With Ann James of Intimacy Coordinators of Color
Ann James: Yeah, the table is great. Let's make it a banquet. Let's see what's on the table as opposed to the table itself. And let's sample everything on the table. It doesn't always have to be the main event. It doesn't always have to be, at some points, the dry turkey and the bland flavorless meat. It could be just such a sharing of all that we have to offer.
Yura Sapi: Imanalla mashikuna. Imanallatak kanki. Hello, friends. How are you? Welcome to another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast, season two. I'm your host, Yura Sapi, recording from Emberá Native lands on the Afro-Indigenous coast of Colombia in Nuquí, Chocó, in the Gulf of Tribugá. The Building Our Own Tables podcast is produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide, and by Advancing Arts Forward, a movement to advance equity, inclusion, and justice through the arts by creating liberated spaces that uplift, heal, and encourage us to change the world.
I'm interviewing Black, Native, Asian, and other founders of color to find transformative solutions and ways of working together that are not replicating the same white supremacy culture we wanted to get away from. With the blessing that we all have a role in the revolution, this podcast checks in and learns from Black, Native, Asian, and other people of the global majority who have created arts organizations and movements, initiatives, practices, and beyond that are changing the game, making new things happen within and building their own tables instead of focusing on getting a seat at existing white and Eurocentric ones. We'll be learning from incredible arts organizing visionaries on their processes, pathways to success, and challenges they've overcome.
In today's episode, I'm interviewing Ann James, founder of Intimacy Coordinators of Color. Intimacy Coordinators of Color supports and promotes decolonized intimacy education and inclusive hiring practices in the entertainment industry. Understanding that the field of intimacy work in theatre, film and television is not as diverse as it can be, Intimacy Coordinators of Color plans to change that by offering quality consultancy, advocacy, and equality for the Black, Indigenous, and people of color communities. They meet with artistic boards, producers, directors, and other leadership groups in theatre, film, and television to help incorporate intimacy work into workplace ethos. As advocates, they gather stories and lend their expertise in group dynamics and conflict resolution to promote healing on set and in the rehearsal room. They also offer classes that lead to understanding about the field of intimacy and the importance of racial and cultural balance in the profession.
Ann C. James has an extensive career in international stage direction and theatre education spanning over three decades. They recently made their debut as the first Black intimacy coordinator of Broadway for Antoinette Nwandu's Pass Over. James is an expert in the burgeoning industries of intimacy direction and institutional consent culture for national arts organizations. On the west coast, Ann James provides consultation and intimacy coordination for the television and film industry, most recently working with Rashida Jones, Mark Wahlberg, Issa Rae, Will Ferrell, and Cynthia Erivo on several different projects. Ann James is in their second year of studies as America's first MFA in performance pedagogy with an emphasis in Afrocentric intimacy pedagogy at Loyola Marymount University.
Ann: My name is Ann James. My pronouns are in development. I am currently she, moving into they/we, simply because I really feel that I carry my ancestors with me everywhere. I like to answer as a group sometimes with my ancestors because I feel like “I” is so self-centered in times when I'm really trying to reach people. So, I'm in development with my pronouns, long story short. I am an intimacy coordinator, intimacy director, and I also work with national arts institutions on what I call an Afrocentric intimacy pedagogy for predominantly white institutions.
Yura Sapi: Tell us about the origin story of your work, of your organization, Intimacy Coordinators of Color.
Ann: Sure. It started because I lived abroad. I lived out of the country for about ten years, and I came back because my parents were getting older and I wanted to share their golden years with them. So I made this decision to move back to the United States. But I knew as a producer, as a theatre educator, that I wanted to move into a city where I felt I could grow, where I felt I could learn something new, and where I could add something to my skills. I've been in this business for thirty years and I've done everything from just suite bathrooms and clean toilets of my own theatre, to producing three hundred person cruises that simulate the Titanic in China. So, I've done a lot of things and I had a lot of skills, but there was still more—I was still hungry to learn more.
So, as I was coming to the decision to move to LA, I fell upon this new field called intimacy direction. When I was in college, I had created this system called Circles of Intimacy, all about consent and boundaries, basically the actors—because we were going through another plague called AIDS—there was really a lot of concern around touching people. There was ignorance and there was fear. And being in a small drama department in the middle of Texas with some of the most darling, talented people who are all professionals. Most of them are professionals in the world today—theatre professionals. But there was a lot of miseducation about who you could touch, and when you could touch, and where you could touch.
