bridges a cast two

Angela Jenson Frey and Thomas Gjere play a couple having a weekend affair in “The Bridges of Madison County,” a musical currently playing at the Omaha Community Playhouse.

If you see “The Bridges of Madison County” twice at the Omaha Community Playhouse, you might notice subtle differences in a couple of scenes from one show to the next.

That includes a scene featuring a fairly sexy and explicit song after a tasteful romp in the bedroom.

The theater has four people playing the two main characters, housewife Francesca and photographer Robert. They fall in love over a weekend, then return to their real lives.

Before any of them stepped onstage, they had an “intimacy rehearsal,” a conversation with director Kimberly Faith Hickman about their boundaries, comfort levels and vision for several steamy scenes.

Hickman takes her cues from her actors’ interpretations, so that resulted in minor differences depending on who was in the roles on any given night.

Such discussions are common in the theater, both here and elsewhere. Several Omaha directors interviewed said they have varying approaches to the issue of onstage intimacy, but all said their goal is to foster a respectful and nurturing environment for everyone involved in a show.

“The most important thing is to create a space in which the artists feel safe, protected and supported to do work that has such intimacy in it,” said Susan Clement-Toberer, artistic director at the Blue Barn Theatre.

Onstage safety has always been important in live theater, but as more plays featured sexual scenes, it took on a dimension beyond making sure no one got physically hurt. The Internet is filled with posts about the issue written over the past several years, many coinciding with the focus on the #MeToo movement.

Sometimes — notably in New York and other larger cities — shows engage an “intimacy choreographer” or “intimacy director” to painstakingly plan every move during sexually charged scenes. There’s a whole trade group devoted to the craft: Intimacy Directors International, a nonprofit that studies and develops “the most effective methods for performing simulated sex, intimacy and nudity for theatre and film,” according to its website, which was copyrighted in 2016.

Local directors and actors liken intimacy directors to fight directors, who definitively map out onstage brawls, duels and other violence to ensure nobody gets hurt.

For intimacy shows, local directors said they usually do that mapping process themselves with input from their actors.

But in one show, said director Roxanne Wach of the Shelterbelt Theatre, she used a fight director who also choreographed sexual scenes.

“For ‘Hand to God,’ violence was foreplay,” she said. “We had a whole evening (during rehearsals) when we just did those scenes with the fight choreographer.”

Directors have several styles when it comes to the timing of the intimacy discussion and the handling of intimate scenes during rehearsals.

The Playhouse’s Hickman, for instance, had the discussion at the very beginning of the rehearsal process.

“For any sort of show that relies heavily on a sexual relationship, the level of comfort has to be established early on,” she said. “A safety conversation is essential for (the success of) the show.”

It was a frank talk about boundaries, said Hickman, who is artistic director of the playhouse, and actors Angela Jenson Frey and Thomas Gjere, two of the four actors in the lead roles.

They will be paired every time they perform — there’s safety in knowing the actor opposite you will have consistent reactions, Hickman said, and Frey agreed.

“It’s easier to trust the same partner,” Frey said.

Added Gjere: “We set ground rules for what we were comfortable with and what we were not.”

Completely believable and natural love scenes, sometimes with Frey in a slip and Gjere shirtless, were the result. If Gjere and Frey were nervous on preview night, it didn’t show.

Toberer had her first intimacy rehearsal at the Blue Barn in 2012 for “Spring Awakening,” a coming-of-age story about teens exploring their sexuality. It included R-rated lyrics and explicit scenes.

“There was no nudity or anything, but definitely an intimate connection between the two lead characters,” she said. “Prior to even casting them, we spoke about the things that would be needed to fulfill the story we needed to tell to see if they were comfortable with that kind of intimacy onstage.”

One of the leads was younger than 18, so Toberer also spoke at length with her parents to be sure they were on board.

Then she created a safe space for rehearsals, agreeing that at least one parent of the girl would be in the room at all times. No one else but Toberer and the actors would be there — no stage manager, no assistant director.

“I put signs on the door: ‘Intimacy rehearsal in process. Do not enter.’ and announced it to staff,” she said.

She’s following the same course for “Indecent,” a show that features a lesbian romance, though her leads are veteran actors. It opens March 21.

Intimacy rehearsals, however, are starting later in the process for the coming show, because Toberer had never worked with Leanne Hill Carlson and Suzanne Withem, the women who play the leads, and she wanted to learn about their work styles and how comfortable they are taking directions when intimacy isn’t involved.

In both instances, the discussion resulted in a detailed plan for what happens in intimate scenes, so there are no surprises.

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“It can’t be just up in the air,” she said. “It would be irresponsible to do any scenes of intimacy onstage without a true moment-to-moment template.”

Wach, who directed “Fun Home” at the Playhouse earlier this season, has an approach that’s similar to Toberer’s. She isolates the room to essential people until she feels actors are comfortable enough to perform in front of others.

The director said she encourages actors to speak up immediately if they feel uncomfortable at rehearsals or something happens afterward.

“Nobody should feel harassed or pressured into vulnerable acting moments,” she said. “That’s not fair.”

To that end, she makes sure everyone who signs on for a part involving intimacy knows what they’re getting into.

For “Fun Home,” she said, she bluntly told women at auditions that it was a show in which girls kiss and clothes are removed (though no nudity is involved). Lots of actresses turned her down because that was beyond their comfort level. She understood that; she once turned down a role for the same reason.

Hickman acknowledges that the popularity of the intimacy rehearsal and even intimacy directors is growing across the theater world because of the current climate. That’s a good thing, she said — when things were more free-wheeling, actors pulled pranks during performances or other things occurred onstage that now seem suspect.

“You think back, ‘Oh, that probably shouldn’t have happened,’ ” she said.

Toberer said she realized the importance of creating safe spaces in college during the 1980s. But she’s glad it’s getting more attention.

“It has brought awareness to theaters across the nation that might not have had any protocol as far as approaching scenes with intimacy,” she said. “I think it’s a very, very good thing that it’s at the forefront of theater-makers’ minds.”

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Betsie covers a little bit of everything for The World-Herald's Living section, including theater, religion and anything else that might need attention. Phone: 402-444-1267.

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