaborating with other artists. In Chicago she met her husband, a fellow actor, and they moved back to Dubuque to start their family.

In 2019, having just settled with her young family in Cedar Rapids, Pozdol was first introduced to theatrical intimacy choreography while reading an article about a Broadway show. She was immediately drawn in, but this was 2019, when trainings were in-person and required travel to LA or NYC — not easy for a mother of two with a full-time job. But when the pandemic hit and all those trainings shifted online, she jumped into the deep end.

Jav Ducker/Little Village

She’s primarily trained with Theatrical Intimacy Education, an organization founded by the women who literally wrote the book on this work (Staging Sex: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Theatrical Intimacy). Beyond the base curriculum, she’s done focused work in trauma-informed practice; working with minors; foundations in race, intimacy and consent; bystander intervention; and mental health first aid.

Even in the midst of COVID restrictions and so much uncertainty last year, area theaters and theater departments began to reach out, hungry for Pozdol’s new skill set, powerful message and transformative presence in rehearsals and classrooms alike. This included Angie Toomsen, artistic director of Theatre Cedar Rapids, who has committed to centering consent-based practices throughout the TCR community. Toomsen has had Pozdol work on every TCR production since last summer’s Bright Star at Brucemore.

In a sweet moment of Kinky Boots’ sparkly exuberance, one character showers another’s face with kisses. As it happens amid dialogue, the kisses were choreographed by Pozdol in collaboration with the show’s director, Lisa Kelly. But during rehearsal run-throughs of the scene, the actors employ one of Pozdol’s techniques called a “placeholder.” The woman who will be doing the kissing in performance simply places her finger playfully on her fellow actor’s face, marking the spots they have chosen for eventual kisses with boops.

Not only is it important for the actors to keep their faces apart and masked during this Omicron surge, the boops also serve the greater rehearsal process in keeping the sentiment while making the run-through and ongoing cast relationships much less, well, weird.

Saunia Powell spent her youth studying theater in Iowa and theology in California. It’s been a rather queer ride from there, with consistent swerves back to eastern Iowa (her unexpectedly adopted home) and end-of-life/grief work (her inconvenient vocational calling). This article was originally published in Little Village issue 303.

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