Interview #2 with Leslie McBay, intimacy director for Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production (running April 8-23, 2022) is directed by Victoria Shepherd, who also gets a few Q&As. Interviewed March 25, 2022 by  Alumnae’s Bloggergal/Bar co-manager Tina McCulloch.

This is a synopsis of “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”, from website of playwright Sarah Ruhl:

Set in the 1880s at the dawn of the age of electricity in a seemingly perfect, well-to-do Victorian home, proper gentleman and scientist Dr. Givings has innocently invented an extraordinary new device for treating “hysteria” in women (and occasionally men): the vibrator. Adjacent to the doctor’s laboratory, his young and energetic wife Catherine tries to tend to their newborn daughter – and wonders exactly what is going on in the next room. When a new “hysterical” patient, Sabrina, and her husband bring a wet nurse and their own complicated relationship into the doctor’s home, Dr. and Mrs. Givings must examine the nature of their own marriage, and what it truly means to love someone.

Q (to Victoria)What did you hope to achieve with an intimacy director?

A:  “In The Next Room” is play that has a lot of sexually charged and intimate moments. I wanted to make sure that they were realistic but not sensationalistic. I knew that this starts with making sure the actors felt safe and comfortable. We are asking them to be not just emotionally vulnerable, but physically vulnerable as well. I was determined from the start to ensure that we were properly resourced to provide a safe space for them, and the key tool in our safety kit is an Intimacy Director. We were very fortunate to have Leslie come on board to facilitate and navigate what can be very challenging rehearsals, resulting in what I think is the results I had hoped for and dreamed of! 

Q (to Leslie): How did you start the process of intimacy direction with “In The Next Room”

In rehearsal: intimacy director Leslie McBay (from behind), actor Monique Danielle (left, in red plaid shirt – as Annie, a midwife & the doctor’s assistant), actor Kim Croscup (right, in black – as patient Mrs. Sabrina Daldry). Photo: director Victoria Shepherd.

A:  I started by having a conversation with Victoria about her vision for the play, and her previous experience directing plays with intimacy. Then I broke down the script and built an intimacy spreadsheet which tracks scenes and characters involved in the intimacy, and the content of each scene. This is really helpful for shows that have a lot of intimacy – In the Next Room” has almost 30 moments tracked in the spreadsheet! I also did some research on the historical vibrators described in the play and commentary about their use. 

Before we got into intimacy rehearsals, I checked in with the performers individually by email to talk about the content in the play, to emphasize that all choreography will be built around their consent and agency over their bodies, and to privately discuss any concerns or boundaries they wanted me to know about.

Q:  Do you have a fairly standard process when meeting with casts for the first time, or is the intro different for every script and situation?

A:  I have a fairly standard order of operations when working on a play, though that does change based on the needs of the ensemble, and when I am hired. If I’m brought on early enough in the process, I can consult on the audition process and content. It’s fairly common for the directors and actors I work with to have limited experience working with an intimacy director, so whenever possible I like to start the process with some teaching around theatrical intimacy, a nuanced model of consent, and practical exercises to help people feel comfortable expressing boundaries and giving/receiving consent.

In rehearsal: actor Rachelle Mazzilli (left – as the doctor’s wife, Mrs. Catherine Givings), actor Kim Croscup (centre – as patient Mrs. Sabrina Daldry), intimacy director Leslie McBay (right). Photo: director Victoria Shepherd.

Q: What do you mean by model of consent?

A: I use the FRIES model of consent from Planned Parenthood, and talk about how it applies to the rehearsal hall. This is one of the elements we addressed at the Zoom read, when I was introducing concepts around theatrical intimacy. 

FRIES:

F is for Freely Given, which means that consent is given free from coercion. This can be hard to see, because we’ve got power dynamics going on in a rehearsal space that can influence whether or not a performer feels like they can say no to an offer or request from a director, or even another actor who has more experience or clout. I talk about the different types of power and how intimacy directors can help to mitigate these dynamics.

R is for Reversible. Consent can be removed, at any point in the process. We build choreography around performer boundaries, and work to ensure that performers feel confident repeating it every night. However, sometimes things change in a performer’s personal life, or in the rehearsal hall, and that changes where their boundaries are. We can always rebuild choreography at any point in the process if a performer no longer consents to a specific action.

I is for Informed. This means that a performer is aware of the intimate content/nudity involved for the character before they accept the role. It’s really important for casting breakdowns to list this information, so that actors can choose whether or not to submit to or audition for the role. It can be harmful for their careers and mental health if they get the information too late and they turn down a contract, or if they’ve already accepted a contract and feel forced into content they would never have wanted to perform. 

E is for Enthusiastic. This is a bit different from how enthusiasm might play out in real-life scenarios. It could feel really off-putting if you were performing a scene of sexual violence, for example, and your scene partner seemed really excited about doing that. So enthusiasm in rehearsal is more about making sure that performers feel confident, and if they seem unsure, to pause and check in about that.

S is for Specific. Let’s say an actor accepted a role knowing that it required a kiss, and the stage direction in the script says “They kiss.” What kind of a kiss? Is it a quick peck, or a lengthy make out? Is it passionate, aggressive, chaste? Is there other contact between hands or body parts during the kiss? These are elements we figure out in rehearsal, and performers need to know the specifics before they can appropriately consent to the contact. 

Q: Would you say that this is one of the more sexually-charged scripts you have worked on, or is it pretty average in your experience?  

A:  I would say that this is a play that has a fairly large number of intimate moments to navigate, both between characters who are connecting with each other romantically and sexually, and under the guise of medical “treatments”. These moments are really embedded into the script and sometimes interwoven with pages of dialogue. I’ve certainly worked on comparable scripts! There are many scripts though that place the intimacy almost entirely in stage directions separate from the dialogue, or imply that an escalated moment is happening offstage by going to a blackout as soon as there is contact between characters.

Thanks, Leslie and Victoria! The next interview will focus on the specific techniques Leslie used with the actors for “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”.

Mrs. Catherine GivingsRachelle Mazzilli
Dr. GivingsTrevor Cartlidge
AnnieMonique Danielle
Mrs. Sabrina DaldryKim Croscup
Mr. Dick DaldryTed Powers
ElizabethRée Andrews
Leo IrvingChris Peterson

Alumnae Theatre Company’s production of Sarah Ruhl’s “In The Next Room, or The Vibrator Play”, directed by Victoria Shepherd, runs April 8 – 23, 2022.

Performances Wed – Sat at 8pm • Sundays at 2pm.
Regular tickets $25 • Wednesdays 2 for 1 • Sundays PWYC.

Purchase: https://www.alumnaetheatre.com/in-the-next-room-or-the-vibrator-play.html

Poster design: Suzanne Courtney.

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Filed under 2021/22 Season, In the Next Room ​(or The Vibrator Play), Uncategorized

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