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Intimacy Direction in the Time of Physical Distance

The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into question how to make physical storytelling in an age of physical distancing. This time of uncertainty and unrest has also highlighted the systemic imbalances prevalent in the performing arts—such as who gets to make and be paid for their art, and who is kept on the sidelines, forced back into waiting tables for maskless customers.

In early June 2020, there was movement towards radical change, with many stories of racism helping to spur on the creation of a list of demands from BIPOC artists: “We See You White American Theater.” As time has gone on, the daily protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have dwindled in many major cities, prompting concern that—without the display of societal pressure—all professions, including the performing arts, might return to “business as usual.”

For example, on 30 June, Playbill posted a notice about the hopeful 2021 Broadway season, slated to include very white and male-dominated fare, including a male-led production of Our Town starring Dustin Hoffman—despite serious allegations of sexual misconduct against Hoffman from several female co-stars, some of whom were underage at the time. Business as usual, indeed.

However, one field poised to consider the dual questions of physical needs and systemic reformation is that of intimacy direction and coordination. Beginning with the founding of Intimacy Directors International (IDI) in 2016, which closed earlier this year, and Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE) in 2017, just months before the #MeToo movement gained steam, and continuing through the creation of other companies since, many artists have grown increasingly interested in creating consent-based sets and rehearsal rooms.

As artists and companies re-examine the failures of their infrastructures and unconscious biases, the lessons learned and challenges so far within the field of intimacy direction may be of particular value.

two actors onstage

Cristina 'Cha' Ramos and Cameron Clarke in Company of Fools' production of Danny and the Deep Blue Sea. Photo courtesy of Malloree Hill.

What Is and Isn’t Intimacy Direction?

At first glance, the role of an intimacy director (for theatre) or coordinator (for film) may seem fairly straightforward. Like dance, fight, or movement, the work is to choreograph moments of touch—real or implied—between actors during times of heightened emotion, typically of an intimate or sexual nature.

Because the need for intimacy direction is often linked with the groundswell that resulted in the #MeToo movement, intimacy directors have been given a second task outside of choreography: the creation of consent-based rooms. This includes formulating language for theatre professionals to use regarding boundaries, best practices, and methods for actors to advocate for themselves. Which is to say, unlike other choreographers and designers, the task of creating an entire systemic change has drifted, perhaps unfairly, onto the shoulders of intimacy professionals.

It’s important to note that while consent and choreography are intertwined, they are not interchangeable. The choreography of a sex scene requires a consent-based room. But the creation of a consent-based room is the responsibility of all members of the company, as individuals, working for the greater good.

Addressing this distinction between choreography and consent in a fireside Zoom chat in May 2020 for the New York Theatre Workshop, New York–based intimacy director and coordinator Teniece Divya Johnson asked Claire Warden—both of whom worked as intimacy directors for Broadway’s Slave Play—to define what an intimacy professional does not do. “[Intimacy is] not part of HR. It is not the health and safety police. It is not the consent police,” said Warden. “It’s not the moral headmistress who’s come to tell you that you’re doing naughty things. It’s not checking up on and catching out directors and actors for what they’ve done in the past.” Johnson agreed, adding that everyone on set and on stage is there to do their job, and that they need to know intimacy professionals “contribute to the vision and support the storytelling as designers.”

As artists and companies re-examine the failures of their infrastructures and unconscious biases, the lessons learned and challenges so far within the field of intimacy direction may be of particular value.

Intimacy professionals should also not be regarded as therapists. As Francesca Betancourt, a freelance intimacy consultant based on the East Coast, said in a private interview: “Intimacy direction is not therapy, but there’s no such thing as not bringing your trauma into the room.” Like consent-based rooms, the work of holding space open to deal with triggering issues is the responsibility of the entire cast and crew, while the responsibility of knowing, addressing, and working with a therapist through one’s own triggers rests upon each individual outside of the stage or set.