So I created this system called Circles of Intimacy, and that has carried me through most of my career. So I said, “Huh, so there's a name for it now: intimacy direction. That's cool. Let me go and learn about that.” When I moved to LA, I started diving into some training and I took a wonderful training with Theatrical Intimacy Education, also known as TIE, with Chelsea Pace and Laura Rikard. They were amazing and really showed me the possibilities of what my skills as a director, stage director, producer could lend to the field.
The only problem was that there weren't very many people who look like me. I identify as African American, fat, queer, Black woman. I didn't see a lot of me in the room and I thought, well, maybe there's a way for me to help this organization—not TIE, but another organization—with their optics, with their ideology, with who they were putting forward as leaders. I did that for a while, but then I just decided after a certain series of events that I would start out on my own and actually create a company, an LLC, that creates opportunities for people from the global majority people who are differently abled, people who are neurodiverse, to come and have this training in affinity space and come and have this training in a company where the actual owner of the company is a person from the global majority.
And to this day, I am the only one that can claim that. I hope there will be more coming soon, but I feel like I created an affinity space for us to focus in on intimacy of different types—not just intimacy that was sexual in content. Although, that is the main definition of intimacy as it is. I feel that because I stepped out to incorporate things like race in intimacy, things like culture in intimacy, things like disability in intimacy, and so on, all in line with the EEOC, that I feel like I've created a space for people to come in and be who they are and not have to have their training all done by people who don't look like them. So ta-da. That's why ICOC exists.
Yura Sapi: Incredible. And just to get some more clarity, the EEOC, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Yes?
Ann: Yes. What that says is that it's an anti-discriminatory clause that is required for every business that employs people in the United States. And what it says is that there are protected classes in our nation and those are people with disabilities, people of color, people who come from a different culture or ethnicity, or sexual orientation, age, maturity. So there are these protected classes that make sure that employers are being inclusive in their hiring practices and not creating discriminatory spaces for people to work in.
Yura Sapi: Yes. I remember this from my time as a diversity inclusion coordinator with Actors' Equity. I remember also the limitations of it, because on one hand it was really important that these things are now in a law and we can point to the law, but there are also ways in which the law wasn't going far enough and wasn't giving us everything really that we need. There's also other kinds of discrimination, other intersections. I think they called them secondary identities; things like education and class.
Ann: Yeah. That's really interesting. I just discovered this whole energy around student debt and the disparities in student debt when it comes to education. Really, really alarming and how people from the global majority are often just paying back more in student debt simply because they're not able to pay back as fast. And that's something that we have to pay attention to when we're looking at something like student debt.
Yura Sapi: Yeah. That's real. It definitely feels like a scam to me. I'm not personally sure what my plan is for my own student debt other than to keep paying it, but I know there's folks working on it, on getting that canceled and figuring it out. But it definitely is part of the generational challenges, I think we're having and that we're seeing affecting the economy as well and society.
Ann: Well, the pursuit of happiness. How many people are really pursuing their happiness right now? That's in the Bill of Rights, that we're supposed to be doing that. That's in the preamble. So we really have to take a look at how we can ease the burden of things like medical debt, student debt, housing debt, so that we can actually all live in the pursuit of happiness.
Yura Sapi: As someone who's been abroad for a while now, what did that experience teach you? And what did coming back to the US teach you, specifically thinking about the US as this world oppressor, in a way, with its systems and what's going on even within the country?
Ann: Well, as Afghanistan falls today, literally under Taliban rule, it makes me reflect back on when I moved away from the country in 2008. I moved away to a country in the midst of social divide and political unrest. I moved to Khartoum, which was in a whole Sudan, which is now divided into two countries, which happened while I was living in Sudan. So it was not very uncommon for us to be sequestered to our homes, to be on household or to be asked to stay under covered guard.
During my stay there, riots in the streets at times, the embassy closed down at one point. Very harrowing experience. I was there teaching theatre at an international school. In a war-torn country, basically fighting against itself for freedom of Sharia law, which they are. Well, Northern Sudan has liberated itself from Sharia law, which is a beautiful thing for the people who wanted that.
So it makes me think of leaving the United States in a crash, in an economic crash of 2008, and then moving to a warring country. And then after that, I decided to take it easy and I moved to Amsterdam. So I was in Khartoum for two years, and then I moved to Amsterdam to start a theatre and burlesque company in Amsterdam. That was fantastic. I did that for two and a half years until the economic crisis of the United States hit Europe and nobody was coming. Nobody was traveling. I had a company based in tourism.
