Pictured: Rich Holton and Nina O’Keefe. Photo by Eric Watkins.

By Abigail Trabue

Director Scott Westerman is no stranger to the Chicago Theatre Standards set forth by the Not in Our House Movement as a way to protect artists working in Equity and Non-Equity houses. Using the guidelines to shape the rehearsal room, Westerman directed two productions, City Lit’s FORTY-TWO STORIES and Chimera’s THE TOTALITARIANS during the year-long pilot program, a program that Chimera participated in.

Now, with the Chicago Theatre Standards complete, Westerman is taking on his third project – Laura Eason’s SEX WITH STRANGERS at Citadel Theatre. Working with actors Nina O’Keefe and Rich Holton, and alongside Assistant Director Bianca Corral, and Stage Manager Samantha Tink, Westerman is using the CTS to help shape the rehearsal room and establish clear lines of communication between O’Keefe and Holton as their characters require them to cross physical boundaries forbidden in nearly any other workplace.

“This rehearsal process, in particular, started during the heart of the #MeToo movement,” Westerman says. “Weinstein, Spacey, Louie [C.K.], Halberstam—I don’t think I was alone in feeling some pressure as our first rehearsals approached, which was not a bad thing at all. I was forced to truly examine my power, my privilege, and my practices. I made sure to have multiple strong female voices in the room at all times. During the first rehearsal, I said something along the lines of: ‘It’s fascinating and a little scary to be doing this play in the current climate. Let’s lean into it. Let’s figure out how to do this together.’ I made it clear that no intimacy or disrobing would be gratuitous, but rather focused on the storytelling. I iterated that a safe environment is everything and that we’ll treat intimacy as choreography. Every touch, kiss, hug, or grope would be expected, never a surprise. There would never be anything added on any given night. The challenge would then be to build it organically within that framework so that they could act it and not feel stiff or inauthentic. From there, we were able to give everyone a voice in the process.”

O’Keefe added to the strong collaborative atmosphere from day one saying, “The way we approached the work created a safe space and made communication between each other open at all times. Before anything took place it was discussed, and consent for the action was given by both of us. At no time did I feel like my voice was not heard if I objected to something. I always felt like I could speak up for myself and my character.”

Nina O’Keefe and Rich Holton. Photo by North Shore Camera Club.

The Chicago Theatre Standards advocate for sexual content and nudity to be approached in a similar manner (and with the same respect) as fight choreography. An intimacy choreographer (who may be the director or another actor) is required. Actors must be made aware of intimacy requirements at auditions. Much of this section of the Standards focuses on consent: requiring consent, discussing consent prior to intimacy rehearsals, and building towards consent gradually. Stage managers are asked to document declarations of consent and specific intimacy choreography.

Westerman, also a fight and intimacy choreographer, didn’t approach the intimate side of SEX WITH STRANGERS until three weeks into the rehearsal process, instead opting for a week of table work, and another two weeks of blocking and scene work. Westerman also used various exercises to help define boundaries and how each actor moved through the other’s personal space.

“I stole one exercise from Jane Brody in which Nina stood at one end of the room and Rich at the other end. As Rich began to slowly walk toward Nina, she would say ‘stop’ the moment she felt a chemical change occur. Rich would stop and they would acknowledge the feel of that specific distance and the boundary Nina felt there. Then Rich would slowly continue his walk and Nina would say ‘stop’ when she felt yet another chemical change. They’d acknowledge and repeat once more. Then they switched and Nina walked toward Rich to see where his implicit boundaries might be. I hoped this would be valuable on the first day of rehearsal to start the process of understanding boundaries and how they vary depending on the person. We can only have compassion for each other when we can acknowledge experiences outside of our own.”

And for Holton, the process of acknowledging and understanding boundaries prior to choreographing the intimacy “gave everyone a chance to develop a relationship before that point, and develop a collective frame of reference as to what any physical intimacy was trying to achieve.”

“The reasons for any moment of intimacy were clear,” says Westerman. “The story we were trying to tell within and through the intimacy was clear. Only then did we start to explore the transitions in which Laura Eason gives us the repeated stage direction: ‘clothes come off, sex is imminent.’ We knew, for instance, that in the first transition, some books had to get knocked off of this table over here and that both actors would be headed out this door over there. We discussed the relationship and the characters’ needs in the moment, and we slowly and methodically worked our way through it. We problem-solved. We checked in constantly. We laughed together. And we trusted each other. Soon, we had a vocabulary and a safe and organic way of working. From there, intimacy spread into the scene work and a beautiful and real and deep and three-dimensional story of a relationship was constructed.”

Pictured: Holton and O’Keefe. Photo by North Shore Camera Club.

Speaking with Holton and O’Keefe, it’s clear that with an established and solid path of communication in place, they both felt safe to explore and develop their characters. “We both worked to stay in tune with one another’s feelings throughout the process, acquire consent when new boundaries were approached, and keep lines of communication open for any and all to speak their truth,” said Holton.

But the Chicago Theatre Standards were not the only guidelines in play. Equity has recently rolled out a stronger policy on sexual harassment and implemented a rule that theaters must share this policy with AEA members working on their production.

“I was filled with pride receiving the sexual harassment policy, knowing that this issue was being addressed and complaints filled will be taken seriously,” says Equity member O’Keefe. “[It] gives me hope for the future and next generation of artists.”

The word ‘trust’ has taken on new meaning in this day and age, according to Citadel’s Artistic Director Scott Phelps: “There is very little growth if we don’t create an environment where we can stretch and grow and feel safe, and this cast and team of designers/director showed us that there is an equally large reward when we put it all on the line an take a leap of faith.”

But for Westerman, the Chicago Theatre Standards go beyond this production, “what the Chicago Theatre Standards seem to do best are educate and add awareness. We need them to protect us when things are not healthy. We need them to ensure that anyone has a voice if their rights are abused or their safety (physical or emotional) is disregarded. The theatre community is filled with wonderful, brilliant and kind people who know how to communicate and advocate and empathize, but we all have varying boundaries, triggers, pasts, defense mechanisms, etc… so it’s paramount that communication is flowing freely and boundaries are respected if not downright celebrated.”

About author

Abigail Trabue

Abigail has worked as an actor/director in Chicago for over ten years, and along with husband Jason Epperson founded Lotus Theatricals in 2015, and PerformInk Chicago and Kansas City in 2016 (where she serves as Managing Editor of both publications). When not talking shop, Abigail is raising three padawans with Jason, drinking lots of coffee, converting school buses into RV's, and eating all the foods at Disney World. You can find her on Twitter @AbigailTrabue