Speaking of the positive rehearsal process in Company of FoolsDanny and the Deep Blue Sea, Cristina “Cha” Ramos—herself an independent violence and intimacy designer in New York—reflected on working as an actor with her intimacy director, Brooke M. Haney. “She trusted us to know our own bodies, so we could trust ourselves,” Ramos said. “This allowed us to bring our own triggers, discomforts and needs into the space safely, to choreograph some difficult but impactful moments.”

In fact, the creation of a consent-based room, with cast and crew who have done the work of knowing their needs and boundaries prior to production, allows the intimacy professional to accomplish their work better. “If the director has already created the space,” Maya Herbsman, a San Francisco Bay Area intimacy director with Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC, founded at the end of 2019), commented, “I get to practice my craft. It’s exciting and bizarre—and something of a relief.”

A Time for Reformation and Education

So what can be done in this time of pause? Does intimacy direction even matter when actors and designers are apart? When the survival of rehearsal rooms are in question, does it matter how the room behaves?

The answer is: Yes. This time of pause—particularly for the performing arts, which will be on hiatus longer than other industries—is a gift. The work of extricating intimacy choreography from the creation of consent-based rooms is necessary and will not be done except in a time of reflection. Prior to the pandemic, the need for intimacy professionals was so high that there was no time to examine consent and choreography as separate things. But in this time, when we are reevaluating all our systems, we have the leisure to reconstruct better rooms to return to.

The same goes for the work of valuing a diversity of voices. Each individual artist—from performers to designers, directors to producers—can spend this time considering their boundaries and needs in a consent-based room. Even more, they can consider what they have a right to demand, as an artist, as a person, and as a professional. The key to reformation is reflection, education, and action.

Physical and Digital Innovation

For those already working in the field, the pandemic offers a time for innovation—both for when artists can return to working in person, as well as for exploring intimacy in the new art form of digital theatre.

In the realm of in-person theatre, Jacie Hood, who specializes in improv theatre and sketch comedy in northern Texas, developed non-verbal consent signs for improvisers to use without interrupting the flow of a scene. Hood shared, “If I put my hand on your cheek, that’s my cue to ask you if it’s alright to kiss in the scene as we’re creating it. Then the second actor can nod or shake their head, or give whatever other agreed-upon sign they’ve worked out before, either giving consent or withdrawing it.”

On the digital theatre front, as livestreaming performances become more and more a part of everyday life, theatre and film companies are beginning to innovate storytelling within platforms such as Zoom. Already, there have been a proliferation of various digital theatre productions, performing everything from Shakespeare’s lovers swooning over digital balconies to newly written “QuaranStream” plays, such as one from Normal Ave, where two girlfriends enjoy a video chat. The creation of theatre performed via digital platforms—fully memorized, directed, and performed—begs the innovation for intimacy professionals to create best practices for this new medium.

The pandemic offers a time for innovation—both for when artists can return to working in person, as well as for exploring intimacy in the new art form of digital theatre.

In a May 2020 video panel hosted by Directors Lab West and HowlRound, intimacy and stage directors Ann James and Carly D. Weckstein discussed what solutions they were seeing for staging distanced intimacy via a digital platform like Zoom. For example, they noted that having an actor approach the screen for a “kiss” might read as comic, so abstract staging of this intimate moment might be a more effective choice. James also raised a question about how digital theatre intersects with other mediums like film—she wondered if there might be the danger that, say, a striptease in a Zoom play might read less like storytelling and more like pornography.

Similarly, Haney, who is also a teacher at Marymount Manhattan College, has been thinking of how important it is to keep storytelling central in digital theatre. She pointed out that since actors on a platform like Zoom may tend to look directly at the camera, intimacy directors need to be mindful of setting up conventions so that those watching the show know whether the actor is “looking” at the audience or at their scene partner.

These challenges require innovation and exploration. But one thing is clear: whatever the future of digital theatre, companies would benefit from hiring intimacy professionals to help artists navigate this brave new world.

Diversity in the Field

The field of intimacy has brought a great amount of good to the performing arts. The ability to speak about consent and the choreography of sensuality has provided a much-needed safety net to casts and crew alike. However, just like any system, the field of intimacy is not without flaws and biases, which need to be addressed, innovated, and reformed.