So I got head hunted by Disney one day on email and asked if I wanted to come and teach in China. So I packed my bags and moved to China and actually lived there for six and a half years producing fifty-two productions in that six and a half years. That's where I decided in 2018—the company was very successful—it had run its course. China, of course, was clamping down on Western entertainment, English language entertainment. It was just more and more difficult to do shows and venues weren't allowing us to do shows because of fear of the government. So it was the perfect time for me to come home. But that was my ten and a half years outside of the country. I have no regrets. Not one single regret, except for the fact that I can't get really good dumplings here. But other than that, it's great.
Yura Sapi: That's incredible. Yeah. You've lived so much and gotten so much experience. I'm actually living in Colombia right now. I moved from New York. I'm also a citizen of Colombia and Ecuador and somebody else who migrated to the US was talking to me a few years ago and was like, “I'm really proud of you for having done that move to Colombia because whatever kinds of move to another country is a big feat in terms of just making friends and finding community.” And you've done that many times.
Ann: Yeah. It's really mind blowing to think that I've been to over forty-one countries. I'm hanging out with people who've been to seventy, eighty, ninety countries. So I feel like I need to get my stuff together so I could travel more after this pandemic, so that I can run with the big folks. But I love travel and there's an opportunity to see yourself and other people when you travel. I think America is so isolated sometimes that we assume that people do things the way we do in other countries. It's very nurturing and refreshing and humbling to understand that American way isn't necessarily the best way, or the common denominator, or the go-to as you travel around the globe.
Yura Sapi: Yeah. Also the American way oftentimes is doing damage and harming so many of these other countries in the world. This has come up in different episodes, but we're talking about building our global solidarity. This work specifically on this podcast with HowlRound is a worldwide platform. We're thinking beyond borders, really, especially as people of the global majority.
Ann: Yeah. Even the title of this podcast: Building Our Own Tables. I always tell people when you come to any kind of gathering where people are getting together to share food, the best food on the table is always the side dishes. And the side dishes always come from somebody's grandma's recipe, from some other place or some other... there's always a story to the side dishes.
Yeah, the table is great. Let's make it a banquet. Let's see what's on the table as opposed to the table itself. Let's see what's on that table and let's sample everything on the table. It doesn't always have to be the main event. It doesn't always have to be, at some points, the dry turkey and the bland flavorless meat. It could be just such a sharing of all that we have to offer.
Yura Sapi: As a business owner, what is the importance of being an owner and having more Black-owned businesses, Native-owned businesses, Asian-owned businesses? Businesses owned by people of color. What is the importance in that? I want to hear your thoughts.
Ann: Yeah. I mean, I've had several businesses and I'm built to be an entrepreneur. My family, I come from a family of entrepreneurs that always had one foot in something stable. My dad in the military, my mom was an educator, but I watched them as I grew up become very, very successful in multi-level marketing. And just on the hustle, marketing their programs and doing really, really well—well outside their friends' circle—and really building business and building relationships.
So the ideology that I've never met a stranger and that I don't think that intrinsically people have anything against me as a Black business owner or as a Black person in general. The mechanations of starting a business can seem daunting, but there are so many programs and so many online tutorials about how to set up your own business. I mean in this country, the way it is structured, businesses get more tax breaks than individuals. And once you understand that you being a business entity gives you more spending power because you will save more money or be able to put more money into things that you want that can be residual income or income that you don't have to work for, it's the way to go.
I think that because our educational system doesn't teach us this, when we are in primary school, they don't teach us about economics. They don't teach us about banking. They don't teach us about saving money, investing money. We have to kind of learn it on our own and there's a lot of shame around that in the global majority community, simply because there's very, very little education. So people learn about wealth and they learn about business from their parents. And if you don't have parents who know and understand business and know and understand wealth and know and understand real estate and how to get on the property ladder, then you just won't do it. I think that's a huge disservice, but there's plenty of opportunity for you to teach yourself. It just takes a click of a button for you to be on a journey, saving more of your money and making it work for you.
Yura Sapi: Yeah, snaps. Folks, if you're listening or reading the transcript, set that date for yourself to get your learning, to get your education. We're super lucky that we do have the internet.
Ann: Yeah. I can look up any number of things. I mean, you have to be able to discern what's your pathway and the way you're going to go. But yes, certainly the way to get there. Also, in the United States, there's the Small Business Association, SBA. And the SBA has every single thing you could possibly need to start a business. So I encourage everyone to start an LLC. You can start it with your name, Ann James, LLC. That's not mine. I'm going to start another one really quickly here. The SBA will have all the information that you need.
