ASU theater alum helps create better work environments for actors

Chelsea Pace is using her expertise in staging sex to create safer spaces for actors.

Pace, who received her MFA in theatre performance from Arizona State University, is an intimacy consultant and choreographer on theater and film projects across the country. Pace’s career path started at ASU with a question: If stage combat scenes are handled so carefully, then why aren’t intimate scenes handled the same way? Faculty and colleagues started referring to her questions as research. 

“I'd never thought of it that way before,” Pace said. “A lot of artists aren't taught to think about their work as research, and I was really fortunate early on in my academic career to have colleagues and faculty at ASU frame it that way. It gave me access to a whole new register of tools.”

Rachel Bowditch, professor and the coordinator for graduate studies in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, worked with Pace during her studies at ASU and said theatrical intimacy “has always been kind of a subset of stage combat fight choreography, but now it's emerging as its own field of study because people are realizing it's important and essential to every production.”

Pace credits ASU with providing her the support to delve deeply into her research and methodology.

Bowditch said the ASU MFA theater programs specifically focus on helping students become artists and scholars, and she noted that although the MFA degree in theatre performance is not currently being offered, students may pursue an MFA in directing, dramatic writing, interdisciplinary digital media, and theater for youth and community. 

“The beauty of our program is that it gives students a lot of flexibility to follow their passions and their interests,” Bowditch said. 

After graduating from ASU, Pace continued her passion for developing safe work environments and has become a leader in the field.

In March 2020, Pace published “Staging Sex,” the first book to address intimacy in theater. Designed for theater practitioners, it takes them “step-by-step through the best practices, tools and techniques for effective theatrical intimacy.”

Together with Laura Rikard, Pace founded Theatrical Intimacy Education, a consulting group that specializes in best practices for staging theatrical intimacy. Pace and Rikard worked with Bliss Griffin, national diversity and inclusion strategist at the Actors’ Equity Association, and Ann James, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color, to develop a more expansive definition of what intimacy is and can be — sexual content, nudity and sexual violence as well as race, disability, religion, age and national origin. 

“Not all intimacy professionals are working with this more inclusive definition,” said Pace, “but that's a part of the work that my company is doing and Actors’ Equity Association is looking to do in the coming months and years.”

Pace most recently worked on the film “The Tender Bar,” directed by George Clooney and opening Dec. 22. Currently, she is working on the upcoming Amazon series based on the film “A League of Our Own.” 

She is on staff at Signature Theatre and Studio Theatre in Washington, D.C., and New York, and is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. She said she hopes schools will emphasize consent and safety in educational settings because students can be vulnerable in that power dynamic. 

“In professional settings, collaborators are free to walk away or not work together in the future, but in an academic setting — the power disparity is enormous,” she said. “The folks who are involved in those interactions are not necessarily free to walk away from situations where their boundaries aren't being honored or even being given an opportunity to establish boundaries.”

The theater program at ASU has proactively implemented systems to help provide safer rehearsal and performance experiences. Kristin Hunt, associate professor in the School of Music, Dance and Theatre, serves on the safe-set committee that helped implement these systems based on feedback from students, faculty and staff.

“It’s a group of people who are looking at proactively building healthy, supportive, learner-centered cultures,” Hunt said. “We said, ‘Let’s build the theater community we want to have, and start here.’”

The result is better working environments for everyone throughout the production — from the start of rehearsals to closing night. 

“Each show has a safety captain. Each show that has any kind of physical touch has an intimacy coordinator or choreographer,” Bowditch said. “​​If an actor needs to tap out and have a five-minute mental break, they can do that, no questions asked.”

Pace said she hopes that as this training is implemented in higher education, those students will then carry what they have learned into their careers. For Pace, the most rewarding part is helping actors live happier, healthier lives.

“We help actors step back out of character and get a little bit of separation — physically, mentally and emotionally from the life of their character,” Pace said, “so that they're able to go home after a long day of rehearsal and return to their own life, rather than continuing to sort of live in the shadow of their character.”

Lacy Chaffee
lhalm@asu.edu