In­ti­macy gets technical in Re­nais­sance Theater­works’ ‘Sex with Strangers’

Wisconsin Gazette - - Opinion - By Michael Muck­ian Con­tribut­ing writer

How do ac­tors pre­pare for sex on­stage? If you’re Re­nais­sance Theater­works, you hire a pro­fes­sional fight chore­og­ra­pher to block the more in­ti­mate scenes — which is just what they did for Laura Ea­son’s 2009 play Sex With Strangers.

The play, which opens Oct. 20 at the Broad­way The­atre Cen­ter, kicks off RTW’s 25th sea­son.

“We all hear hor­ror sto­ries about di­rec­tors who tell their cast, ‘Go into the hall­way and have seven minutes of heaven to get com­fort­able with the idea,’” says Mal­lory Me­toxen, who helms the pro­duc­tion. She’s RTW’s artis­tic as­so­ci­ate and di­rec­tor of new play de­vel­op­ment, and says, “That’s not the way to make it work. I wanted to make sure I was am­ply pre­pared to work on this piece.”

In prepa­ra­tion, Me­toxen at­tended a Chicago work­shop led by in­ti­macy de­signer and con­sul­tant To­nia Sina. Me­toxen then hired lo­cal move­ment and fight chore­og­ra­pher Christo­pher Elst to block the in­ti­mate scenes and in­struct both di­rec­tor and cast how to han­dle the play’s “im­ma­nent” sex.

“Sex on­stage is tricky be­cause you are in a room (with the au­di­ence) as op­posed to film and TV, where you have the dis­tance of the screen,” says author Ea­son from her home in New York City. “For the stage you need amaz­ing chem­istry be­tween the ac­tors, and when it works, it is re­ally ex­cit­ing.”

‘TWO PARTS OF MY­SELF’

Sex With Strangers be­gins with a notso-chance meet­ing be­tween older nov­el­ist Olivia (Marti Go­bel) and mil­len­nial sex blog­ger Nathan (Nick Nar­cisi) in a de­serted, snow­bound Michi­gan bed-and-breakfast. Olivia is there to edit her sec­ond novel, while Ethan shows up to con­vince Olivia to let him re­lease her novel on his new on­line pub­lish­ing app.

Ethan built his blog Sex With Strangers on a friend’s chal­lenge that he bed a dif­fer­ent woman every week for a full year by pick­ing them up in bars “the old-fash­ioned way.”

Olivia orig­i­nally re­coils, then warms to the idea, and then — well, you can guess the rest. Ea­son’s stage di­rec­tions sim­ply say, “Sex is im­mi­nent.”

Ea­son — the for­mer artis­tic di­rec­tor of Chicago’s Look­ing­glass The­ater Com­pany who moved to New York to prove her­self as a play­wright — con­ceived the char­ac­ters of Olivia and Ethan as as­pects of her own per­sona ex­am­in­ing the wis­dom of her move east.

“The play emerged from the two parts of my­self hav­ing a con­ver­sa­tion in those early New York days,” says Ea­son, who has also served for four sea­sons as writer/pro­ducer on the Emmy Award-win­ning Net­flix se­ries House of Cards. “Part of me won­dered if I would suc­ceed and if any­one would ever be in­ter­ested in my work.”

That in­ter­nal con­ver­sa­tion in­spired the in­ti­macy be­tween the two char­ac­ters Ea­son cre­ated, and it led to the no­tion that sex was im­mi­nent be­tween them.

“I am not very de­scrip­tive in my stage di­rec­tions and leave the sex in the play open to in­ter­pre­ta­tion, how­ever that man­i­fests for those ac­tors and di­rec­tor,” says Ea­son. “I do think that in all the pro­duc­tions I have seen, it’s never just a quick kiss and then black out. The pro­duc­tions have re­ally tried to ex­plore a phys­i­cal re­la­tion­ship and es­tab­lish the ro­mance be­tween these two char­ac­ters, which I feel is im­por­tant to un­der­stand­ing their con­nec­tion.”

Me­toxen re­mains coy about how that im­mi­nent sex will man­i­fest in RTW’s pro­duc­tion. Part of that de­ci­sion, she says, will de­pend on the chem­istry of the cast, which had only just be­gun re­hears­ing at press time.

“We have to talk through all the steps first, and the cast may have bet­ter ideas,” Me­toxen says. “It’s the same process you would fol­low if you were swing­ing a sword.”

The di­rec­tor is con­fi­dent that her ac­tors will rise to the chal­lenge posed by Ea­son’s script.

“I don’t think there’s a line they can’t cross; it all de­pends on where they want to go,” Me­toxen adds. “But the sex is im­mi­nent, and we’re all go­ing to feel it as au­di­ence mem­bers.”

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