Tell and Kiss: A Manual for Actors

There just aren’t that many jobs where worrying about proper lip exfoliation is a thing, but lucky you, you chose to be an actor! In this glorious biz we call show, we can run into some interesting and sticky situations, but common sources of curiosity and anxiety for new actors are kissing scenes. (Pro Tip: “sticky” should not necessarily be an adjective you use to describe your onstage kissing). Never fear. I am here to break down the mysterious stage smooch into a user-friendly guide! Fasten your seatbelts; it’s going to be a painless professional discourse.

Check in: Just use common sense. Nobody cares how “in the moment” you are. It is simply bad form to go in for a kiss without checking with your scene partner. Physical contact should be mutually agreed upon at all times. If you are reading a scene that includes a kiss in an audition, it’s fine to ask your scene partner what his or her comfort level is. It is not fine to spring a kiss on them in the middle of an audition without asking. There have been a couple times when I have been in rehearsal for a scene where the kiss has not yet been specifically blocked, and neither I nor my scene partner wanted to break momentum. In those cases I have continued with the intention of the scene, and gone for the kiss, pausing briefly before actually touching to make eye contact and get some nonverbal assent that my scene partner was comfortable continuing. But only if we had verbally checked in at some point previously. It does not have to be a big deal. If you know you are rehearsing a scene that requires physical intimacy, just have a quick “good touch, bad touch” discussion. Ask if there is any area that they are uncomfortable being touched, and likewise verbalize any of your own reservations. And be honest. If you hate people touching your neck, it’s not going to look sexy when your fellow actor starts kissing up your shoulder and you jerk away. Honest communication will help physically intimate scenes look natural and sensual.

The first time: Sometimes you just can’t avoid it. The first time kissing your scene partner (who may be a total stranger, or two decades older, or look just like that guy from your freshman biology lab) might just be awkward. It’s OK. Often times you’ll both be a little shy, and unsure of each other’s comfort levels. Just move on with the scene. Trust that you’ll build a rapport, and that your characters will take over. If you play the intention and focus on your character’s objectives, that will carry you through.

Boundaries—to tongue or not to tongue: For me, this is an easy one: open mouth, no tongue. Obviously, you don’t want to look wooden, so closed-mouth kissing seems odd to me, unless it’s a comedic choice (again, the caveat may lie in your scene partner’s comfort level). But unless you are doing film, and there is going to be some close-up kissing, (in which case, just be considerate and mindful as previously discussed), there really isn’t any reason to start Frenching your scene partner. Even in a wildly passionate scene, tongue is not going to read from twenty feet away in the audience. So cool the jets and focus on the acting. On the other side, if your scene partner is trying to play extreme tonsil hockey, it’s totally acceptable to let him or her (as well as your director) know where the boundaries are for you.

Hygiene and maintenance: Let’s get practical for a minute here. It is important to be considerate to your scene partner. If you know you’re going to be kissing someone, maybe skip your usual garlic and cigarette sandwich for lunch. Keep up the oral hygiene. Bring a toothbrush to the theater, pop a mint before your scene. No one ever complained that their scene partner’s breath was too fresh. It’s just good manners. On a side note, make sure your makeup won’t rub off on your partner. This goes for ladies and gentlemen. If you’re wearing lipstick, make sure it’s of a kiss-proof persuasion. If you have any sort of foundation or face makeup at all, make sure you have a reliable powder! Remember you will have to keep acting post-kiss.

Health: Taking hygiene one step further, it is important to make sure you stay well for the sake of your scene partner. The second I know I’ll be kissing someone in a show is when I start taking extra Vitamin C. Keep up a dialogue with your fellow actors. If you feel under the weather during a rehearsal, give everyone a heads up and mark the kiss for the day. It’s more important to keep everyone in fighting form for opening night than to rehearse the kiss one more time.

Choreography: Stick to it. Whatever physical intimacy has been discussed and directed is what you get to do.

Improvisation: Don’t. You might get new impulses during rehearsal or a show. If you and your scene partner and your director have all agreed that you can follow them, do so, but only within the structure of what has already been blocked. For example, you might hold a kiss longer, or caress the opposite side of someone’s face, etc. Not, “I just felt like my character would grab your breast tonight.” If you have new ideas, discuss them, and implement them later. It’s not fair to surprise someone onstage.

Don’t be a d-bag: Acting is a subjective business with a lot of gray areas, and it can be intensely personal and emotional. Use good sense. Be respectful. Speak up for yourself. It’ll be fine.

Nerves: Never kissed onstage before? Nervous? No worries. This is a lot of info, but it is not nearly as awkward or complicated as it sounds. Think about it this way: it’s just like kissing in real life, but with zero pressure. You know exactly when and how the kiss is going to happen, no one is emotionally invested in it, and there will be no consequences. I’ve heard actors express anxiety that they won’t look “good” or “normal” kissing, but remember, you are playing a part. This is how your character kisses someone, not necessarily how you kiss someone. If it is right and normal and good for your character, then it will look right and normal and good in the scene.

But what does it feel like??? I can only speak from my own experience. This is actually a very timely article for me. I am currently in a show where I have to kiss six different actors at various points in the play. I am lucky in that kissing onstage has never really been a source of anxiety for me, but I can see where it can be intimidating, and I will admit to some slight nerves on the first day due to sheer smooching mass. Thankfully, all the gentlemen I am working with are completely considerate and easy-going, so we were able to joke around and get down to business without any awkwardness. And every onstage kiss will be different. Since working professionally, I’ve had to kiss people I’ve known for years, married people, people with a significant age difference, people I’d known for ten minutes, people I was currently dating, people to whom I would never in a million years be attracted and even one or two I had a crush on. It’s all business in the end. You’re not telling your story, you’re telling the story of your character, so to me, the part of me that is my character is feeling whatever I am supposed to be feeling at that point in the script, no more.

To sum things up, with proper communication and professional manner, kissing is no more strange or stressful than anything else you do on stage or film. Just live honestly in your imaginary circumstances, as always. And brush your teeth, for real.

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Rachel Rachel Frawley is an actor living in Atlanta. She holds a B.F.A. in Theatre from Michigan State University (with cognates in Music and Professional Writing) and is an Apprentice Company graduate from the Atlanta Shakespeare Co. She also works as an education artist for local theatres, which have included the Shakespeare Tavern and Aurora Theatre. For more information, visit her website at www.rachelfrawley.com