Intimacy and Equity: A Balancing Act
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.
For the past thirty years as a professional in the theatre industry, I have rooted my craft in equity, diversity, and the inclusion of marginalized voices. When intimacy crossed my path in the summer of 2019, it was moving into the public zeitgeist, but one thing was visually obvious in the websites I searched for classes. This new industry was led almost completely by cishet white women. It was implicitly white, especially with regard to who led the training. Knowing how much representation matters, I founded my company, Intimacy Coordinators of Color, to ensure Black trainees and the voices of queer and global majority trainees are mentored from a leadership and curricular specialist that looked like them. The support was and continues to be overwhelmingly fortifying.
Three years later, I’m left wondering: How can we ensure that future intimacy directors and coordinators receive robust anti-racism and cultural competency training? How can these training programs adequately prepare students to shadow in rehearsal rooms and film and television sets across the world and to learn from a diverse set of mentors?
Although some queer and global majority professionals—including myself—disagree with certification as a best practice, we do believe that quality training, highly-regarded references and referrals, and a substantial amount of professional theatre and life experience are equal or better prerequisites for work as an intimacy professional.
In my work at Intimacy Coordinators of Color, I ask that mentees and students lead with emotional intelligence and focus on redistributing power to actors by balancing creative vision with strong consent and boundary groundwork for the production community. We are collaborators who lead with knowledge of accountability in creative environments. We are skilled and enthusiastically inclined to design choreography, consult on creative ideas and cultural impact, or guide boundary vocabulary and consent-based culture.
My understanding of delivering mentorship and training stands in contrast with moves to institute a model that establishes intimacy specialist certification through one predominantly white-led company as the industry standard. This seems to go against the very core of the profession, yet it is one future some in the industry prescribe. That future takes us further away from global majority inclusion by making curricular decisions that may not center input from experienced queer and global majority professionals. Although some queer and global majority professionals—including myself—disagree with certification as a best practice, we do believe that quality training, highly-regarded references and referrals, and a substantial amount of professional theatre and life experience are equal or better prerequisites for work as an intimacy professional.
One organization’s dominance in intimacy specialist certification would be a barrier to other qualified intimacy training structures generating equitable space in the field. The industry standard would no longer be an ethical free market with many qualified approaches to the crafting of intimacy work. I think it is a slippery slope to maneuver, and leaders in the industry must consider the impact of a predominately white organization dominating the training of so many students.
Intimacy professionals are not a commodity; we are technical artists with our own style and focus. If the theatre industry bends to the provocative assumption that intimacy professionals primarily provide “safety” and “protection” just by being certified, one predominately white company could have a controlling grip on film, television, theatre, and educational pipelines to all three industries. We risk the industry collapsing in on itself from homogeneity or, worse yet, cultural or racial harm.
I bring all of this information forward as a description of the landscape I experience as a Black queer woman in the intimacy industry. My experience is but one in a collection of experiences, omissions, and oversights, and I wanted to know more about what other Black, global majority, and queer intimacy professionals were experiencing.
While there are growing pains in this relatively new intimacy industry, these conversations also taught me that there is a resilience that will not be exhausted in the fight to help intimacy find its place.
To gain further insight into what inspires global majority-minded approaches to intimacy work, I created this series by speaking with eight professional intimacy directors and coordinators about the joys and challenges they experience while making new ground for global majority and queer identities. Some are independent practitioners, and others are affiliated with larger organizations offering mentorship and training. Some are certified, and some are purposefully not certified. Some are working professionals who have concerns about being left out of the mainstream if the field is pushed toward predominately white higher education systems that overshadow a rich and wide variety of training ideologies and methods. Some will have trouble attaining positions in the university system without paying for or aligning with a certification they don’t need.
These interviews are full of energy and joy, but throughout these compelling interviews the message was clear: The intellectual property of trained Black, Indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) and queer intimacy directors is often shared without citation, permission, or compensation; there is no clearly defined and global majority-led prerequisite for anti-racist or cultural competency training for educators of intimacy work; there is no industry-wide accountability training or system for when people “mess up” on set or in rehearsal rooms; there is no pay or wage transparency for intimacy coordinators or intimacy directors; and there is no industry-approved system of equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) training for people exiting training programs or working freelance.
