Pursued By A Bear: “How do I put sex onstage?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.

“How do you write sex for onstage?  Do I need to feel guilty about what I’m asking the actors to do?  And how do you know whether what you’re writing is awkward or hot?”

There are an infinite number of ways you might unintentionally divide your audience; your jokes might make some people cry with laughter while others just cry, a plot twist might astound some and dumbfound others, an emotional monologue might draw tears from half of them while making the rest cringe. But nothing divides people quite like a sex scene.

What you think is hot might be hilarious to someone else. You think it’s sexy, they think it’s shameful. You’re making it adventurous, they’re finding it depraved. You’re going for sensitive, they’re feeling awkward.

Sex is very difficult to get right.

And onstage it’s even harder.

As a writer, the first thing you need to ask yourself is “is this sex scene really necessary?” We often talk about every event in a play needing to serve the story, everything that happens needs to move the plot along. In my experience, sex rarely does this.

The fact two people have had sex may be integral to your story; maybe it breaks up a marriage, begins an exciting new relationship or is used as blackmail fodder by another character. But the act itself is rarely essential for the audience to see. When was the last time you thought up a vital plot point which could only be revealed during sex?

Okay, say your hero has a birthmark the shape of Gibraltar on his left arse cheek which the audience needs to see in order to realise he’s the long-lost son of your antagonist. Or maybe your play is the story of a woman’s sexual awakening as she realises she can only enjoy getting down if her partner is wearing a grizzly bear mascot costume.

In both of the above cases I’ll grant you the sex scene could be used to reveal important plot points. However, in both cases you could probably find a way around showing the actual sex. Your hero in the first example could step on stage fresh from the shower and drop his towel, revealing the critical birthmark. Your hero in the second example could be seen turning down a date with an attractive young man to pursue the class nerd after finding out he’s the one who wears the football team’s grizzly mascot suit.

Sometimes it might feel like sex is necessary when it really isn’t. Bear in mind you can very easily drop hints a sexual encounter has taken place without showing it. End the scene as your characters undress each other, have them wake up together or show one making breakfast for the other the morning after.

You could simply show a marked change in the way your characters are interacting in the next scene, have them be obviously flirtatious around each other in a way they never have been previously. Try adding in subtle physical cues to show fresh intimacy, such as finding excuses to touch one another or exchanging shy smiles. Audiences are generally smart enough to figure these things out.

What if the sex scene is absolutely crucial to your story and the play just won’t work without it? How do you make it convincing? Where’s the line between hot and awkward?

I don’t have a winning formula for this, I really don’t think any writer does. Anyone who’s ever watched porn knows it’s a real challenge to make sex hot for other people. When you’re doing it you might find it highly enjoyable, but what gets one person off is gross or sleazy or comical to another and there’s a real danger you’ll alienate the audience if they aren’t into what you’re into.

The way to make onstage sex convincing is to make your audience believe your characters are into it. Again, there’s no surefire way to achieve this. One tip I’ll give is to try and build up to it; don’t just have two characters drop everything in the middle of a conversation about mortgages and jump each other’s bones, unless you’ve been dropping hints in their physical interactions or language in the lead-up to this moment.

Once again it comes down to character motivation, there has to either be an attraction or some kind of ulterior motive (blackmail, getting even with dad, settling a bet or whatever) that’s driving your characters to get naked and touch each other. Your audience has to be able to see the attraction (or other motive) growing in front of them, they have to understand it and you have to build it to the point where it’s believable the characters will go through with the ultimate execution of that desire.

Once you’ve nailed the build-up your characters have to nail each other. How do you make this easy on your cast?

I’m not willing to name names here, but I’ve heard more than one woman say it’s a real challenge to convincingly fake an orgasm. And they’re generally just trying to do it in front of a single person, there’s rarely an audience seated in front of the bed, drinking overpriced wine out of plastic cups and eating Haagen-Dazs as they eagerly await the action.

This is what you’re asking your actors to do (assuming the sex in the play is supposed to be good, you might be writing about erectile dysfunction for all I know).

Actors are generally up for doing most things if they feel it’s important enough to the play. However, some actors won’t do nudity, and they’re entirely within their rights to refuse. If you know you’re going to be writing a sex scene let the director know early on (if you have a director attached) and they can try to cast someone who’s comfortable getting naked in front of a roomful of strangers.

If you’re trying to write something genuinely sexy I’d steer away from using too much dialogue. A lot of things might sound orgasmic in your head but I guarantee you’ll struggle to keep the audience focused if your characters start screaming “yes!” or “do it!” or “harder!” during the act. It’s generally a lot easier to maintain the mood without words. Grunting, panting and moaning can also be safely kept to a minimum. Your audience know what sex is, they know your characters are doing it, they don’t need a big neon sign like “great sex is happening right now.”

Your actors will also thank you because they won’t have to struggle through cheesy sex talk with a straight face.

Some carefully choreographed movement which builds to some sort of climax will be enough for us to conclude some good lovin’ is occurring. You can always reinforce the quality of the sex afterwards. A popular movie trope for emphasising good sex is to have the characters immediately jump into round two. Maybe you don’t want it to be good for your characters, in which case have one of them promptly light a cigarette, make a phone call or slip out a disparaging remark.

In fact, while we’re on the subject, a lot of times sex isn’t supposed to be good. Maybe you want to write a shocking sex scene or one that’s traumatic for one of your characters. I won’t go into too much detail on this as you didn’t’ ask about it in your question, I’ll just say there’s a really, really thin line between shocking and disgusting an audience. If you make things too explicit you can very easily put people off. That’s not to say you should shy away from explicit or even violent sex onstage, but it’s important to be sensitive to your audience’s feelings. If you go too far and lose their confidence it’s extremely difficult to get them back on-board.

It’s difficult to know whether a scene will be awkward without putting it in front of an audience. However, you can get some clues from the actors in rehearsal; if they feel awkward acting it out it’s likely the audience will feel awkward watching it. Again, this comes down to making sure the characters’ motivations are clear to your actors. Why are these characters having sex? How do they feel about each other? How does this scene affect the rest of the story?

As with any scene, there are an infinite number of possible manifestations of the written words, so if you want the scene to be played a certain way you might want to state this clearly in the stage directions. If the sex is supposed to be a spontaneous, comical, rough-and-ready fumble between two office workers in the stationery cupboard, make sure this is clear. Too much room for interpretation could result in mood lighting, dry ice and graceful lovemaking, which completely ruins the joke.

They say sex sells but it’s actually extremely difficult to sell it to an audience in the theatre. To summarise, try and avoid sex altogether (in your writing, anywhere else is not my business). If you can find another way to convey the information in your intended sex scene, always take the other route, unless you’re confident you can write an amazing sex scene which offers something unique to the play. If you can’t find another way, and absolutely have to rub your characters against each other, keep the chit-chat to a minimum and make sure your motivations are bulletproof.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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