The first reform needed within intimacy is the inherited bias of the performing arts centering younger, more petite, able-bodied, cisgender white women. Unsurprisingly, the roots of this imbalance arise from the inherited problems of a patriarchal system, where overwhelmingly predominantly white male artists and administrators have written scripts for and exclusively hired white women who are cast as objects of desire. Many of those who founded the field of intimacy experienced firsthand the power imbalances inherent between actor and administrators.

However, since the first pedagogy and best practices of intimacy were created by this specific demographic—that is, predominantly white women—dealing with the boundaries and needs prevalent among them, even the ways of thinking about and approaching intimacy require further diversification. This, in turn, requires diversification and support from the whole of the performing arts.

The first reform needed within intimacy is the inherited bias of the performing arts centering younger, more petite, able-bodied, cisgender white women.

Once again, creating, promoting, and safely choreographing a variety of intimate stories is the responsibility of several disciplines. Writers need to create intimate roles specifically for a diversity of bodies. Companies need to select plays that tell stories from underrepresented points of view and fund and promote them well. Producers and directors need to be casting consciously, which may mean hiring an intimacy professional after casting a show in order to fit the needs of the actors first. This means recognizing that the traumas and triggers, boundaries and needs of BIPOC artists; queer and trans artists; older artists; larger artists; neurodiverse artists, and differently abled artists almost invariably differ from the needs of the actors who get cast time and again. BIPOC artists who contributed to “We See You White American Theater” offer a further opinion related to hiring practices, stating:

Designers, choreographers, fight and intimacy directors and their associates and assistants (as they become hired) should be fully disclosed when offers are made to ensure a full awareness of who will be in the room so that we can avoid subjecting ourselves to working with potentially harmful collaborators.

Regardless of whether intimacy directors are hired prior to auditions, with their names disclosed to prospective actors, or after auditions in order to best suit the actors they will work with, the goal should be the creation of a truly consent-based room, with professionals who can respect, and possibly deeply understand, a performer’s needs.

Who Leads the Leaders?

Provided writers, directors, producers, and other artists are doing their part to diversify the stories that are told, it is important that intimacy professionals also seek out and hold space for a diversity of voices and new ideas. This means that the field of intimacy direction needs to examine its forms of leadership and gatekeeping—both in training and in intellectual pedagogy.

Most noticeably, intimacy requires an increase in BIPOC artists in positions of authority. As James, the creator of Intimacy Directors of Color (IDOC), wrote for HowlRound:

While intimacy direction as a career choice should be more accessible to all, access to training seems to be a main stumbling block of entry for qualified and experienced actors, directors, and educators of color…. [POC artists] want training from people who look more like us. We want to ensure the physical and mental well-being of our own communities; to be trained and/or directed outside the white gaze.

Responding to this need, TIE announced the Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Intimacy Initiative (EDIII) in development with Kaja Dunn, a TIE associate faculty member and assistant professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, and with Brian Eugenio Herrera, an associate professor of theatre at Princeton University’s Lewis Center for the Arts. While the EDIII summit was interrupted by the pandemic, there will be a virtual gathering centering Black female thought leaders in August and a wider virtual gathering coming shortly after.

Dunn, a scholar herself, noted that part of gaining trust for BIPOC artists includes ethical citation practices—that is, making sure white artists are not co-opting BIPOC artists’ ideas as their own. “We need to deal not with who has the institutional or private money; we need to ask what voices need to be there, in the field of intimacy direction,” she says. “Rather than dancing around anti-Blackness, address it. Be brave enough to deal with how each group of people are uniquely affected by race, gender, sex, orientation, ability and so on as it intersects with intimacy.” Dunn believes access and accountability is the only way forward and that people need to be acknowledged, not kept out.

Similarly, while there are some rising members of the LGBTQIA+ community within intimacy direction, there also needs to be leadership from differently abled, sized, and aged bodies—three demographics that are almost invariably erased from all intimate narratives. In fact, in speaking with over twenty intimacy professionals for this article, not one mentioned age or size at all, while disabled and/or neurodiverse actors were addressed only infrequently.

