Interview: Crista Marie Jackson Explains Why Intimacy Direction Is Essential on Stage

Crista Marie Jackson is the intimacy director for the world premiere of Dodi & Diana, now playing a strictly limited engagement through October 29, 2022, at HERE.

By: Oct. 09, 2022
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Dodi & DianaHiring an intimacy director on a film or stage production is a practice that is slowly but surely (and encouragingly) becoming more and more common practice. Crista Marie Jackson, the intimacy director of Colt Coeur's world premiere play Dodi & Diana, would like for the job of intimacy director, to be an essential one.

Colt Coeur's World Premiere of Dodi & Diana by Kareem Fahmy, directed by Adrienne Campbell-Holt, is playing a strictly limited engagement through October 29, 2022, at HERE (145 Sixth Avenue, NY, NY 10013). Starring Rosaline Elbay ("Ramy") and Peter Mark Kendall (Six Degrees of Separation), the play takes place 25 years after Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed's fatal car crash, and explores a couple's marraige, and their strange connection to one of the world's most famous and tragic couples.

BroadwayWorld spoke in depth with Crista Marie Jackson about the role of an intimacy director, her work on Dodi & Diana, what defines intimacy on stage, and much more.

This is the world premiere of Dodi & Diana. Can you tell me what this play is about?

It is an exploration of relationship, of what it is to be driven and to go for the thing that you want in life, while also figuring out what it is to be a part of a partnership. It's a lot more nuanced and complicated than that, and I think if I were to talk about what spoke to me about it when I first read it, it's a really beautiful story of an interracial relationship, and the nuances of that experience. Kareem [Fahmy] does a phenomenal job of really capturing the moments of question, and the moments of tension, and then, what is it to breathe and move through those as a partnership.

You are the intimacy director of Dodi & Diana. This is a job that is fairly newly established in the entertainment industry. Can you tell me how you became an intimacy director?

Movement is my first language. I was one of the kids who was put into ballet classes when I was very little, and I've been dancing, and telling stories through movement my whole life. I was an actor for a while, and then I ran away and joined the circus as an aerialist, and that led to some stunt work, and the stunt work led me back into the circus world. I did some of the rehearsal for Beyonce's Formation World Tour, and one of the people I worked with there, Marshall Nelson, was working with Cirque du Soleil. It was through him that I ended up becoming the Assistant Artistic Director of a project called Alegria. And then Covid hit! And everything stopped. And I decided that my way of managing that pause was to dive headlong into education.

So, I went back to school, I got my MBA, and I realized that focusing on business was not the right thing for me, I needed something that offered still a creative energy. And I'm friends with Alicia Rodis, and I had an opportunity to check in with her about the work that she does, and I got really curious about it. So, I took some classes through intimacy directors and coordinators, and I really fell in love, and I realized that intimacy direction and coordination is a perfect balance of all of the things that I've been doing my whole life. And I sort of dove in headfirst. And I was lucky to be guided by some really smart, intelligent, impactful people.

Another part of it that really appeals to me is the advocacy of it. I'm a black woman who lives in New York, who has traveled a lot, so I've encountered a lot of really interesting interactions with what it is to be a minority in spaces. And when Covid happened, and when George Floyd happened, I found myself stepping into my role of personal advocacy in a very different, and more forceful, and direct way. I had a lot of conversations with people surrounding the way that they interacted with people, in terms of race. And the cool part about my existence, or at least something that I really enjoy, is that fact that I am a woman, and I am a black woman, so I can advocate, and work on, and be present with some lived experiences with both of those avenues. And I find that intimacy direction and intimacy coordination offers me an opportunity to create space for people to be present in their whole selves. Ideally, the name of the game is creating a container where collaboration can happen that feels safe and supported from everyone involved. And that's really exciting and inspiring to me.

Dodi & DianaAnd I like telling sexy stories! I think it's fun. I think it's really great to offer an environment in which people can breathe in something that's typically so taboo, and not spoken about. Culturally, we don't really have a lot of sexual education that speaks about the nuances of the experiences, and I think a lot of people learn through what they watch. And there is something really beautiful about offering a variety of ways to tell a sexualized story that isn't your standard conversation. I love playing with the nuance of eye contact, and space, and what is the difference between, even, a hold. You can hold someone's arm with love and tenderness, or with pressure, and both of those moments, although the action is fundamentally the same, the energy with which you imbibe that action can really tell a specific story. And I love being able to offer specificity in the way that those stories can get told. And allow a new way to see things that we culturally don't always easily jump to.

It's so interesting that it's as specific as 'how do you grab someone's arm?' A lot of people don't know how intimacy direction works. Can you tell me what your process was like working on this play specifically?

It started in a really administrative sort of way. I read the script, and I figured out what parts in the show I need to be present for and need to have conversations about, I touched base with the director, Adrienne [Campbell-Holt], who was phenomenal. So, typically, you read the script, analyze it, you have a conversation with the director, find out what they're looking for, then you touch base with the actors and find out their boundaries: "This is sort of what Adrienne and I are thinking, how do you feel about that?" "Does anything seem untoward for you?" "Do you not feel comfortable?" And so, before we really get into the space, absent of all the power dynamics that are there, I have an opportunity to give the actors an opportunity to clearly define how they feel, and offer them room to do that without pressure. And then we get into the space, and start collaborating and figuring out what that looks like.

