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