Minding the Gaps: Making Space for All Identities in Intimacy Work
Ann James: It's so good to have this moment with you. Thank you for giving us this time. How did you learn your intimacy practice?
Chelsey Morgan: I learned through so many different channels, a lot of them being mentorship-based. Also, I learned a lot from my other mentors in the sex education and social justice fields. Even though it wasn't directly intimacy coordination or intimacy direction-based, a lot of my practices are based on social justice frameworks, cultural competency, radical humanity, and also creating accurate, consent-based sexuality education.
So I am certified as a Sexuality Educator by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), and I have a certification in holistic sexuality education from the Institute of Sexuality Education and Enlightenment (ISEE), which is like a more decolonized, body-and-mind-centered approach as opposed to a medical model. I have a certification in social justice frameworks in their application to the field of sexuality from Ante Up! Professional Development, and then I have a background and knowledge of choreography and movement, directing, and cinematography, which all contributes to curating my intimacy practice in a way that considers the actors behind the characters while also considering the stories that we're telling.
Ann: Is there something in your recent training or recent experience with actors that you've learned about your practice and how you work?
Chelsey: Yeah, I think the more that I work, and the different kinds of processes that I work in, the more I've learned that there is not “only one right way” to do this work, using the words of Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture.” There is no one right way to do this practice, and what I've learned is that I have my skeleton, my outline, and methodology, but I really want to curate it for the process. I don't want to project boundaries onto people who don't already have them, and I want to give people the space to find their boundaries and to find their curiosities as they're working as well.
So what I've learned is to ask a lot of questions and to give people the space to ask questions as opposed to placing a pedagogy onto them.
Ann: It's really interesting that you bring the actor, or the person who is delivering the intimacy, to the forefront. In the history of American theatre, there has been the idea of the “director as boss” and that solid power dynamic of actors as vehicles or clay statues that a director kind of moves around. It's really an antiquated way to do theatre, and what you've just illuminated for me is that you are putting the actor first and not trying to place something or some system or some structure that you've learned onto actors who may not identify with that type of structure.
I don't want to project boundaries onto people who don't already have them, and I want to give people the space to find their boundaries and to find their curiosities as they're working as well.
Chelsey: I've also just spent time learning so many methodologies. Even though there are always going to be parts and methods that resonate the most with me and that work best with my identities and the way that I interact with people, I still took the time to learn how all these different processes work and how different intimacy professionals do things. So I can always pull out a tool from somebody else's toolkit, crediting them obviously, but realizing that that might work better for the actor, the process, or the show that I'm working on, rather than just having this mindset that the way I do things is the perfect way to do things for everyone.
Ann: I think that helps the intimacy professional develop their own style and their own approach. It comes from a very organic, individually centered practice, because it's just like a surgeon. You know there's a way to use a scalpel, but there are also emergency situations where that scalpel can be used in different ways. The tool itself is something that can be mutable and changeable, depending on the circumstance.
What I feel we do, specifically as intimacy coordinators and directors of color, is to use the tools in ways that serve the process and the people who are in the room as opposed to making people lift up or down or around or to this side of something that doesn't suit them.
Chelsey: Yes, exactly.
Ann: Okay, so as an activist-artist and a facilitator, how do you combine your two worlds? Because I know you do. You’re a film director; you’re a screenwriter. How do you fit your intimacy practice into your work as an artist and as a facilitator?
Chelsey: First and foremost, when I'm in the position of a writer or as a director, my intimacy practice and the things I've learned through it really help me imagine a new way of creating media. That's kind of what intimacy professionals are here to do is enter processes and give people the tools to do media in a more radically humanity-centered way.
So I did a short film called “Let Them Be Loved,” which is about a queer son who comes out to his mother and finds himself battling his spirituality. My intimacy practice made me realize that I can do that in such an incredible way. I wrote the intimate scenes while thinking about the intricacies of choreography and storytelling. I had an intimacy professional onset, Denise Khumalo, who is also in Intimacy Coordinators of Color. I cast an intimacy professional as my lead, Joy DeMichelle of Intimacy Coordinators of Color, and then my executive producer was also an intimacy professional—you, Ann James. That process allowed me to consider all of the ways the production process can be humanity-centered and all of the resources that you can give to your actors and crew to ensure their ability to do their best work with their consent and boundaries intact. It was also very intentionally a Black film, as in I had a fully global majority cast and crew, which meant that everyone who touched the film, everyone who gave any input all needed to be a person of color for me to do it justice.
In my future projects that I'm working on, I’m also trying to consider how to do them with humanity-centered storytelling in mind. My next project is called The Audition, and it’s about performance-based sex work in strip clubs. So the intimacy professional I’m choosing is a sex worker or someone who does or has done the work that is in the film. My choreographer is also someone who has a history of doing that work. I’m thinking about the ways that I can curate my process with the same mindset that intimacy coordinators bring into every single room, but from the directing perspective and the screenwriting perspective.
Intimacy was a huge gap that was identified in our industry, and now that we're in the mindset of identifying gaps, there are even more that are being identified.
Ann: Excellent. I cannot wait to see this work. I'm so excited for you, for your process, and for the people that you're bringing into your production team. It's quite remarkable, and I’m so excited about that for you.
Now let's try to get in our time machine, and we're going to move to the future. What excites you most about the future of the intimacy field?
Chelsey: Honestly, one of the things that excites me the most, other than the incredible media that is being generated from it—because we're finally getting some quality representation and some accurate depictions of sexuality—is that the actors are supported. So I’m watching actors really dig deep into their practice because they have the container to do so in a safe way.
Also, I'm excited about all of the things that are emerging from the intimacy field. Intimacy was a huge gap that was identified in our industry, and now that we're in the mindset of identifying gaps, there are even more that are being identified. So we're bringing cultural competency specialists onto theatrical productions and now also into TV and film as well. People are hiring more consultants for things like kink and disability. We’re thinking about all the other ways that we can fill gaps in our industry, and we’re creating more justice-centered spaces.
And of course, Hollywood is still a structure, and you know theatre is still a structure. So it’s always going to be what it is, but at least we’re moving closer to this vision of centering people. That's something that's really exciting for me as I also imagine ways to help this field move toward accountability and sustainability.
Ann: I love it: pulling the resources that we can from these big machines and focusing them in on the actual people who are in the cogs of the machine instead of all the glitz and glamor. And you know this is not a glamorous job, but people seem to think it is. We’re focusing all the energy on the health and sustainability of the actor’s careers. I definitely think that your work and your practice is cutting edge, and I can't wait to see what you deliver in the future.
Chelsey: Thank you. I appreciate that.
Ann: It's been so great talking to you, Chelsey. So finally, I have one last question. Is there anything we haven't covered that you would like people to know about your artistic perspective or where you're coming at intimacy from?
Chelsey: I mean, I think that a lot of my practices are intertwined and all interconnected, but the idea that I’m really trying to emphasize with all the different things that I make is that there are so many different things that make people human. So, how can we get more of that into the media and into how we make media?
A big part of why I got into making and writing and creating media in the first place—before I even knew intimacy coordination was a thing—but also the reason why I got into sexuality and justice education in general is that I got sick of people looking at stories and their critique being like “Oh, you know, this is character doesn’t need to be both Black and queer and also trans and also this.” In reality, yes they do because that is what real people are. People are complex. They have different identities that all inform each other, and that all informs the world around them. That emphasis is what's important to me. Any projects that I can, you know, help with, consult on, work on, or create on my own that emphasize the complexity and the different angles of what it is to be a human—those are really the things that I want to focus on in my career.
Ann: Brilliant. Thank you for sharing that.