Intimate Conversations

Theater professor Laura Rikard is giving actors the language to talk about their bodies and boundaries.


Laura Rikard, assistant professor of theater at USC Upstate, is co-founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education, which consults with theater and film professionals on the ethical staging of intimate scenes.

It’s Act 2, Scene 4, of “Measure for Measure” and theater students Jordan Montemayor, ’21, and Marshall Branham, ’21, are facing a challenging encounter. Angelo, the character played by Branham, is aggressively pressuring Isabella, the character played by Montemayor, to have sex with him if she wants to save her brother’s life.

The scene will require close physical contact between the two actors, as one character struggles against the advances of the other. The encounter is fraught with sexual violence, compounded by a power imbalance between the two characters.

But rather than jump into the scene, ignoring any discomfort, the actors first check in with Laura Rikard, assistant professor of theater, standing just off to the side.

Rikard is co-founder of Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE), and since she and co-founder Chelsea Pace began their work in 2017, she has helped give actors in the theater and film industry the tools they need to acknowledge and work through scenes of intimacy and sexual violence.

“We have this idea that to get work in our industry, and not be labeled a problem to work with, you have to say yes to anything that’s asked of you,” Rikard says. “The idea that theater or film folk can have boundaries, and be easy to work with, that idea is new.”

TIE’s work has taken on greater prominence in the wake of the #MeToo movement, as many organizations take a hard look at their workplace culture and the way sexual harassment has been handled. Intimate scenes in particular can leave actors vulnerable, especially without any guidance from a director.

As an intimacy coordinator, Rikard is empowering actors to express what they can and cannot do, and teaching them how to comfortably get through those awkward moments.

Consent-based practices form the core of Rikard’s theater classes at USC Upstate and the many workshops she and Pace offer theater professionals all over the world. Rikard starts by giving her students a “self-care cue” – a word they can say any time they need to take a break or to let her know they’re feeling uncomfortable. That cue, she says, is “button.” “They can say that word, and I know, oh, there’s something going on that they need to check in about,” she explains.

Boundary practice is another tool Rikard uses. “It’s a way for everybody to establish their physical boundaries before working with each other,” she says.

Jordan Montemayor, '21, and Marshall Branham, '21, go through boundary practice during rehearsal. During the process, Montemayor hovers her hands over Branham’s as he moves them over his body to show her where he’s OK with being touched. The process will be repeated with Montemayor guiding before the two rehearse the assault scene.
The three-step process is one Montemayor and Branham turn to in their “Measure for Measure” rehearsal. Branham first shows Montemayor where she has permission to touch him. Then, as the two stand in front of one another, Branham holds up his hands in front of his face while Montemayor hovers hers just over his. As Branham slowly moves his hands down his body, indicating again where he can be touched, Montemayor’s hands follow his. Finally, Branham tells Montemayor what he is comfortable with.

The steps ensure that before the actors have any physical contact, each fully understands where the other’s boundaries are, Rikard says. Even more importantly, they know how to work through these moments in any production she’s not involved in, she says.

“A lot of what this work is is beyond just physical intimacy, it’s about establishing language and clarity when the body and mind are the instruments,” she says.

Montemayor, who has taken Rikard’s classes, says she appreciates the comfortable environment Rikard’s approach creates. “You don’t have to explain your boundaries, you don’t have to explain why you need to take a moment to think or breathe,” she says. “It’s a very safe space to respect yourself and respect others.”

Rikard is also careful to desexualize conversations around intimate moments, using vocabulary she calls “the ingredients.” Any touching or kissing is broken down in an almost clinical, step by step way – the intensity of a touch is rated (skin level, muscle level, bone level), and the length of a kiss or touch is assigned a number of counts. A written record is then created for reference, which, Montemayor says, is important for both the actors and director.

“Sometimes actors will get caught in the moment and go longer, but it’s easy to say, hey, that wasn’t the choreography we wrote down and recorded, make sure you follow the recorded choreography of skin level, five counts,” Montemayor says.

