In Conversation with Bess Rowen

Apr 03, 2023

Welcome to IDC's "In Conversation" Blog series! Here, we will get to know some of our Community Education teaching artists and introduce you to their work. Find what they're saying interesting? Sign up to take their class!

This month, we're introducing Bess Rowen! Bess is teaching "Intimate Stage Directions & Embodiment" and below you can get a glimpse into who she is and what she does. Check it out!

Give us a little introduction to yourself! Who are you, what do you do, etc?

I generally describe myself as an all-around theatre kid (except, you know, an adult now)! I’m an Assistant Professor of Theatre at Villanova University, where I teach courses in acting, theatre theory, and Gender & Women’s Studies. I have a PhD in Theatre from The Graduate Center, CUNY and an MA in Performance Studies from NYU. I’m also a member of AEA, and have training in acting, directing, stage management, playwriting, and, most recently, intimacy work. I approach all of these areas with a focus on embodiment and how different individuals come into rehearsal rooms, classrooms, and performance spaces with a variety of different experiences and needs. My book, The Lines Between the Lines: How Stage Directions Affect Embodiment, is all about how we can rethink stage directions as sites of creativity that celebrates bodily diversity instead of thinking of them as tools playwrights use to control future performers.

Why teach a class on “
Intimate Stage Directions and Embodiment” and why does that topic specifically interest you?

I finished my book before I had properly begun work in this field, and so I take into consideration fight choreographers but not intimacy professionals. This seems like an oversight now, and this class is my chance to explore stage directions for intimacy with people who will actually be working with them. I was immediately struck by how much of what we do is dependent on stage directions in scripts calling for various types of intimacy, so it makes sense to discuss how these stage directions are written as much as what they ask for, especially when we are negotiating boundaries that might not include the specific actions written in the script.

Tell us a bit about your theory/research.

My first article about stage directions begins with Sarah Ruhl’s stage directions for Mrs. Daldry’s first paroxysm in In the Next Room or the vibrator play. I was struck by the fact that she provides so many different avenues for both director and performer, and provides a bunch of information about how the moment should feel but none about how it should look. But she does note that the play takes place before the proliferation of modern pornography, and so this character has no sense of how this moment should look. What a fascinating challenge for an actor, director, and IP! My concept of affective stage directions give us language to discuss the way that these lines move us and what associations they bring to mind instead of only focusing on the technical elements mentioned in stage directions. My book provides a bunch of different avenues meant to empower theatre makers to bring their full bodily/embodied experiences to sets of stage directions so that we can challenge our assumptions about whose bodies (and what kinds of bodies) we tend to default to on stage.

What about your work and this class do you find the most valuable that you want to share with others?

Most playwrights, actors, and directors I work with find this work liberating, because it releases you from the pressure of previous representations. My hope is that this work empowers folx to bring their imagination and creativity to stage directions for intimacy so that we can use these moments to more fully express the diversity of human experience. It’s a lofty goal for a single class to be sure, but I believe that shifting how we read for performance can greatly change the kinds of performances we create and therefore see. Instead of crossing out the stage directions, how can we use them to build something unique that is still tied to the text of the play?

What do you think is the most unknown aspect of what you’re teaching that you can’t wait to share with students?

I think a lot of people are surprised when they realize the assumptions that come along with stage directions, not only about their level of control but also about their level of possibility. My favorite example is the stage direction “he dies.” It’s not technically possible, but we perform it all the time. We understand that it means “the actor pretends to die.” The same is true for all sorts of other fanciful stage directions, and once you shift how you think of stage directions in this way, other exciting performance possibilities come into view! Part of this work is about dismantling our implicit biases about both theatrical norms and casting, and it’s always exciting to see people realize the power in that.

How does this work relate to intimacy professionals and/or all consent-forward artists?

I believe that this work is inherently consent-forward as it centers an individual’s body and works against assumptions of a “neutral” body. The concept of affective stage directions also gives theatre makers a tool for validating their personal approach and response to stage directions. The spirit of unspoken words is more important than the precise meaning, which gives consent-forward artists and IPs a framework that expands the words on the page to incorporate a wider range of boundaries.

What questions do you still have about what you’re teaching?

I’ve never had the opportunity to work through these ideas with people who have training or interest in intimacy work before, and I am very curious to see what will resonate and what questions folx will have!

What do you look forward to digging deeper into?

Literally all of it! I’m looking forward to specific questions or concerns about situations where this work could be beneficial. I’m wondering if people will have examples of stage directions they struggled with, which is something I often encounter. I always learn a great deal from new examples of stage directions people bring me!

How can our community/students in the course support and follow your work outside of this course?

You can check out my book’s website, like the Facebook page, and follow the book on Instagram (@linesbetweenlines) for other programming!


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