When Siobhan Richardson embarked on her professional performing arts career after graduating from the Canadian College of Performing Arts in 2001, the idea that she might someday earn a large part of her living as an “intimacy director” never entered her mind.
Eighteen years later, the Toronto-based actor, fight director, singer, dancer and choreographer finds herself in high demand in such a role. She works as a professional intimacy coach for stage and screen, advising actors and directors on sensitive matters, and staging intimate moments or scenes that might be deemed erotic, contain nudity or involve simulated sexual activity.
It was Richardson’s reputation as a stage combat instructor and choreographer that paved the way for her work as a consultant who choreographs kissing and fondling rather than fighting.
When she would choreograph a combat sequence for a play, a director would often ask if she could also offer advice on how to stage a sexual scene in a respectful way, she said.
“They’d say, ‘Would you mind looking at this too?’” she recalled. “It’s not fight work at all. It’s some manner of kissing or rolling around on the floor while sex is happening.”
She had a taste herself of what many actors feel when asked to do an intimate scene when she appeared in Stage West Theatre’s production of And Then the Lights Went Out, she recalled.
“I hadn’t had a stage kiss for some time and when it came to choreographing that scene I kind of froze and began to giggle like a 12-year-old. I said ‘How am I over 30 and I don’t have a process for this?’” said Richardson, who co-founded Intimacy Directors International in 2016 after studying with Tonia Sina, assisting her on the Stratford Festival production of The Bakkhai.
“I had a process for fighting, for that primal survival instinct but I didn’t have one for sexuality. I was safe. The director was fantastic. I in no way felt I was in danger. I just didn’t know what to do.”
Richardson is quick to point out that, while Intimacy Directors International has achieved large-scale recognition for advocating a high standard for direction of intimacy or sexual violence to prevent abuse or harassment, she is not one of the first practitioners of this work.
“The industry is finally catching up with what some people have been doing already,” the Kitchener-born performer said. “Somebody has to choreograph this because someone can be super awkward or doing something that verges on criminal activity and anything in between.”
What is considered “sexy” on stage or in front of the camera is highly subjective, she says.
“When someone says, ‘It’s just not hot yet’ that’s not really a playable direction. Hot to whom? To me, my fellow actors, to what we think my character’s psychology is? We do have to have agreements and discussions about it, and we do our table work like we would anything else.”
Establishing clear boundaries is an essential part of the process, she adds.
“Part of it is recognizing that as an actor, part of my job is to touch and be touched, physically as well as emotionally, and it’s up to me to be develop the assertiveness in the best possible sense of the word, to be able to say ‘no hands in front of my throat’ but maybe ‘a hit on the back of my neck.’ It’s being clear about what’s available. We can make counter offers.”
Richardson was pleased to hear that choreographer Jessica Hickman doubled as intimacy director for two scenes in Company C Studio Ensemble’s production of Sweet Charity.
“When you’re dealing with people between 17 and 24 you can’t assume they’ve actually kissed someone before, that they have a sexual history to draw from,” Richardson said. “They’re learning, and their exposure to sexy scenes may have been something they’ve seen in community theatre, or from someone who said ‘Why don’t you go off and try to figure it out?” because a director was uncomfortable with asking young people to kiss each other.”
Richardson, who started dancing at age 4 and began studying martial arts in her teens, said her interest in stage combat intensified at CCPA, where during the first of her two years of studies iconic fight director and choreographer J.P. Fournier came to do sword fighting workshops. She took to stage combat – “dance and fighting essentially in one art form” – very quickly and got certified in Montreal a year later.
While Richardson has since worked steadily in theatre, film and television, the performer admits it was challenging at first landing roles she felt suitable for.
“Being a woman who is good at fighting and built like me, where were the roles for women like me?” she said. “When [the 2008 action flick] Wanted came out, Angelina Jolie looked virtually anorexic she was so thin. A woman with musculature wasn’t a thing you saw unless it was a woman fighting because someone in her family was assaulted, because she’s protecting a child, or she was a fetish, or a cop, and therefore had to also be lesbian and unattractive.”
Her versatility paid off, however, with a long list of credits that includes roles in musicals (West Side Story, Nunsense), Shakespeare plays (Richard III), the 2014 short film Battlers that earned her Action on Film’s Breakout Action Star award and director Megan Follows’ production of The Penelopiad for London’s Grand Theatre in which she played several different characters.
“We were all playing the maids and putting on a show for Penelope so we get to explore all different kinds of physicality – singing and dancing and Megan wanted to make use of my physical skills so I did circus and brief fighting,” said Richardson, who was also fight director.
Richardson also recently presented a show at Toronto’s Redwood Theatre titled Why We Fight with Crux Encounter Productions, the resident company of actor/fighters she co-founded with Jade Elliott McRae that she describes as “Stratford Festival meets the National Ballet of Stage Combat.” Their goal is to be a multi-platform home for stage combat, a theatre company that specializes in productions featuring this art form and where aspiring stage fighters can train.
Her main take-aways from the College were learning the importance of training, storytelling and maintenance of your instrument, she recalls over the phone from Toronto, where she was doing foundational exercises at Goodlife Fitness as part of a fitness regimen that includes fencing with her husband, fellow fight director Matt Richardson, in their home studio.
Much of what she learned at the College didn’t sink in until a year or two later, she adds.
“I’d do something and then I’d say, ‘Oh, that’s what they were trying to teach us!”