One of the most outspoken people on behalf of these less visible demographics is J. C. “Jace” Meyer-Crosby, who is the founder and former artistic director of Grey Noise Theatre Company, as well as an intimacy director based in Rochester, New York. “We need to be casting conscious, not casting ignorant,” he said. “As a society we’re so eager to pat ourselves on the back that everyone is finally equal, we’re having trouble understanding that there may be someone else who’s still being left out in the power imbalances.” For that reason, Meyer-Crosby believes it’s crucial that there be thought put into the hiring process of the intimacy director. “The language of choreography and consent for one body will not be the same for another,” he says. “Instead of an intimacy director dictating to the actor how they should express their boundaries or consent, we should ask them what they need.”

Meyer-Crosby went on to speak specifically of disabled and/or neurodiverse actors. “When someone who requires an accommodation enters the process, we say, Oh, they have ‘special needs,’ they require things that are difficult and inconvenient,” he says. “It’s more accurate to say: we have not been conditioned to think outside ourselves and accommodate anyone’s needs but those that are like our own. We’ve further conditioned those with additional needs not to speak at all.”

The danger of requiring extensive experience as a prerequisite to training is that it also reinforces class and privilege, as well as invisible factors such as able-bodiedness.

Keepers of the Gate

Overwhelmingly, the reforms required of intimacy direction are ones of gatekeeping. Not only in leadership and pedagogy, but in access to the training that currently exists. IDC offers certification while TIE offers accreditation, both of which require numerous hours of in-person, on-location training with their respective company (both are on hold during the pandemic as of the time of this writing). For in-person classes, the potential loss of time and income, and the cost of classes and travel, can be a deterring factor for artists passionate about the work but not privileged with wealth or time. Yarit Dor, co-director of Moving Body Arts and co-founder/course tutor of Intimacy For Stage & Screen, which operates out of London, has taken these limitations into consideration, providing workshops on the weekends with some Zoom classes at night to accommodate those who need it, as well as providing bursaries to help those with financial needs. Although, as Dor points out, those training in the UK may find the cost of travel by rail to London significantly less than jetting across the United States.

Another barrier to becoming an intimacy professional is the apprenticeship system, which requires either being sponsored by another intimacy professional or applying with proof of extensive experience already. The danger of the sponsorship model is the likelihood of exclusion in favor of unintentional nepotism—something that several artists of color, age, ability, and size, speaking on promise of anonymity, mentioned they had already experienced. The danger of requiring extensive experience as a prerequisite to training is that it also reinforces class and privilege, as well as invisible factors such as able-bodiedness.

Another consideration is that, at present, there is no method in place to give accreditation to those artists who have—parallel or even previous to the creation of current companies—developed their own system of staging intimacy and creating consent-based rooms. In response to this, some artists are forging new companies, such as James with IDOC. However, the creation of a new system is a vastly different undertaking than obtaining accreditation for work already accomplished in a professional career.

Dor spoke about this, saying she believes intimacy professionals need to credit directors, stage managers, crew, and other movement practitioners who found strategies of consent and safety before intimacy professionals were created. “It is important to appreciate those who were and still are the support system for so many performers,” she said. “We need to find better qualifiers to what we see as ‘qualified’ for the job, so it is accessible and meets standards—especially since the role does not only have a choreographic element but also a health and safety element.”

Innovate Intimacy, Innovate the World

Like all disciplines in the performing arts, intimacy direction is changing every day to meet the needs of the people it serves, as those needs are being expressed. And already, in the past few months, companies have been formed, conferences have been planned, trainings have been offered, and new ways of looking at pedagogy are coming to light.

While systemic inequalities that plague our industries also haunt the field of intimacy, the work of creating equal and welcoming systems that honor the individual and tell a diversity of stories with dignity is the work of everyone in the performing arts—whether in person or on film, in dance and opera, or on Zoom. Every body is deserving of love, and every love story is worth telling: safely, consensually, diversely.

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Hi Emily!

Thank you so much for this contribution to the field. I wanted to put out there that I have been offering fully online intimacy training since August 2019 (pre-pandemic) through my company, Heartland Intimacy Design & Training. Just wanted to add another resource to this discussion!