Mudd alum on the vanguard as ‘intimacy director’

by Andrew Alonzo | aalonzo@claremont-courier.com

Over the last few years, 1999 Harvey Mudd alumna Stacy Levin traveled the circuit of theater industry jobs before finding her calling as an “intimacy director.”

To those unfamiliar, an intimacy director or intimacy coordinator advises actors and directors in theater, live performance, television, and film, on best practices to address scenes of intimacy, simulated sex, and nudity safely and effectively.

It’s a relatively new vocation.

While fight choreographers have had a role in media for quite some time, Levin said intimacy directing came about over the last half a decade — much down to the work of Claire Warden, a theater pioneer known as Broadway’s first intimacy director.

“Someone in the theater industry recognized people were getting physically and emotionally battered by romantic or intense scenes,” she said.

Levin gave an example of a 2019 production of West Side Story where she served as intimacy director.

“There is a scene where Anita gets sexually assaulted,” she said. “[The director] wanted to highlight the brutal aspect of where the emotions and lack of thinking of the Jets gang was. He wanted a really powerful scene in that way.”

The actress assured her she was emotionally and mentally capable of doing the violent scene. Levin remembers having to work closely with the Jets gang actors.

“They were so uncomfortable portraying people so different than them,” Levin said. “Acting is a big ask for people. You’re asking people to step into the shoes of someone that they are not. That could mean putting people in a triggering situation for them.

“As an actor, you do something that’s distasteful like that and you go home at the end of the day and, what actors used to do was bring that with you. You brought that anger with you, you brought that energy with you, you brought a self-hatred with you at the end of the day, and then you went back and did it tomorrow.”

A big part of intimacy directing is creating intense emotional moments. Directors like Levin consider numerous factors, including how a given scene or character, likely a villain, affects an actor’s real-life psychology. She does her best to help performers process and move through any real emotions they feel.

“Those physical feelings are real feelings,” she said. “They are the same feelings that you get when you are with your significant other. So how do you separate those in your mind? How do you go home at the end of the day and say, ‘That’s my job and this is my family.’ That’s what intimacy directing is about.”

For the past year, Levin has been the intimacy director and fight choreographer for South Bay Musical Theatre’s production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, which premieres at 8 p.m. on September 24 at the Saratoga Civic Theater, 13777 Fruitvale Ave., in Saratoga, about 11 miles southwest of San Jose. Ticket and show information can be found at southbaymt.com/shows/ticket-sales/company.

Levin said the most challenging aspect of her job is working with a different staff on every production. Often, she’s hired for one day to teach the production crew and actors about boundaries. On other teams, she’s fully immersed in choreographing intimacy and fighting scenes.

“My role is really undefined, until we define it,” she said.

Levin’s journey to becoming an intimacy director was unconventional. In 2008 she began  teaching children’s singing at Congregation Beth Am, a Jewish temple in Palo Alto, California. After six years she left to become a director and choreographer for local theater groups, including the nationally recognized Children’s Musical Theater of San Jose. There she developed her skills as a playwright and director and became familiar with the works of Warden.

Learning about the pioneering intimacy director was revelatory. “With my experiences that I was having directing, I realized I wanted more training in the area of keeping actors physically and emotionally safe on stage,” Levin said.

Combined with her performative background and education from Harvey Mudd and Stanford University, where she earned a master’s degree in 2007, Levin said intimacy directing “was the piece to me that put it all together.” So, she set out to become a professional.

The only avenue to becoming certified was to take three levels of courses offered by Intimacy Directors and Coordinators.

Levin said she recently completed levels one and two of the trainings, accruing over 200 hours of training, and will soon complete level three.

“I cannot tell you how gratifying it is when people have anxiety and then I help them work through it by helping them feel and be heard,” she said.

She looks forward to the day intimacy directors become an essential hire for all productions since “intimacy hits so many aspects of emotion and safety.

“I really can’t think of a situation where one isn’t vital. Intimacy directors are trained and can do so much more to heighten the emotional impact of a production, even when there’s no sexual scene involved,” Levin said.

In the fall, Levin will return to Harvey Mudd to give a presentation about her unusual job. Details are TBD, but she welcomes students and interested COURIER readers to email her at intimacydirectorstacy@gmail.com.

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