116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
CEDAR RAPIDS — Carrie Pozdol, 45, of Cedar Rapids, is leading the change in the way local theater troupes embrace emotional and physical contact, reactions and boundaries onstage and off.
With 66 hours of training, she has offered her expertise as an “intimacy director” or choreographer to 27 productions so far, beginning with Theatre Cedar Rapids’ productions of “Bright Star” and “Kinky Boots” in the 2021-22 season, on through the recent “Meet Me in St. Louis” and the upcoming “Cabaret.”
Largely through word-of-mouth, she also has worked with Mirrorbox Theatre, Cedar Rapids Opera, Coe College and Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids; City Circle Theatre Company in Coralville; Iowa City Community Theatre, Riverside and Dreamwell theaters in Iowa City; Cornell College in Mount Vernon; and the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. Farther afield, a college friend has asked her to collaborate on am upcoming production of “August: Osage County” in Forest City.
She even has directed herself, in Theatre Cedar Rapids’ recent production of “Misery,” in which she played a mentally unstable, obsessed fan holding a bestselling romance writer hostage while treating his grave injuries from a snowy Colorado car crash.
Pozdol said it was “rough” to choreograph herself, but “we're all kind of learning around here, too.” She gave her notes to stage manager Kelly Shriver, and had her run the “vulnerability practice”:
“That's the thing that I run actors through so they learn to be more comfortable with each other and more vulnerable onstage, because we all tend to want to protect our soft middle bits and stuff onstage. … ” Pozdol said.
One of things they worked on was a technique known as “de-roling,” where actors work to separate themselves from the characters they’re playing — important with emotionally-charged roles.
In another personal twist, she’ll soon be working with her husband, Aaron Pozdol, who will be kissing two women in TCR’s spring production of “The Play That Goes Wrong.”
“So that'll be fun for everybody,” she said with a laugh.
Humor aside, her work is serious business.
A Dubuque native who studied theater at Simpson College in Indianola, she lived and worked in theater for 10 years in Chicago, and met her now-husband. They eventually moved back to Dubuque for a couple of years. Employment opportunities brought them to Cedar Rapids nearly six years ago. She now works as a registered corporate coach for Empower Retirement, using some of the same skills she employs in theater.
To enhance her theater coaching, she also is certified as an artistic mental health practitioner, and in mental health first aid. She said both enable her to assist cast and crew members who may need to come down from a particularly grueling scene or moment that triggers their “fight or flight response.”
She uses a sliding scale fee for her services, from $750 for a play in which she’s heavily involved, to $200 or $300 if she’s just coming in for one night or working on a smaller show. She also has training in conflict mediation and conflict resolution.
Q: So what does being an intimacy choreographer or director entail?
A: I am there to be an advocate for the actors. On one hand, I’m there to make sure that we are establishing boundaries for them and they are able to do their work safely, knowing that they're being heard. Having those boundaries established actually makes people feel a lot freer, than if it’s a free-for-all. People don't really know what they can do and what they can't, so they feel a lot freer when we establish boundaries. We establish neutral language or desexualized language that we use when talking about these moments on stage that are usually physically intimate. I also help with scenes that are more emotionally charged — a lot more sensitive topics that can be activating for people to act out.
Q: How did this all arise? Is it an outcropping of the Me Too movement?
A: Actually, there have been a lot of theater-makers that have been doing this work for a long time. A lot of them were women of color, who've been doing this work for a really long time. But as far as it becoming an actual job, that's really only been maybe six years, where these people realized, “Hey, this is an opportunity for us.” It didn't really solidify until after Me Too kind of blew up (in 2017).
The first time that I learned about it was in a New York Times article about “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune,” that was starring Michael Shannon and Audra McDonald. She asked for an intimacy choreographer, and that was the first time that Broadway ever had one. That blew my mind when I was reading, because I knew that we didn't have that in regular theater in smaller venues.
I guess I knew it wasn't really a theater thing, but to know that it also was not a thing for movies, either — I just always assumed, especially considering how intense those scenes are in movies, that there was something more structured behind it. But there hasn't been.
And so I was like, “This is really fascinating.” And when you really look, especially in the best practices workshopping, you really start talking about it, it doesn't make sense that there has not been a choreographer for this, like there's a choreographer for fighting. Because it's the same kind of thing. …
(However, she discovered that classes and workshops would take her away from her full-time job, home and young family — and would be cost-prohibitive. So she shelved the notion until the pandemic shutdown, when Theatrical Intimacy Educators offered training online.)
I started taking everything I could, basically.
Q: What do you help actors with? I have a feeling it's more than just a big kissing scene.
A: Yes, usually it is, so I work with directors to figure out what type of involvement they want me to have. Some directors want me to do the whole thing, they don't really want to know — just, “Here's the story we're telling, you choreograph this bit, and go with it. I trust you.” Some people know what they want to see, they just would like me to help facilitate it. And so I kind of work that way, depending on what works best for the director.
And then I help the actors understand that they can say no, because for such a long time, the idea was (when) you walk into the room, you're consenting. That’s not really the best way to go about it. I work to make sure they feel like they are human beings who are allowed to have feelings and it's not going to blackball them from the industry, if they want to say no to this one thing in particular.
I'm there to help them figure out what their boundaries are, because a lot of times they've never considered it. Then they share those with their acting partner. And they also know that their boundaries are perfect right where they are, and they can change at any time. …
There's so much stuff that people previously (think), it's like, “OK, so if I touch this person here, are they going to know I'm doing a character, or are they going to think it's me, the actor?” You don't have to think about that anymore, because we're putting into place choreography that's repeatable, and it's being written down by the stage manager, so it can be enforced that way.
Let's say one of your acting partners starts to move their hand a little lower than it's supposed to be. Then instead of making it a whole thing, the actor can go up to the stage manager and say, “Hey, can we revisit the choreography? I think things got a little off.” So then it's less personal that way, and it gets less messy.
Q: What are some of the most common things that actors might be a little hesitant or nervous about?
A: It can be a lot of things. It's really a personal thing, like a lot of people don't want their hair touched; a lot of people don't want their ears touched; a lot of people don't feel good about their stomach being touched. So it's really just about navigating where the actors feel OK touching each other in a way that still tells the story. …
And another thing, a lot of directors worry because they think the actors can change whatever they want, whenever they want. First of all, that’s not really a thing that happens. … Most actors want to do the job. They're there because they want to do it. So that's why the whole the whole experience of the intimacy work should start from the audition. If it's a completely consent-based process from Day One, then you're not going to get people who didn't know what was happening until they got there.
Q: How do you work during the during the course of a rehearsal?
A: I talk to the director to find out what's the story, and I ask the actors, too, what story are we telling in this moment? And let's tell it. How are we going to communicate that — work through the touch and through the eye contact.
Because you can really enrich the story if you use these moments of touch and intimacy, even if they're not making out, if you choreograph it with the right amount of beats in it, and eye contact, and where your destination is for your hands. Where are you making contact and where are you not making contact on purpose? Where are you opening distance and closing distance to each other?
If you pay attention to that, and actually choreograph that, you can enrich the story so much more than just making those moments “moments to just get through,” like you're ripping off a Band Aid, which is what happens. And that can also take people out of the story, when you could all of a sudden see how uncomfortable the actors are as people, instead of watching the characters have this moment.
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