The Australian premiere of Liliana Padilla’s How to Defend Yourself recently opened at The Old Fitz. It tells the story of a group of female students who form a self-defence class after a sorority girl is sexually assaulted at a frat party. I sat down with the director, Claudia Barrie, to chat about Intimacy Coordinators, actor wellbeing, and her innovative use of swings in a post-Covid indie theatre landscape.
Please note, this interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
This is a play about a sexual assault on a university campus. As a director, how do you navigate actor safety when dealing with such intense content? I know you use an Intimacy Coordinator, can you chat more about that?
Very early on we had the discussion that this was a play that dealt with some very, very confronting content and that the actors need to find strategies that work for them, to make sure that they are okay.
In the room, we engaged an incredible intimacy coordinator, Shondelle Pratt, who I’ve worked with before many times. We began the process with an afternoon where we explored what consent means. We established a language, established a code of conduct, and a set of protocols that would stay in place for the duration of the production, both rehearsal and performance. And that was something we established really early on, before we even started putting anything on the floor— I think it was day two. Because there’s whole scenes in the show that I can’t put on the floor if I haven’t addressed consent properly.
So, we did that, and it meant then when we started putting things on the floor, they all had a language with each other. Every day they would check in with one another. They would all pair up and swap pairs and check in. This is basically about going through very specific parts of their body, these can be either a ‘green zone’ or a ‘red zone’ or an ‘amber zone’, and discussing any changes—because some days people are feeling different than others.
And as you go through the rehearsal process, when you start choreographing certain things, you also have what we call ‘placeholders’, where for example, instead of doing the actual kiss lip-to-lip, you might do palm-to-palm or cheek-to-cheek.
So, you can do all of the other choreography around (a kiss), but you don’t actually do that in rehearsals. And there’s no real reason to do that in rehearsal until the very end anyway, you just do the rest of the choreography and put in the placeholder. The other reason why that that’s really helpful in the Covid era is because we don’t need to be sharing saliva more than is necessary. We need to look after each other. So that was the process with that, and then we also had a fight choreographer Scotty Witt who came in as well.
I wrote an assignment for Uni about Intimacy Coordinators. It’s such an interesting kind-of new profession that is more established in TV and films than it is in theatre.
Yeah—It’s not actually ‘new’ at all. It’s just that the theatre has been very slow to catch up.
Yeah, totally! I’ve only heard about it becoming standard practice for theatres very recently.
I know, and even still, there are a lot of directors who fancy themselves as ‘Intimacy Coordinators’, but they’re not—it’s not the same language.
A director is in a position of power, and I think it’s important that an external consultant comes in and works closely with the director and the director’s vision on shaping a scene, while speaking to the artists who are working with one another on the floor, and a common shape is agreed on together. And that means there’s a third party there. And that means the choreography is written down, it’s recorded.
It means that before every show, there is an Intimacy Call— like you would have a Fight Call. And the stage manager has to write in the show report that the Intimacy Call and the Fight Call were done at a certain time, and whether or not there were any changes negotiated. These calls always have to take place in front of the director, the assistant director, or the stage manager, or a third party.
There’s so many things in place now, but I think it’s really important. Because we’ve had some horrific things going on in our theatres, and protecting my artists is really important to me.
Could you clarify what you mean by an ‘Intimacy Call’?
An ‘Intimacy Call’ means that before each show, you run through the intimacy choreography. So, you have to check in with your scene partner first, and then you have to go through the choreography.
You may have a placeholder in place, so if you don’t want to do lip-to-lip in the call, that’s fine. You can agree to just do it ‘in show.’ But again, that’s something that needs to be agreed and recorded. And you do that every single night before every show.
Thank you so much for your time. I’m a director myself, so it’s really interesting to hear about how other directors navigate actor safety and wellbeing when dealing with such intense and potentially triggering themes.
Absolutely. You’ve just got to make sure that everyone’s being looked after, and people feel safe. After we would do a run of the show in the rehearsal room, because of the way it ended, before I sat them down with notes or anything, I would just get them to shake it out, you know, and do some sun salutations, and take a moment.
