Stratford Festival hires choreographer for intimate scenes in Bakkhai

Posted: June 09, 2017
Last Updated: June 11, 2017

Though there's not actually any nudity in Bakkhai, director Jillian Keiley says one of the show's themes is women embracing their sexuality. That's one of the reasons she brought in intimacy choreographer Tonia Sina to advise and coach the cast. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

For the first time in the company's history, Stratford Festival has hired an "intimacy choreographer" to help direct sensitive scenes in its production of Bakkhai.

The Euripides play — this, a new version by Canadian playwright Anne Carson — is a classic Greek tragedy that revolves around the story of Dionysos, the god of wine, ecstasy and fertility. 

There's not actually any nudity in the show, director Jillian Keiley told CBC, but there are delicate scenes that deal with sex, gender and sexuality. 


"I wouldn't consider it very lewd or anything," said Keiley. "There's a fair bit of it, but the sexual aspects of the show are really about elevating sexuality as a way to connect with nature and a way to connect with the greater Gods."

That's why she sought out Tonia Sina, who Keiley had met at a workshop in Toronto, to work on the show.

"In the theatre now, we have fight choreographers and we have experts in voice and experts who do dance and I really wanted somebody to come in who would really advise and coach the actors in how to explore that aspect of choreography, their sexuality," said Keiley.

Sexual harassment in front of a crowd

The idea of an intimacy choreographer, or intimacy director, is relatively new in theatre but gaining ground in North America. 

Tonia Sina noticed an alarming trend of young female actors subjected to trauma on stage and in rehearsal. Now she's working to change the industry standard so intimacy choreographers are the norm. (Tonia Sina/Intimacy Directors International)

Sina, who founded Intimacy Directors International, is based in Oklahoma City, Okla., and started developing her process in grad school. 


"I saw a lot of trauma happen on stage, and people leaving the industry — especially young actresses going through training programs." 

And it's something Sina's experienced first-hand.

"My partner added a bunch of intimacy and I had to receive it in character," said Sina. "So essentially I was sexually harassed in front of 500 people."

"That should never happen because you feel like a victim, and it's traumatizing."

Actors often left to improvise

Gordon Miller, who plays Pentheus in Bakkhai, says Sina's approach is long overdue in the industry. (Cylla von Tiedemann/Stratford Festival)

"Very often it's just 'Yah we're going to need a little something there... you guys figure that out,'" explained Gordon Miller who plays Pentheus in Bakkhai. "That could be anything from a kiss to a touch to a love scene."

"You realize, in hindsight, this has been needed for a long time." 


Sina started with drawing out a framework of guidelines that lean on transparency and using specific language so everyone working on a production is on the same page. 

Intensity on a scale of one to 10

At the centre of her method is a numbering system, a scale of one to 10, indicating the arc of a moment and its intensity. 

"I'll say 'Let's start the kiss at a three. So it goes three, three, four, five, five, five, four, three, off."

She said that gives the actors a roadmap, clear direction and boundaries. 

Her group, Intimacy Directors International, is growing — as is awareness of the importance of actors' mental and emotional health. 

"What [we're] is hoping to do is change the industry so we can prevent sexual harassment from happening in the first place.'

"And if we can change the industry standard we think that could happen." 


Jackie Sharkey

Jackie Sharkey is a producer for CBC News in Kitchener-Waterloo and an occasional guest host. She has been been based in Kitchener, Ont., since the station was created in 2013, after working for CBC in Kelowna, B.C., Quebec City and Rankin Inlet, Nunavut.