It's a lot of discussion, and then action. And we do things step by step. I say it's much like a fight choreographer, in that there's a clearly defined sort of, "This is when you move," but, it's not the same in that we're not looking to violently assault people, we're just looking to really know where we're going! And it's been a beautiful process of, "Let's try this moment this way and see what that feels like." And if that's not quite the right story, "What if we change this?" "What if you look the other direction? Oh man, there it is!" And it's been really great to have that process with Peter [Mark Kendall] and Rose [Elbay].

So, it really gets as specific as "Which way are you looking?" "With what intent are you grabbing the other person?"

For this, yeah! And it's sort of dependent on what type of intimacy we're looking for, and what the project needs, and what the people in the room need. I don't think of myself as police, I like to think of myself as a collaborator in the space to make sure that everyone feels comfortable, that they can show up present. And some artists need a very specific, "This goes here. Breathe twice. This goes there. Breathe twice." Some artists need a little bit more room. And as long as everyone is comfortable, and as long as there are clearly defined boundaries, then I don't want to get in the way of actors doing what they do. I just know that if there are clearly defined boundaries, then it feels freer to breathe in that space. At least that's what I've encountered with the actors that I've worked with. So, the answer to that question is yes and no.

How does your approach to intimacy direction change based on the show and the material? Especially for a play like this one, which draws inspiration from a very famous real-life couple?

I don't know if my approach does change, because I think at the root of it, it's about creating a space where there's room to have the conversation, and the characters that are present, it's not really in my purview to establish the characters. It's in my purview to amplify a relationship. And I think in some circumstances, the amplification of that relationship is completely figurative, and in some circumstances, the amplification of that relationship is rooted in history, but it doesn't necessarily, for me at least, change... at the core of it, it's two people in a space. I think I'm mindful of time period. This play is close enough to where we are now that it doesn't need a lot of period energy. If we're talking, like, the 1930s, a kiss is going to look very different from something that's happened in the past 10 or 15 years might. I think about the necessity of the time period in which people are living, that's important, definitely, because it changes the way people occupy space together, in public and in private.

It's so interesting that you say a kiss in the 1930s looks different than a kiss now.

Today, culturally, people invade personal space a lot more than they used to. The idea of touching someone on the arm that you don't know, either today in specific cultures, or in American culture 50 or 70 years ago, has a completely different connotation, and a completely different context to it happening between people who are in an amiable environment today.

Thankfully, having an intimacy director on a production is becoming more and more a standard practice. How would you like to see this job continue to grow in the theatre industry specifically, and how do you hope that it changes the process of creating a play or musical?

I feel like my answer to that is both complicated and super simple; I'd like it to be essential.Dodi & Diana I think that people creating space and being mindful of the additional vulnerability associated with intimate action is essential to the process of giving actors a safe space to work. We've been doing it with fighting for years, you don't just throw a punch at someone and go, "Good luck!" There's a whole conversation. A director doesn't just go, "They fight," and you figure it out, there's a whole set of choreography, and a whole set of respect that's given to that work.

Ideally, I'd like to see it continue to grow. If I'm honest, I'm a part of that growth. I am still newish, a lot of the experiences that I've had up to this point have prepared me very well for this work, but it's still something that I am discovering for myself, and learning from the people who have come before me and really laid the groundwork. I think, best case scenario, this role becomes as essential to a project as the lighting designer, or director, or costume designer, it's a role that you just take for granted as a part of the process, as long as there is something that is rooted in intimacy within a project. And let's be honest, 99% of the work has something intimate rooted in it.

And I'd like it to be a role that continues to be respected. It's been really beautiful to see actors' reactions to having me in a space, and the gratitude, and the appreciation, and the comfort, and the creative open door that I create as well. If there is an intimacy director in the room, or an intimacy coordinator on the project, I can have that awkward conversation for you, and I think there is freedom in that. And there is freedom in having someone from the outside make it a choreographed moment, as opposed to your own personal instinct.

What do you think defines intimacy on stage?

That's a really good question. I think intimacy can exist in the way that we commonly think of it, which would be sex, touching, kissing. But what if someone is naked on stage? What if there is a morgue scene, and there is someone who is playing a dead body on stage, and they're in some state of undress. I think that's intimacy. If you have a mother who is breastfeeding a child, I think that is intimacy. I think it's anything that crosses a boundary, and I know that's sort of amorphous and not specific. I can say when I read a script, the moments that I look for are moments where two characters are in bed, or someone is in a state of undress, or someone is kissing someone else. Those are the moments where I feel like it is necessary.

And I will say that I speak only for myself, and my own process, and my own journey, and I think that I would love to sort of pontificate with my fellow intimacy directors and intimacy coordinators about how they define it. But that's my general approach. It's about questions of a specific type of vulnerability. I also don't think that there's anything wrong with actors just checking in like, "Hey, don't touch my foot today." You know what I mean? I don't think it has to be rooted in some sort of uber-vulnerable conversation to just clearly establish some boundaries and facilitate that interaction.

What do you hope that audiences take away from this play?

Part of me wants to be like, come see it twice. The first time I read it I had this moment of stillness that I had to breathe in, because it asked a lot of really poignant and powerful questions. And then see it again to go for the ride in a different way. I hope people see honesty. I hope that people make room for the complexities of relationships in their own life and experiences. I think one of the things that I liked about it, is it made me think about giving moments of grace. What is it to take a step back and to think? And what is it to see your behavior from another perspective? And what is it to know what it is to fight for something so hard in a beautiful way? I hope people feel comfortable living their truth. There is something so beautiful in the amount of honesty in this show. And I hope that what people take away is the courage to live their truth.