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Balancing Power Through Intimacy in the Rehearsal Space

Ann James: Rocio, in all your glory, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy schedule to meet with me.

Rocio Mendez: It is an honor and a privilege to be talking with you. Thank you.

Ann: Rocio, please tell me how you came to the field of intimacy.

Rocio: I am a fight director, and several years ago I was doing a production of José Rivera’s Marisol at the New School, which is a play that does have a sexual assault. The head of the program at the time had just gone to an intimacy/consent-based workshop with Intimacy Directors International (IDI), which is now Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC). This department head was super hyped about it and wanted to change the entire curriculum to have consent-based practices, which was awesome. Because of that, there was this pause in the production for Marisol since she wanted all of the students to have agency and consent through all the processes in the program. One of the actors decided to revoke consent from what I had choreographed because we didn't start from a consent-based practice. They brought in an intimacy director, Mitch McCoy, who is now a colleague. We collaborated and ended up sticking with the choreography that I initially had done. We just wanted to do it from a consent-forward space, and it was really great.

Suddenly I just thought to myself, Oh my, for all these years as a fight director, I've been doing stuff like this without consent-based practices. I had always done things like checking in and doing things slowly, and I had a little bit of a vocabulary but not a full consent-based practice vocabulary. I went through a flashback in my mind like, I did all this stuff, and I hope everyone's okay.

Quite frankly, as you probably have experienced, usually if there's intimacy there's violence—I would say roughly about 80-90 percent of the time.

Ann: Right. You file back and you're like, “Oh!”

Rocio: Like I wish I had this years ago, when I was doing this show or that show. Or even for myself as an actor, thinking about the times that I did intimate things where it was just like, “go for it.” I realized that I had blocked most of this stuff out. I was thinking, how did I get through that show? I don't even remember because I probably did it and compartmentalized it, put in the back of my brain.

Ann: So you were brought in through a fight choreography lens. Then, information was delivered to you in a new and exciting way when you had the support of an intimacy professional who came into the space, and you worked it out.

Rocio: Yeah. And then I was like, well, I should do this.

I work with a collective of fight and intimacy directors that’s run by Dave Anzuelo—UnkleDave’s Fight-House. He has done intimacy work that was based on the BDSM world in the eighties through gay culture. I was picking up vocabulary and tools from him, and then eventually I worked my way to be introduced to Claire Warden who became my mentor for years. She still is a mentor and friend of mine now. Finally, slowly but surely, I got certified through IDC. That took a long time because of the pandemic. I was being mentored, getting educated, and working at the same time.

Three actors work together in a small room with a red bench.

Rocio Mendez working with J. Moliére and Betsy Schwartz in King John by William Shakespeare at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Rosa Joshi. Scenic design by Hana S. Kim and Se Hyun OH. Costume design by Melissa Torchia. Lighting design by Geoff Korf. Photo by Sophie Franco.

It was also an easy transition because I already had some vocabulary and tools from fight direction. Quite frankly, as you probably have experienced, usually if there's intimacy there's violence—I would say roughly about 80-90 percent of the time. So, it's cool that I'm able to do both and offer both, even though I have done them separately before, too.

Ann: So, we talked a little bit about the past, and about those building blocks and beautiful mentors that we all should keep. In my opinion, mentorship is part of what I love so much about the work that I do. What is exciting about your work now?

Rocio: I think what's exciting is how into it everyone is. Some people still don't know what an intimacy professional is, so it's really exciting to walk into spaces and see people's faces brighten up. People suddenly breathe, or there's a sigh of relief when I enter spaces and they find out I’m there to do this work. That is priceless. Seeing that and feeling that keeps me motivated. People want this. Intimacy direction isn't a burden or something that's extra, but something that people really want and need. We can actually enjoy the process because there's someone coming in to detail and get specific and have fun and be able to play—just like anything else in a rehearsal process. We don’t have to freak out about intimacy and get pushed into the corner. So that's what keeps me going: seeing the excitement. Seeing the need and the necessity for it.

I think it's less about taking care of people and more about providing them the tools to help embody, embolden, and encourage themselves.

Ann: Oh my God! I dream of being in a room with you one day. I dream. I will keep that in my manifestation corner there because you're giving off such enthusiasm and joy.

Diving into what an Afrocentric intimacy practice would look like, it is grounded—not in trauma, which you would think it would be—but in enthusiasm and joy. And that’s what I see you bringing to the pieces that you're working on, and you know you can see the actors responding in performance to feeling brave and feeling embodied and emboldened.

I want to talk with you about being in spaces and lifting up joy and enthusiasm in the process. Have you run into situations where you feel that taking care of people is also lifting up the energy and lifting up the vibration in a space?

Rocio: Well, I also have to take care of me and who I am, so I think it's less about taking care of people and more about providing them the tools to help embody, embolden, and encourage themselves. Of course, if someone has questions or is struggling with something, by all means let's have a conversation. I can provide things that could really help get through the process. Because at the end of the day I may not be there every day during the process, depending on the show. So I think it's more about saying, “Hey everyone here are some tools. Here's how you could start conversations.”

