Maya Herbsman (Photo/Hannah Rimm)
Maya Herbsman (Photo/Hannah Rimm)

Q&A: She helps performers choreograph the most intimate moments

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Maya Herbsman, 23, is associate artistic director and education coordinator at Cutting Ball Theatre in San Francisco. She’s an alum of Camp Tawonga a graduate of the Urban School in San Francisco and Wesleyan University, and has worked for several theater companies since returning to the Bay Area.

 J.: What drew you to a career in theater?

Maya Herbsman: As a student at the Urban School of San Francisco, I had to take an art class, but I’m bad at visual arts. On a whim, I took an acting class and fell in love with it. In my senior year, during the school’s One Acts Festival, I got to direct, and I felt like this is the thing.

And so it was — but why?

As an actor, you’re thinking only about your own work, but directing is about the big picture, and you’re thinking about how to show and tell the entire story.

Since college, you have worked locally with Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Idiot String, We Players, New Conservatory Theatre, Z Space, Shotgun Players, Bay Area Children’s Theatre, TheaterFIRST and now Cutting Ball. How’s your current job going?

I love that we do re-envisioned classics and experimental new works, and now we’re starting to blur the lines between the two, taking staunchly feminist looks at old misogynistic plays in a way that feels exciting to me. It’s a wonderful environment, especially as a young artist, and I feel lucky to be there.

You also are a teaching artist. Please talk a bit about that.

At one point, I was teaching 22 classes a week all over the Bay Area. Now I’m teaching just two or three classes a week in acting, improv and playmaking, working primarily with middle-school students. I love feeling that I can make a difference, maybe seeing a student who couldn’t make eye contact with me at first but by the end of class is laughing, volunteering, taking the lead. That means the whole world to me.

You grew up in San Rafael, and you’ve said spending summers at Camp Tawonga helped shape your body positivity and your self-confidence. How so?

I went to Camp Tawonga seven or eight years as a camper and for two as a counselor. It’s a wonderful institution that prioritizes building positive self-esteem, gives kids a space to feel comfortable about who they are, and also emphasizes tikkun olam, the importance of helping others.

I was a fairly shy kid, but I had counselors, mentors and peers who pushed me out of my comfort zone a little and shaped a lot of who I am today. It’s an amazing thing that now I can help kids get through whatever they’re coping with, and help them find the best version of themselves.

In the theater world, you also work as an intimacy choreographer, a relatively new field. What does that entail?

It’s about creating safe and consensual choreography for actors working on intimate scenes, whether they are sexual, romantic or familial. We talk about what the character would do, and that takes the emotional charge, the personal intensity, out of it. That helps actors feel safe and be comfortable setting their limits. It’s like fight choreography — it wouldn’t be reasonable not to break down fight scenes into specific, repeatable steps.

How did you get interested in this specialty?

I learned about it while studying directing in college, when the field was just starting to get big, right on the heels of the Times Up and MeToo movements. I studied under Intimacy Directors International, learning from the first intimacy director working on Broadway. I was in the inaugural classes of apprentices, about 15 or 20 of us in six countries, all now well on our way to certification. I’m lucky I get to help push forward this movement, which is just about treating other humans with the dignity and respect they deserve.

Every aspect of your work sounds intense. What do you do to relax?

Intimacy direction is a lot of holding space for other people, and I do have to take time to separate myself from that afterward. Even a car ride or a trip on BART can do it, or to come down I’ll call a friend, listen to music or a podcast, dance a bit in the street or play cards. Otherwise, what do I do in my spare time? I see theater. It feels like work a little bit, but it’s what I want to do.

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Patricia Corrigan

Patricia Corrigan is a longtime newspaper reporter, book author and freelance writer based in San Francisco.