In short, the system needs to simply be better for everyone who practices intimacy work.
While there are growing pains in this relatively new intimacy industry, these conversations also taught me that there is a resilience that will not be exhausted in the fight to help intimacy find its place. We serve the industry by making it easier for actors to deliver solid, embodied work that sits within their boundaries and identities. We cannot be safety valves for productions that go wrong. Hire us early and hire us for our specific talents and experience.
When we know better, we should do better. There are some gorgeous things moving and shaking all across the educational theatre community. In July, I attended the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) and Black Theatre Network (BTN) conferences in Detroit, where theatre educators convened for the first time in two years. The sessions were progressive and focused on the global majority. Queer theatre practice garnered a premier place in discussions on the impact of intimacy in higher learning. Educators want intimacy training to be a part of what they do next. The industry understands that in order to make space for more equity in discussions of queerness and Blackness, the teachers cannot be trained with a curriculum that sees these individuals as “other.” The question in my mind remains: should the intimacy field develop higher education training programs, how can they help create the foundation of equity that this industry is so clearly missing and center the training, wisdom, perspectives, and experiences of the global majority?
What we should not be doing is creating a pipeline to our arts and media institutions based on one curriculum or point of view.
The ATHE conference next year intends to dig deeper. The 2023 strategy is as follows:
To care for each other, we need to hold ourselves accountable for what we have and have not changed in our association, our home institutions and departments, and our lives to align our actions with our stated values that Black Lives Matter. In 2023, we continue interrogating our complicity with, and agency to disrupt the intertwining systems of white supremacy, neoliberalism, cis-heteropatriarchy, and ableism that saturate the industries of both theatre and higher education.
I believe the intimacy industry can use these values as an example of how to move forward with grace. In this series I speak with Chelsey Morgan, Kaja Dunn, Rocio Mendez, Adi Cabral, Raja Benz, Jyreika Guest, Brooke Haney and Cha Ramos about the possibilities for change. We gathered for this series and discussed shining examples of how a variety of strategies can be reflected in the intimacy industry. We all seemed interested in keeping a free market that includes the voices of many qualified instructors and practitioners as an organically ethical pathway to braver spaces in the future.
In a few conversations, a more controversial idea came to the surface. Should intimacy professionals be focusing on eventually becoming obsolete? Perhaps those of us who have more visibility could spend more energy on training directors to appreciate and abide by the consent and boundaries of actors they work with. Perhaps it could be exciting to support a director’s own choreographic artistry and language for a new cohort of actors who have self-care vocabulary. I believe we should be speaking with and educating deans of theatre schools about the possibilities of engaging a diverse pool of intimacy professionals with a wide variety of ideologies to bring them into candid conversation with their global majority students. Maybe we should be offering non-Eurocentric values and methods of mentorship, apprenticeship, and training for global majority, queer, disabled, and/or neurodiverse students. We should be giving producers the tools they need to determine what their intimacy needs might be for a season well before that season is announced. What we should not be doing is creating a pipeline to our arts and media institutions based on one curriculum or point of view.
The future of intimacy is actively influencing the way we approach theatre in a post-pandemic world. Nothing gives me more joy than seeing an actor discover and communicate their boundaries. My deepest concern is for global majority professionals entering the field who do not have the curricular support to navigate a predominately white system. BIPOC and/or queer actors value someone that looks like them in our position in the room. More important than the visual confirmation is our specialized approach to delivering all forms of intimacy and cultural sensitivity that de-center whiteness, colonization, and appropriation. I am so fortunate to have had the chance to meet with these incredible artists in the field over the course of two months. Each interview held diamonds and hints of evolution. As you peruse this series of brilliant creators and their words, I hope you gain insight into what is truly exciting for us in the intimacy field.
The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here
I am interested in hearing from all of the folks you have lined up. Best, V