Yura Sapi: I'm thinking about this entrepreneur mindset and community. It can often be, at least for me, first of all, white male-centric. And then with that comes all of these different characteristics of white supremacy culture that come into the ways in which entrepreneurship is said that it needs to be. Things like hierarchy. Things like lack of transparency. All these things feeding into practices that ends up being harmful in the long run for the communities I'm trying to support. So what are some of the strategies that you use to not fall into these traps?
Ann: The whole pedagogy that I'm creating—well, at least large chunks of it—are very cognizant of being in tune with energy that is forward-moving, energy that is connected to ancestor, connected to generations before you, and having that and having that sense of intuition and tapping into developing your intuition will keep you out of a lot of hot water.
Don't be afraid to say no. Always state your purpose and be okay to walk away if something isn't good for you. I think a lot of people make poor decisions based on fear and based on “Well, what did they think of me? Or what will they think of me if I changed directions right now?” And that's really immaterial to your choices. What other people think doesn't matter. You should follow your truth, follow your path, and listen to yourself first.
Yura Sapi: Yeah, that's definitely an important practice. Some developing in being able to identify what it is that I want and need, because being able to communicate my wants and needs with others only works if I know what my needs are.
Ann: Right, exactly. Make a list. What are the things that you want? I was just talking to my very, very, very best friend today, Annalee Jefferies. She's an amazing actress. We ideate all the time. We're always thinking of something. We're always thinking of a new idea or a new way to create a solution to a challenge. We stay in that mind frame and everything in this patriarchal supremacist society wants you to not do that. They want you to not dream. They want you to not think. They want you to do. It's a slave mentality that this country was built on. If we give you too much time to think for yourself, you might actually do it. So here's a nine-to-five job that you have to work for, I don't know how many… fifty weeks a year for forty years. And then you get to take, what's called retirement in your seventies when your activity level is probably going to be diminished.
So although we say slavery is abolished in this country, with the educational system being as poor as it is with the amount of money that we have, and with the underpinnings of supremacy in the very fabric of our country, I can see where it's very difficult for people to get outside of the mind frame of slavery and get into the mind frame of innovation. But I encourage you to do it. I encourage everyone to do it. I try to do it every day. I try to create a new idea or something I'm interested in every day.
Yura Sapi: Tell us more about the vision you have for Intimacy Coordinators of Color and for the Afrocentric intimacy pedagogy you're working on.
Ann: Yeah. I mean, I have to say I'm very, very proud of the cohort that has been coming through ICOC. We started about a year and a half ago, I can't believe. But actually I have four or five members of this cohort who are actually working in the business now. And that's really great. They are working in television and film. They're working in theatre. They're working in dance. I have a kink and BDSM specialist now that's just moved to LA, and we want to get them working as soon as possible. So I'm really happy.
The ICOC process isn't so much training as it is a mentorship. So the other organizations like TIE and IDC, they train lots and lots of people. And IDC to their credit, who I absolutely adore, train people, not necessarily into the intimacy industry. They train “lay” people. Educators, students, directors. Everyone else who is not an intimacy director, they train them with best practices, ways to choreograph if you don't have an intimacy choreographer there. Ways to incorporate race into the dialogue, culture into the dialogue. They have a wonderful set of associates that are teaching with them now, which is great. It's a wonderful system and a great structure that I appreciate so much, just so that we can get more universality into the industry and more attention to things that are not related to sex. I think that's wonderful. I mean, ICOC is based on people who have information. They have an education. They have taken many, many classes. They take some classes with me or the classes that I offer. And then what I want to do is then mentor them and move them into their first, second, and third actual positions in the industry.
Yura Sapi: Can you speak more about your organizational structure and how you involve people?
Ann: Yeah. I have an advisory board of about six people and they are educators, producers, heads of departments of theatre programs, and performers. What that allows me to do is have my team of people who can guide me in order to facilitate the members of my cohort that come through. If they have a question about mental health, I have a psychologist who is a psychologist for the NBA on my advisory board. So I just pick up the phone and have that conversation in order to assist that ICOC with a particular scene that they're working on.
So people come flow in and out as they wish. I'm available to them. The group is relatively small. It's about twenty people. Again, because I'm not trying to train the masses, I'm trying to mentor intimacy coordinators of color into the industry. I know each single one of them by name and what their goals are and what they strive for and the area they're interested in. I try to guide them toward the areas of interest that they have and then support them in having the interviews with the actors, having the interviews with the producers, and UPNs, if we're talking about television and film. So I train them and mentor them at the same time.