How to Defend Yourself has a full, second ‘swing’ cast. Could you chat about why you did that?
The risk of a cast member getting Covid during a season is substantial. And if that happens, then the show can’t go on. So most of the main stage shows are employing swings now. I can’t speak for all of the independent sector, but a lot of independent shows are. Some aren’t though, at a cost—a huge cost in my opinion.
It’s just that there is no financial crash mat in place. So if you have to cancel the show, you lose money. And it’s hard enough to get people to the theatre at the moment. Even though I’m not producing, I was a producer for 15 years and I said to Jeremy, our producer, I think it’s vital that we do this. I don’t want to work really, really hard to get a show ready and then lose a week or two weeks, or—God forbid— the whole season for covid, which is what would happen. So, swings were always going to happen, but then we needed to figure out how we were going to do that.
And I really, really, really, really don’t like actors going on stage with a script in hand. I hate it. I find incredibly frustrating as an artist. I don’t think it’s necessary, I think that you can make it so it’s not. I understand, it needs to happen sometimes. But we all know there’s a pandemic, so why not put things in place to avoid that happening?
I’m also aware that swings in musical theatre are not new. This isn’t a new thing for the industry, but I think that the straight-theatre world are still finding their feet, still figuring out how to do it.
You know, some theatre companies don’t want the swings in the rehearsal room at all, because they’re worried about the increased risk that of making people sick. So, when I was understudying for A Doll’s House at the Ensemble, we weren’t allowed in the rehearsal room ever. We weren’t allowed to talk to the actors or have anything to do with them. We had to watch zoom for a week, and then we rehearsed for one week with the assistant director in another studio. And that’s tough, and I wanted to do something different to that. So, I decided to involve our swing cast from the beginning. On day one, I said to them:
“It’s not compulsory that you come to every rehearsal— it’s totally up to you. You choose when you want to come. And then in the final two weeks of rehearsal, you will be expected to be at as many rehearsals as possible, to be off book and to be ready to go.”
And then we also had the conversation about, do we get two females to learn the five female roles, and one man to learn the two male roles? But I didn’t want to do that either because ethnicity and cultural sensitivity matters. I thought: I just don’t want a white person up there being Diana, I don’t want a white person up there being Mojdeh and I’m not going to ask a person of colour to just do both. So, there were a lot of considerations that went into having one actor per role, including cultural sensitivity, the actors’ youth, and the complex choreography each actor had to learn.
So, we made the wild decision to do an entire cast of swings. But it’s actually been incredible. It’s gone so well. I have an amazing Assistant Director, Sophia Bryant, who has been largely responsible for working with the swings and passing everything on. But the swings have been observing rehearsals, so they know the show, and are off book and ready to jump in when needed.
And then not only do you have swings, but there’s four performances where it’s going to be the entire other cast—tell me about that.
That was the next discussion and there was a lot of back and forth with that. In the end, we had three different options (for how to integrate the swings into the season). At the end of the day, the decision came down to the producer, Jeremy Waters, and he decided to do four separate performances with the swing cast, and I respect that. But when that decision was made, I was like: “We need to really make sure that these swings can carry the show”. And I’m very confident that they can… I know where they’re at, and they’re in really good shape.
I wouldn’t set them up—I wouldn’t let them go on unless I thought they were 100% ready, because I know it’s not usually done this way. But they actually do feel really secure, they don’t feel like they need a primary cast member to carry them through. And that’s a testament to (Assistant Director) Sophia and the work she’s done with them.
For people who want to go see these dedicated swing performances, how different do you think the two versions are?
I think they’re very similar because it’s all the same blocking, they’re playing the same actions on every line, and everything’s been approved by me. But what you do get is they are different human beings. So, they have different quirks, and so it is different of course, but it is still the same show.
What I would love is for Sydney to start to understand how important swings are. There still seems to be a hangover about it, and I’ve had to really get it across to some people: It’s swings that are really keeping the industry running at this point.
Swings are— in my mind—absolutely remarkable, incredible artists and they should be celebrated.
This interview was conducted and edited by Jo Bradley.