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The 'sacred' work of OSF's new intimacy director

When Helena awakens Lysander from a nap in the woods during the second act of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” he falls for her instantly thanks to a potion applied by the mischievous fairy Puck.

The scene is mostly played for laughs, but there’s a lot more going on under the hood. How strong should Lysander come on to Helena? Should he attempt to impede her retreat? If he throws himself at her, where exactly do his hands go? How about hers?

These decisions, though subtle, could alter the effect, or enhance it, or something in between, and when the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s 2020 production of “Midsummer” opens at the Bowmer Theatre Feb. 28, Sarah Lozoff will be the unseen influence behind many of those decisions.

Previously hired on a show-by-show basis, Lozoff starting this season will be OSF’s first resident intimacy director, and as such she will be available for all 10 shows as a full-time employee.

The education coordinator for Intimacy Directors International, Lozoff has also worked as a movement director, choreographer, gyrotonic trainer and ballet instructor.

Lozoff figured the move would draw at least a sliver of the spotlight as OSF prepares for its upcoming season, but she didn’t expect OSF’s media and public relations specialist CJ Martinez to be inundated with interview requests within hours of the festival’s announcement in early January. The creation of the new position by one of the nation’s leading regional theaters attracted the attention of some media heavyweights — the New York Times and BroadwayWorld among them.

“It is much more (interview requests) than I’m used to — I’m used to zero,” Lozoff said with a chuckle. “This is my third morning in a row of having an interview this week, and I believe we have something similar next week. I’ve certainly never had someone managing my publicity and schedule in a way that (Martinez) is so lovingly doing.”

Lozoff admitted that with all the attention comes a certain amount of pressure.

“This is something that I’ve been kind of a squeaky wheel about ... and I need to make sure that I prove how useful it is and that I can actually handle this organization of 500-plus employees,” she said. “So there’s certainly pressure from within the organization, although I feel incredibly supported, but then there’s also pressure from the field of intimacy direction because it is new and because we do still have a fair amount of skeptics.

“Every job we take there is pressure on us, and so for a theater of this size in this country to commit in this way, not just to have a few shows but to create a resident position, that is so meaningful to the field of intimacy direction and coordination. It’s that field, it’s those founders, it’s my mentors, it’s my colleagues, and then it’s also just the American theater landscape at large.”

So what does an intimacy director do? Choreograph sex scenes, of course. And much, much more.

As Lozoff points out, there may not have always been a shared vernacular or an organization such as Intimacy Directors International, but intimacy direction has been practiced at theaters for most of the past two decades, long before Lozoff’s interest in the job was piqued by a 2017 New York Times article headlined, “Need to Fake an Orgasm? There’s an ‘Intimacy Choreographer’ for that.” Then, the Me Too and Time’s Up movements upped the ante.

To Lozoff, the job can be broken down into three parts, each equally important. First, the broader task of consent training, which involves advocating for the artists and making sure they’re “consenting to telling the story that we’re telling in the way that we are telling it.” Next, intimacy directors must set protocols, such as how to accommodate an actor during a nude scene with a robe while they’re not being lit. And then there’s the actual choreography of the intimacy, which could be anything from a love scene to a fight scene.

“A lot of people get caught up on that one because they feel like I must be coming in with a set plan, and I’m saying, ‘Do this, move here,’ and that’s not necessarily true,” Lozoff said. “It usually means that I’m helping the actors to figure out what their boundaries are and declare those boundaries for the day so that we are building parameters within which we can explore a scene. And then we explore it, and I can sort of curate from there.

“We just need to make sure that there’s a set choreography by the time we open the show so there are no surprises night by night. It’s not changing a great deal. We want to be able to teach it to understudies; we want to make sure it’s repeatable, that it’s sustainable at a place like OSF, and that the audience that sees it in late February sees the same show that the audience in late October sees.”

Part of the work, she points out, is verbalizing and normalizing in a very clinical way what the actors are supposed to be doing, with an eye on the intended affect. If the goal is to make a simulated sex scene look organic, for instance, Lozoff will break that down to its smallest pieces. Here, she leans on her experience teaching movement.

“So instead of saying, ‘Can you make it sexier?’ being very specific about, ‘Can you move your hips in this kind of motion? What if we get a little bit more arch in the back. What if you embrace at this moment?’”

If an actor needs to talk about the emotional ramifications of a specific scene, Lozoff is available for that, too. She can advise on “closure practices” to help them leave their work in the theater.

Serving as the expert to which OSF actors turn while navigating through some of the more emotionally intense scenes is, to Lozoff, an honor.

“It really is,” she said. “This is my eighth season at OSF. I worked as a choreographer and movement director in the past ... so I’ve worked with these actors a whole bunch. But this is different in terms of what kind of space I’m holding for them. Because it’s advocacy work, and so much of it is about consent and holding space and creating safe where somebody can be vulnerable in otherwise crowded rooms, what I feel like really helps me in terms of being prepared for this position is A, I was raised by activists, so I have a long history of social justice work. And B, I was also a birth doula for a number of years.”

In other words, she said, her background in movement and choreography are no more essential than her experience creating safe spaces in a crowded room such as a hospital birth.

“It often feels sacred in much the same way,” she said. “I don’t mean to get emotional or corny or woohoo about it, but it does.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Sarah Lozoff (Photo by Crystal Garcia)