How the Gory Sex Scenes in ‘Teeth’ Came Together

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Song, dance and deadly genitalia: It’s all on full, gory display in “Teeth,” Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs’s campy musical adaptation of the 2007 cult horror film. The story follows Dawn O’Keefe, a God-fearing good girl — surrounded by shame-lobbing, not-so-good men — whose body has a sharp sense of justice.

In a show in which violence begets vengeance — Dawn has a curious case of vagina dentata — it’s a lot to endure, for both biter and bitee. (As Jesse Green cheekily put it in his New York Times review of the Playwrights Horizons production: “If you don’t want to see bloody amputated penises, why come to the theater?”)

Campy or not, choreographing the many scenes of intimacy and assault required extraordinary sensitivity. Violations vary: In one scene, Dawn seeks relief for her condition, only to be repeatedly ogled and groped by a creepy gynecologist. As she protests, her body takes revenge. The director, Sarah Benson, wanted someone dedicated to creating a space for the actors to feel safe, and free to set boundaries.

“There’s so much sex and intimacy and sexual violence and everything in between that I just knew immediately that intimacy direction was going to be a massive part of the work of the show,” Benson said. “It was so important to me to have someone who was really creating a container in which we could be vulnerable and raw and make this very intense story.”

That someone was Crista Marie Jackson.

Intimacy directors, or intimacy choreographers as they are also known, help actors simulate sex by laying out the specifications of consent and organizing the logistics of bodily contact.

They are experts not just in staging sex scenes, but also kisses and face slaps and something a little more subtle: expectations.

“I am a big believer in really clearly set boundaries, because when we know where the boundaries are, we can run at them,” Jackson said. “If we know how far we can go, then we can go there, and we can go there safely.”

Jackson, an aerialist, stunt performer, actor and dancer, has always been dependent on her body as an artist, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that she pursued a career in building safe, contact-heavy spaces for others. In 2022, she received her certification from Intimacy Directors and Coordinators, a professional training program, and has since choreographed intimate scenes on Broadway and London’s West End, as well as for film and TV. But none had quite the volume of “Teeth.”

“The first time I heard that chomp,” she said with a laugh, “it was partially hilarious and partially stomach churning. That chop-chop is no joke.”

With such a steady pulse of sex, she and Benson developed intimate scenes layer by layer.

“My work is featured in a large part of the show, where typically intimacy is finite moments in a piece,” Jackson said.

In many rehearsals, which included difficult run-throughs, Jackson and Benson limited the number of creative team members; placeholder movements were used to mark more physical interactions, like touching cheek to cheek instead of kissing on the lips. Articulating what’s going to happen when, for what amount of time, in what way, ensured that everyone stayed on the same page. And using clinical language instead of euphemisms for body parts helped keep what was happening in the room formal.

As with traditional choreography, “it becomes something that is as regimented as like, step, kick, kick, leap, touch,” Jackson said. “There’s no gray area there.”

One of the first things Jackson did was speak individually with each actor to hear their anxieties, and to establish a common language, including that “No is a complete sentence,” that some areas of their bodies could be greenlit for touch, and that boundaries can change.

“Acting is still a job, no one should have to leave work traumatized and broken,” she said.

Jackson ran through the rules of intimacy coordination across departments, even setting the tone at an initial meet and greet.

“She taught everyone how to talk about the show in a way that would make us all feel comfortable,” Alyse Alan Louis, who plays Dawn, said in a group interview with her co-stars.

Vulnerability was built into every conversation, and Jackson, aware of the potential for awkwardness in talking about sex, encouraged cast members to speak about their needs, and to become cognizant of what feels uncomfortable versus what feels harmful. Naturally, those needs get personal.

“I wasn’t interested, as Alyse, having my actual crotch make contact with my scene partner’s body,” Louis said.

Jackson had a solution: silicone.

Modesty garments — multiple layers of underwear, flesh-colored shorts and fabric with genital-shaped silicone barriers — make contact without direct contact possible, and, along with having bathrobes on standby, help provide a modicum of security, further differentiating between character and actor.

“I am still able to go home feeling like I didn’t give every single part of myself and my body to the work,” Louis said. “I actually feel like I can separate me with Dawn.”

Part of that separation also comes from constructing a sense of closure. Jackson instituted a routine deep breath at the end of tough scenes, to “leave it here,” Louis said.

“I do think that in our world, everyone around us assumes because we put our whole souls into playing characters that we can jump into touching, that we want to be touched, that we’re very comfortable that way,” Louis said. “Intimacy coordination also allows for the conversation to be, ‘No, I’m not comfortable with that.’”

If the stop-and-go nature of consent sounds stifling or overly communicative, having those boundaries, the four star actors interviewed said, allowed for more freedom of expression, an unfettered creativity.

The process “frees up the intimacy,” Steven Pasquale, who plays the fire-and-brimstone pastor, said. “I’m a little older than these guys. So, you know, my experience with this in the past was just sort of hoping that everyone is comfortable and trying to take care of each other.”

But with Jackson’s “essential” guidance, he added, “we end up feeling safe and the audience thinks they end up seeing something very real, which is the success of it.”

In addition to consent, traditional elements like lighting and haze as well as the placement of sheets in a bedroom scene — “Sheetography is real,” Jackson said — play a role in the smoke and mirrors of special effects, allowing for an extra layer of privacy (and a severed body part surprise).

And then there are the goofs.

Managing sweat and jiggly phallic simulacrums are all part of the grab bag of a body-centric show. A lake scene means water shooting into mouths and splashing into eyes; and fake blood often splatters onto faces and hair — and even onto the front row (choose your seats wisely!). That balance of levity and reverence lives at the heart of intimacy direction, a serious job with, at times, an absurdist bent.

“We’re still adults telling a story about vagina dentata,” Jackson said. “If it’s not making us laugh, we’ve somehow missed the boat.”

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