Q&A with Audra Yokley, intimacy choreographer for the stage

Aaron Pozdol and Carrie Houchins-Witt in ‘Matilda.’ — courtesy of Theatre Cedar Rapids

They kiss,” reads the stage direction. But how long? Which character makes the first move? Are we talking hands on the face, shoulder, waist? Is the kiss more tender or sensual?

Directors and actors are often left to prescribe or improvise this blocking, but, much like a bumbled fight scene, poor communication and choreography can lead to an unconvincing performance and discomfort between the actors. When it comes to sex scenes, the risks are even higher.

Enter Audra Yokley. Yokley is an intimacy choreographer, trained to help casts and crews stage scenes of intimacy — everything from handholding and heated eye contact to simulated sex — with a focus on consent, safety and nuanced storytelling. In January, Iowa City Community Theatre brought the Chicago-based Yokley in for a workshop in conjunction with their upcoming production of the musical Company (opening March 6). Little Village caught up with Yokley shortly after.

How did you become an intimacy choreographer?

About two years ago or so, I was a new mom and I wanted to find my way back into my own body. I loved theater movement work, and I have a background as a massage therapist. I was actually looking around for fight/stage combat kinds of classes and ran across an Intimacy for the Stage workshop hosted by Intimacy Directors International co-founder Tonia Sina in Oklahoma City. It just dawned on me: I can’t believe this has never been a thing, and of course it should be a thing. It was maybe two months after the #MeToo movement hit, and it just sounded so fascinating. I went, and I loved it.

What does a workshop entail?

I’m defining what consent means and encouraging enthusiastic consent: talking with your scene partner, finding out where they don’t want to be touched and being able to build a relationship on that, knowing what their boundaries are so that when you begin working together, you know you’re not crossing a line with your partner.

I think there’s a perception that actors give themselves to the art—there’s no such thing as boundaries when a play requires you to perform a certain thing. How do you balance the needs of the play with the personal comfort of the actors?

That’s a continued narrative that’s being fought every single day in this field. That’s what intimacy work is all about. It’s about proving that, yes, you can still make great art and you don’t have to suffer for it, [including] giving up bodily autonomy.

How do you choreograph and rehearse scenes while still keeping the chemistry between actors fresh?

The wonderful thing about choreographing these scenes is the exact opposite of what I think critics fear, which is that the actual sexiness or the real chemistry will be lost because it will become robotic. What we’ve found is actually the opposite case, because when the actors feel comfortable in the movement, when they have the choreography down, they can then focus more on the actual job of acting it out. Body language reads — if someone’s uncomfortable with something, even if the audience doesn’t quite know why it doesn’t look right, that energy reads.

To me, it’s actually less limiting. There’s more trust between the scene partners and in that way it opens them up to have the chemistry flow way more freely.

What is an example of some really well-done intimacy choreography?

Another one of the co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, Alicia Rodis, became the lead intimacy coordinator for HBO. They first hired her on the show The Deuce … one of the actresses, Emily Meade, essentially asked for it, [saying,] “I feel like I have to shut myself off when I do these sex scenes, and why do I have to do that?”

The sex scenes on The Deuce’s second season — every single sex scene was coordinated by Alicia and I think you can see the results there. They’re pretty sexual and pretty hot, or sometimes not, depending on the situation — but it looks great! It’s the same thing on stage. They’re not really touching their genitalia together, right, that’s not happening. We have lighting effects, we have ways we can position you where we can see from the audience what we need to see and get from the story while still giving the actors space.

Tim Budd (left) and Katy Hanh in Riverside Theatre’s ‘Uncle Vanya.’ — Rob Merritt/Riverside Theatre

How do you think intimacy choreography fits into the larger #MeToo movement, specifically in the theater?

Hugely. There was a theater here in Chicago called Profiles Theatre. They had an article come out in the Chicago Reader about the abuses that the artistic director was inflicting upon his casts. He was consistently abusive both sexually and physically to several actors.

That happened and immediately the Chicago community said no to this. The #NotInOurHouse movement developed out of this story, which is a wonderful free resource anyone can utilize, And within this movement, a couple of actors here in Chicago as well as a ton of community professionals created a set of standards and protocols that theaters can use in order to create the safest environment possible for anyone working within their walls.

What could someone not in theater still take away from one of your workshops?

Easily the idea of enthusiastic consent. That is relevant for our daily lives. To listen to people when they tell you they don’t want them to do something. To ask permission, not to assume before you hug somebody. It’s a simple act — “I want to hug you, can I hug you?” Not to assume you can just physically touch somebody is a wonderful takeaway for anybody.

You were an actor before becoming an intimacy choreographer. How does it feel to know that you might be setting up actors to be in a safer place than you were at the time?

Oh, it’s huge. This was not around when I was doing a lot of my formative years of acting in my 20s. I have experienced people sitting on me when it was inappropriate, sexually assaulting me onstage, and I could do nothing about it because I was in the middle of a show. … There was not a real support system for people like me. This kind of stuff could traumatize people to not want to do anything on stage again, which is horrifying. To be able to prevent that kind of thing happening and make the arts safe, it’s hugely personal to me.

This article was originally published in Little Village issue 278.

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