It was a moment of downtime onstage. The show’s two actors were sitting on a scruffy couch, waiting for rehearsal to restart while the director and stage manager huddled over a problem. The actors were playing a couple — a man and a woman — and the female character, for plot reasons, had just changed into the male character’s pajamas.
The actress had never, even in real life, worn men’s pajamas and was tickled to discover there was a fly. She put her hand down inside the front of the pants, snaked two fingers through the fly, faced her scene partner and waggled her fingers at him suggestively, making a beckoning motion, dipsy doodling, giving the fingers a little voice that said, “Hellooo.”
It got so many laughs from those in the room that the actors asked the director whether they could incorporate it into the show.
“If you can dare it, you can do it,” he said. “If it doesn’t work, we’ll cut it.”
From the audience seats, Emily Sucher interjected. Sucher is a petite person with brilliant red hair, a quiet air of authority and a job to do. Sucher is an intimacy director, charged with coaching actors on how to be, well, intimate.
“You need to be standing, and he’s sitting. It’s just one finger, not two, and have it point straight at him,” Sucher said.
The actors tried it that way, and suddenly, with that one adjustment, the resonance of the entire scene changed. The man and woman were a divorcing couple who still loved each other fiercely but had been torn apart — probably permanently — by tragedy. They were gingerly testing each other to see what was left. And with the change, the moment moved from a bit of goofy clowning to an equally funny but sexually suggestive scene, revealing both the characters’ comfort with each other and their stifled sexual longing. When the woman went to one finger, held stiffly, standing above him, it became a demonstration of power, a moment of danger, perhaps a challenge. And the other actor, uninstructed, sensing the new sexual tension in the room, saw that challenge and raised it: He took the finger into his mouth.
The whole scene, as amended — including the last bit — remained in the play. Getting a laugh, but also illustrating why these two might have belonged together. No clothes came off, no parts were stimulated, but it was almost unbearably intimate.
The show, put on by Nu Sass Productions, was called “To Fall in Love.” I was the female actor. Connor Padilla was the man. And Emily Sucher was doing a job that did not exist in theater just a few years ago.
Sucher last participated in the dance world when they took a jazz class during middle school. But on Monday, at the Helen Hayes Awards for Washington-area theater, Sucher will be vying to win the award for best choreography in a smaller-production play. There simply was no other category of prize that this new field fit neatly into, and Sucher’s impact on “To Fall in Love” was deemed so noteworthy by the Hayes Awards judges that they decided the definition of “choreography” could be expanded to cover intimacy direction. It’s the first time this has happened. Sucher will be up against three separate shows from Synetic Theater, the powerhouse dance/movement-oriented company in Arlington run by a pair of dancers. (A production from the Keegan Theatre is also nominated.)
The role of intimacy director is new and often misunderstood. It’s widely presumed to be schoolmarmish, someone around to make actors feel quote-unquote safe, and to sanitize something raw and edgy and dangerous and exciting and vulnerable into something suitable for public consumption. An enemy of art, in short.
Except, it’s not. Because our director brought Sucher in from the start and intimacy was part of the storytelling throughout. We had an expert on hand to read our body language and refine what we were trying to do, like in the pajama pants moment. But we felt comfortable and respected enough to try it in the first place, and that was because of Sucher, too.
It’s been difficult to culturally separate the job of intimacy director from the #MeToo movement, which brought down several local and regional theaters with allegations of entrenched exploitation and abuse. A director once told Sucher that he’d brought in an intimacy director as a kind of #MeToo insurance. So it’s worth noting that what Sucher did for our show is what the Helen Hayes Awards judges found to be the most artistically exciting thing about the production: not stifling sexuality but intensifying its power in the story.
“I’m not the sex police,” Sucher told me. “If something is gratuitous, and everyone in the room is for it, yeah, let’s get gratuitous.”
Sucher’s impact on our production was woven throughout the show, mostly in subtle ways, such as how we sat on the couch together and when we got into each other’s personal space. But there was one scene that simulated intercourse, which required literal choreography. How to synchronize things if you can’t see each other, for example. Sucher’s instruction gave new meaning to my understanding of “breath work.”
Sucher also instructed me and my counterpart on nonverbal moments that project love and familiarity, despite the two characters’ shared, destructive agony. At one point, the woman slides her feet near the man’s lap, which both recognize as an ask for a foot rub. When he is done with the left foot, at Sucher’s direction, he taps her calf in a semaphore only intimates can identify with: Now give me your other one.
Sucher made the physical intimacy crescendo throughout the show, climaxing (heh) with sex, but even after the encounter, the emotional intimacy kept building. That was transmitted through the less-obvious things that make up coupledom: letting one’s stomach pooch, eating messy food together without qualms, sharing incredibly stupid jokes. The play was staged in a small room with 18 seats. The farthest seat was about 15 feet from us; we knew the audience would be able to read any false note.
About six years back, when intimacy direction was just becoming a thing, Sucher, who is also a performer, emailed a nationwide organization to ask how to get into such work. It was so new that there wasn’t really a blueprint or curriculum, but Sucher was advised to take courses in consent education, anti-racism and mental health first aid. Often, intimacy directors come from the stage combat world — a world also recognized with “choreography” awards — but Sucher took a different path.
Sucher holds several day jobs, including a most unusual one: teaching medical students at Johns Hopkins University, among others, how to give better urogenital exams — using Sucher’s own body as a teaching tool. The job is to help future doctors learn to navigate the terrain, but also to advise better ways of putting a patient at ease than “you might feel some pressure.” A more relaxed patient means a better exam for everyone.
It was great practice for directing intimacy scenes. Sucher, professional recipient of inexpert genital exams, has the skills to help make just about any situation more comfortable and safe and authentic. In one play, Sucher’s direction was needed to make a highly emotional scene between two sibling characters less sexy.
Demand for intimacy professionals has been steadily increasing: Sucher has now done the job on more than 30 plays.
But that doesn’t mean the theater world has fully woken up to the legitimacy of the profession. Which makes the Helen Hayes recognition even more significant. “One reason I’m really excited for the nomination,” Sucher says, “is that it’s being recognized as having any artistic value at all.”
A previous version of this story indicated there are four people nominated for the Helen Hayes award for best choreography in a smaller-production play. The choreographers for five plays are nominated in this category.