Tonia Sina, MFA in Pedagogy with emphasis on movement and choreographing intimacy, 2006
“Need to fake an orgasm? There’s a choreographer for that.” That was the headline of the New York Times profile about Tonia and her work. This somewhat tacky caption was the first major recognition of the field Tonia created.
While working on her thesis at VCU, Tonia coined a phrase that started the movement: Intimacy Director. While choreographing Metamorphosis, she was asked to direct some of the more intimate scenes which sparked her further research. She later directed Reflections of Red, which was “all intimate movement pieces.”
Tonia also became an advocate for a rare chronic disease that resulted in her having a kidney transplant while she was writing her thesis. Tonia’s uncompromising patient advocate attitude informed her inspiration behind the intimacy movement.
After VCU, Tonia moved to Oklahoma with her then husband, who was a movement professor at the University of Oklahoma. She was offered a job as adjunct faculty and later became a professor, while also a visiting professor at Oklahoma City University.
In 2016, the combo of the #MeToo movement and the Presidential election sparked Tonia and two colleagues to form the non-profit organization Intimacy Directors International (now called Intimacy Directors and Coordinators.) In 2018, Tonia directed the first Equity show featuring an Intimacy Director, Bakkhai, at the Stratford Festival in Canada.
Tonia moved to Chicago in 2018, where she lives now. She’s worked at Steppenwolf, Chicago Lyric Opera and other regional theatres in the area. She’s currently on contract as intimacy director for the Great River Shakespeare Festival.
About training people for the position as intimacy director, Tonia explains, “In addition to experience in stage movement and choreography, we make sure there’s emotional support in the room. We make sure people have mental health training.”
About her experience at VCU, “as a feminist Noreen Barnes (the former Head of the Graduate Program) helped foster it within me. She told me, ‘Be careful in academia because there’s a lot of sexism.’ She opened my eyes to really observing.” She also credits her thesis advisors Aaron Anderson and David Leong, “They gave me a very hard time in my defense of my thesis, but I was relentless in my knowledge of how helpful it was to empower actors by creating a safe work environment, but overhauling the entire theatre industry was a massive goal. Their support, as well as their doubt, drove my ambition for a very long time.”
How has the field developed since Tonia defended her thesis? “Intimacy Coordination is now a SAG protocol and recognized internationally. It is expanding into other fields such as Opera and Dance as well as academia. There are multiple methods and approaches now and far fewer incidents of blatant assaults. The results are that less voices are being left out of the rehearsal halls, and stories are amplified instead of being ignored or covered up. Performers are able to do their jobs without fear that choreography may be unpredictable. Everybody wins from this movement.”
Header image: Intimacy For The Stage workshop in Toronto, photo by Dahlia Katz
Compiled by Liz Hopper, professor emeritus, and Jerry Williams (BFA ’71) for the June 2021 Theatre Alumni Newsletter.