You spoke about being Afrocentric. One of the things about being a Black woman, and I see myself doing it all the time, is the habit of feeling the need to take care of people. I try to steer away from that. It’s not always good for me because I'm not putting myself first.

So I actually catch myself when I do that. I’m like, “No, Rocio, everyone can't do this the way you want it. Everyone can't be happy the way you want them to be happy.” But at least I could set up some tools and some vocabulary so that they could continue to work.

Ann: That's beautiful. That is a great answer.

Okay, so we are talking about Blackness and being in the room. I wonder how you support the ideas of justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. Is there anything that you can think of that would help us understand more about your opinion on that or using it in practice?

Rocio: I personally think that you can’t be an intimacy professional without doing anti-racism work, period! If you are not an anti-racist, why are you doing intimacy work? They go hand in hand. The issues we've had with consent are because of white supremist practices, period. If someone doesn't understand white supremist practices and do what they can to fight against that, they’re not going to be that good of an intimacy professional. This work is fighting against it. Literally half of the work I do is saying, “This is from oppression.” Let's talk about that and how we could have agency and control over our bodies as performers, and we don't have to sacrifice anything to be great. I've actually been pulled aside about this before. Someone had expressed to me, “Oh, I don't think it's white supremacy. I think it's power.” I was like, “Wait, who is holding this power in these institutions that we're at?” Even if it's a Black institution, usually they have grown from white supremist culture. And it's not our fault. It's just the conditioning of this particular country and some others. So every time I walk into a room as an intimacy professional or as a fight director or as an actor, I center myself as an anti-racist artist first to make sure I can be the best me, and I encourage everyone else to be the best them by having that agency and control over their bodies.

Ann: Mic drop! I mean, just drop the diamonds.

So now let's move into a little bit more esoteric area. I'm wondering, in your intimacy practice and your understanding of intimacy, how does your connection to humanness and your connection to your spirituality play out? Something we talk about is taking care of ourselves, and we talk about moving into spaces that are sometimes not so nice. So I'm wondering if you have a practice that you utilize in order to kind of shore up your mental health and show up your spiritual health when moving into these predominantly white spaces or even any space in general.

Rocio: One thing I am going to say is that it's lifelong work and practice. One moment I’ve got a handle on it, and the next day I don't. Just three weeks ago I was crying from a rehearsal, when I am a pretty strong happy person. It's gonna happen sometimes because I just can't be strong every day. It's hard, and sometimes actually being strong is being able to cry and be mad about something for a second to help me find the strength.

But to continue on, I do go to therapy. I do meditate. I work out. I have been doing Muay Thai on and off for over fifteen years. And I spend as much time with my family as I can. I have very specific meditations that are geared towards asking ancestry and beings of love and light to help me through the day. And I remind myself, being a freelance artist, we tend to be workaholics—especially in this capitalist patriarchal society. So I make sure to take a break and do nothing for a while.

So every time I walk into a room as an intimacy professional or as a fight director or as an actor, I center myself as an anti-racist artist first to make sure I can be the best me.

Ann: Oh, I love a good break. It has taken me several attempts to go on a vacation. I still haven't been able to do it, but this year is my year. I am going to go somewhere like Tahiti or the Maldives, and I mean getting away for like a good three weeks.

I have one more question for you. Have I not asked something that you want people to know about your practice, or what's coming up?

Rocio: I think one thing about being an intimacy professional is this “new industry,” even though it's not really new but kind of new, is telling people who feel like intimacy direction is a burden that it doesn't take that much time. And even if it does, who cares? If you want to get the best out of people, that can take time. That's something that I keep reminding people, to get rid of that sense of urgency, let people do what they need to do, and give them the time and space that they need to get to their best selves. That's just something I wanna say out there. That's my little two cents!

In terms of my own work. I am doing a show on Broadway: POTUS: Or, Behind Every Great Dumbass Are Seven Women Trying to Keep Him Alive.

Ann: I'm so excited about this, I cannot even breathe.

Rocio: Yeah, I'm really excited about it! And this summer I head to Oregon Shakespeare Festival, so I'm pretty excited about that.

Ann: Yes, yes. Oh, I follow you religiously. I promise I'm not a stalker, but I'm so glad you're in this industry. I'm so grateful for you, your skills, and your heart that is obviously in your work. Thank you so much for meeting with me today

Rocio: Thank you! I promise I don’t stalk you either, wink wink.

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Thoughts from the curator

The intimacy industry is under pressure. While many creatives and artistic leaders see the benefits of intimacy direction and coordination as specific care and technical support for actors, the industry itself has not yet created an equitable and inclusive training process for marginalized people. In this series, Ann James, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color (ICOC), interviews eight queer and global majority intimacy specialists about the joys and challenges they face in the industry. What emerges from this series of interviews is a complex, multifaceted range of approaches, training models, and innovations for the future of intimacy that actively decenter whiteness, colonization, and appropriation.

Rebuilding for the Future: A Convergence of Thought Leaders in Intimacy Practice


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