Yura Sapi: It sounds like a lot of quality over quantity and being able to use what resources you have to deeply reach people. Somebody once said that about Advancing Arts Forward, the organization that holds this podcast, in terms of it being a group that's changing the world one person at a time.
Ann: I don't charge for this service. There's not a financial barrier of $15,000, which is one of the going rates for being certified in this very new industry. And that's because I choose everyone individually and I don't feel that a mentor should charge their mentee. But what I do to supplement for my time is I will have events. So I will have an event where we do a speaking engagement or I'll interview someone, or I have my intimacy captain training—which is a great training. And that helps to subsidize what I could charge my cohorts. But I choose not to simply because I don't feel like I should make financial gain off of training someone into this very new business.
Yura Sapi: Yeah, I hear you. I've definitely come to understand more, that oftentimes with these different projects, it's like finding a puzzle piece of how things get funded, of how the finance piece works out, of how the financial structure is set. So how we're able to get the funding, how we get money, but really how we get the resources because it can be done without even using US dollars or different currencies in terms of trading or other kinds of ways of getting resources. So being able to find and get that puzzle piece match is super important.
Do you have any tips for folks who are maybe trying to figure out how the finance piece of a project works out so that people get compensated and people get what they need and what they work for?
Ann: I just, yesterday, literally yesterday, got word that I had been awarded a grant for my intimacy work. So California Creative Initiative, the CCI, yeah. The CCI is a new grant engine that gives money to innovators in their fields. I was just literally glancing through the internet for grants. The good old internet will help you all the time. I've found this new grant. I applied for it and I got it. So I just found that out yesterday. There's so many organizations that have money that never give it all out. And that's another thing in our global majority community is that there's so much fear around not having enough money and not being able to support being an entrepreneur that it keeps us from finding free money.
Now, this particular grant, I have to create a program, but they're not going to be breathing down my neck for a year. I just have to turn in a 250-word paragraph, I guess, about what I did with the money and send a couple of pictures of what I did with the money. And that's it. And that was $5,000.
Yura Sapi: A lot of what I'm doing right now is crowdfunding in terms of getting resources specifically from people in the US to people in Latin America. I do think that this is part of my specific role in the revolution right now. What it means for me as a citizen of the US, of Ecuador, and of Colombia.
Ann: Yeah. Grants, fellowships, scholarships. There's so many out there. You just have to do the work. I mean, you have to put TikTok down and actually look through grants and pick through them, and be ready to read through them and spend as much energy and focus on that as you would, just make it a part of your daily schedule. What grants can I look up today and apply for? And then you'll get used to it. You'll have your narrative written. I suggest everybody write a 500-word narrative about what they do and what they want to do and their goals. So then that way, if you just have that, every one of these grant applications are going to ask you your narrative. Well, what do you want to do with the money? So you just copy-paste it. All you have to do is write it once. So then you can start getting grants. Once you get one, that will give you some confidence to write another one.
Yura Sapi: Thank you so much for all the support and guidance from someone who's already making it happen.
Ann: The most important thing I can say is that when we're talking about building our own tables, money is a big part of that. Unless we can get to the understanding that the way the economy works is dependent on some people working and some people letting their money work for them so that they can be free mentally, spiritually, and physically to build and ideate a future that they want, we can't get anywhere.
I didn't intend for this to be about finance and money, but the education around that, we have to do—and don't be scared to do it. Take my advice and take strength in the fact that we as artists deserve everything that's coming to us as far as access and as far as telling our stories with joy and that we should have people in the rehearsal room that speak our language and speak from our identities, telling us how to use our bodies in intimate ways. And I just wish you the best of luck with everything that you're doing.
Yura Sapi: Yes, abundance over scarcity. Using abundance to attract more and being able to get more resources to ourselves so that we can give them to our community and the people that we're working with. Not operating off of that same scarcity we wanted to get away from.
Ann: That's right.
Yura Sapi: This has been another episode of the Building Our Own Tables podcast. I'm your host and producer, Yura Sapi. Our editor is Daniel Umali. Original music by Blackos the Producer and Julian Var. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find podcast. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes.
If you love this podcast, donate to support future episodes at advancingartsforward.org. You can also post a rating and write a review on those platforms to help other people find us. There is a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content available on howlround.com. Have an exciting idea for an essay, podcast or TV event the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the commons.