Melissa Breazeale, ’21, says a skill she’s found particularly valuable is “de-rolling” – putting space between yourself and the character you’re portraying. She recalls a scene she was doing with a freshman that was about eugenics and the sterilization of African Americans in North Carolina. In it, Breazeale had the role of a racist older white woman.

“After I would do the scene, I’d say, I am Melissa, I do not feel this way towards you, my scene partner – these are the words of a character I am playing,” she says. “It’s very helpful in scenes where emotions are really high.”

Montemayor and Branham rehearse a scene from “Measure for Measure” that depicts a physical assault. Rikard used her skills as both an intimacy and a fight choreographer to help the actors work through the scene slowly, with regular boundary checks throughout.

Lee Neibert, chair of the theatre department, who has brought Rikard in to assist on productions he’s directed, is thrilled students not only are learning from a leading authority in the field, but are putting that education into action.

“I’ve already heard our students start to use the language Laura uses in her teaching,” he says. “It’s cool to seem them adopting that. It makes them more employable, and puts them on the cutting edge of where this kind of work is going.”

Even before coming to Upstate, Rikard gave workshops at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival, where many students were first exposed to her work. She also recently received a Medallion, the organization’s highest regional award for individuals or groups who have made outstanding contributions to theater.

Montemayor notes that before Rikard joined the theater department, intimate scenes weren’t really discussed much – a director might tell actors “just kiss.” Not only has Rikard given them steps for doing a kiss, she’s also made sure every audition form contains consent questions – “are you comfortable kissing another actor, are you comfortable staging situations of domestic violence.”

“So you know from the get-go what you’re getting into,” Montemayor says.

Younger actors in particular benefit from a shared set of tools to rely on, Breazeale says. She notes some may lack the life experiences to know what to do in an intimate scene, and without direction, they can end up feeling awkward. Intimacy choreography removes the guesswork and helps put everyone on the same page.

“Theatrical intimacy, and intimacy choreography, give you a chance to figure out what you’re comfortable with and what your actual boundaries are,” she says.

Rikard emphasizes that consent-based work does not mean anything goes. She, too, has boundaries that she asks be respected. “As theater people, we are looking to express emotions, and often in our work, people see that as a reason not to have any boundaries about things they’ve been through,” she says. “So they often see acting teachers as someone they can start processing trauma with.”

Rikard says she makes clear to students that while she has mental health first aid certification, she is not a mental health specialist, and if they want to talk about a traumatic experience, she can direct them to a more appropriate resource. She also doesn’t want to create the impression that discussing trauma in a professional setting is OK.

“That’s actually super unprofessional behavior, even if they’re using that moment as part of their process,” she says.

Another misconception she sometimes comes across is that she’s a sexual harassment mediator. While intimacy choreography can help actors feel safe on a particular set or stage, Rikard says it is not a panacea for decades of misbehavior.

Montemayor consults with Rikard during rehearsal.

“What essentially exists in the industry is this gaping wound that has existed because of irresponsible wielding of authority,” she says. “For the wound to heal, we’ve got to look at where the power dynamics have gone awry.”

Intimacy education is a part of that larger solution, but “we’re really there just to make sure the moments of close physical relationships go well,” Rikard says.

Rikard hopes as more theater professionals become versed in intimacy work, it will one day become the industry norm, without the need for outside help. For now, Rikard is encouraged that actors themselves often are the ones requesting an intimacy coordinator on set before they’ll do a show.

She says younger actors, too, are asking important questions about how intimacy is handled when they audition for graduate programs, pushing those programs to have answers ready.

Even the pandemic has helped educate people in the industry, Rikard says. With all Theatrical Intimacy Education workshops online over the past year, many professionals took advantage of their time at home to register and learn more about the work.

“Everybody’s got a lot of relearning to do,” Rikard says. “We can recognize where we can do better, and then do better.”