How Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon Got Intimate


Ms. McDonald — who at 48 has six Tony Awards, one of them for Mr. McNally’s “Master Class” — had never had a nude scene onstage until she played Frankie. The prospect frightened her from the moment she took the role, and when Ms. Arbus floated hiring an intimacy director, Ms. McDonald was all for it.

She had done sex scenes before, though, including one with Woody Harrelson for the 2011 movie “Rampart.”

“It was literally like, ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Woody,’ ‘Hi, nice to meet you, I’m Audra,’ and then,” she said, clapping her hands together, “we started shooting. Everybody was as professional as they could be about it, but there was something that was a little bit” — she paused a long moment to choose the next word — “horrifying, that it was just: Who’s helping us figure out what to do?”

For approximately ever, expecting performers to improvise was a widely accepted practice. It’s only in the last couple of years that helping them through it has become the work of intimacy directors.

One of the first things Ms. Warden does on a show is talk privately, one-on-one, with the actors, to learn what they’re uncomfortable with or anxious about. (“It’s kind of like going to confession,” Mr. Shannon said.) If there’s a place where they don’t want to be touched, or a part of their body that they don’t want to be seen, she will defend that boundary for them.

As she creates a choreography that achieves what the director needs for the production while ensuring it can be done safely, she includes nothing that fails to get the actors’ “enthusiastic consent.” Any response short of that she considers a no, and respects as such.

“There’s a lot of talk about making actors comfortable,” said Ms. Warden, who choreographed the intimate moments of the most explicit productions Off Broadway last season, “‘Daddy’” and “Slave Play”; has two more Broadway projects lined up; and also works in film and television.



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