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The Queering of Intimacy: Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion in Action

A Conversation with Brooke Haney

An actor sitting on a couch with their legs on the lap of another actor.

Summer Benson and Mod Becher in the world premier of Maddox Pennington’s Love Chicken. Written and directed by Maddox Pennington. Intimacy consulting by Brooke M. Haney.

 

Ann James: What brought you to intimacy choreography? What drew you to the work?

Brooke Haney: I started my career as an actor. I was often cast in roles that involved physical intimacy, and I played a lot of characters that experienced trauma. While in undergrad, I would work on this kind of material in class and wonder how I was supposed to really go there in my acting class and then go to math. I was trying to figure out how I could do the work I’m good at, live a healthy life, and make a sustainable career for myself. I explored that by creating The Actor’s Warm Down, a twenty-minute closure practice. So, in some ways closure practices were one of the first things that brought me to the intimacy industry.

Additionally, I am fascinated by stories of touch and how we tell them. I took about a year of my life, and every day I read a book, listened to a podcast, took a class, or watched something and evaluated it around the storytelling of sex, and that became my education. How are people telling these stories? What are sex educators saying about this? What have I been told through a straight lens? And how can I rethink about that through a queer lens?

Ann: That's interesting because we often, as queer or marginalized people, have to home in on our experience of our identity through that heteronormative lens. You say that you are evaluating storytelling from your identity—from a non-hetero existence. Please elaborate.

Brooke: Historically, most of the stories we see are told from a straight, cis, white lens. Even those of us who don't identify in that way, whether it’s because we aren’t white or because we aren’t straight or cis or some intersection of these things, we’re still being inundated with stories told in this way as the default. You can't help but have that lens be the thing that's top of mind because it's the way we see stories presented all the time.

I have found for myself, if I’m really interested in authentic representation of queer stories, I have to take a step back and say, “Okay what's my first instinct? And is that my instinct because that's what I've consumed, or is that my genuine artistic instinct because it's based in truth?”

The thing I am most compelled by is the ability to help someone tell their story, particularly if it's one I might not have seen before.

Ann: What have the people you work with taught you about humanity, your artistry, and your spirituality?

Brooke: I love this question because I feel like theatre is my church, and I feel called to it. You know when they tell you when you're a young actor, “If you can do anything else, do something else?” When I started in this business, acting was really the only thing I could see myself doing, until intimacy came along. And then I felt called to that.

Ann: I so love that.

Brooke: Anna Deavere Smith says in her book Letters to A Young Artist, “to develop your mark as an artist, you need to see the marks of others—especially the marks of those who are unrecognized. Everyone around you is making a mark of some kind.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, I've been working on a lot of short films, which has given me the opportunity to work with filmmakers who are telling a story that's often very personal to them. I feel like these stories are a chance to experience someone else's mark. Their stories resonate with me, feed me like a church service. I feel very honored to help filmmakers share their story and make their mark on the world. That's the thing I'm learning about my artistry, that the thing I am most compelled by is the ability to help someone tell their story, particularly if it's one I might not have seen before.

Ann: Fascinating, and you know we're all human beings. For those of us who are artists, I feel much like you do that it is our sacred calling to tell humanity about itself, to record that so we can learn about each other and learn to not make the same mistakes over and over again. The storytelling of our humanity is so special, and being at the forefront of that, being in the room when these stories are being told and being storytellers ourselves as intimacy professionals is sacred.

Brooke: I agree. One of the things that I'm really loving about short films is that they can ask a question and not necessarily answer it. I worked on a film recently, and the filmmaker, Dennis Chan, was presenting a question that I found very interesting. The film is about a man who has experienced sexual trauma as a child, and it jumps back and forth between him in his therapist’s office and time he spent with a sex worker, in his attempt to heal from that trauma. The film doesn't answer whether or not it works, and I appreciate that. To me it’s a story I haven't seen enough of, and that's a story I'm excited by; I’m excited to see the mark that Dennis Chan is leaving, even if it's just a question mark.

Ann: Now I know, Brooke, that you are working with the lenses of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), and I'm wondering if you could talk about your intimacy practice as a platform to continue that drive in our industry to make sure that stories are being told for the marginalized community, from the LGBTQIA community, from the transgender, gender nonconforming, non-binary, and intersex community. Tell us a little bit about how you infuse your practice with these principles.

As intimacy professionals, we must be clear about what work we are qualified to do and what work we should pass to someone else.

Brooke: Yeah, I think we're all ready to tell the stories that are right for us and that we were meant to tell. The work that I'm meant to tell I know I'm going to be really good at. For me, these are stories gender nonconforming characters and queer stories. Additionally, I work a lot on stories of trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Those are the stories that I'm really equipped to tell, and queer stories are my favorite. The intimacy industry can and does help tell those stories in a brave way. And you know, the bare minimum is creating a consent-forward space. I almost don’t even need to mention that in a series like this, but I do because it is the basis of why this work matters, and I really believe there are a lot of tenets of intimacy choreography that feed into DEI work.

Kristy Thomas is an amazing playwright and DEI Specialist. She and I co-authored an article about the meeting of intimacy work and DEI work. She's a queer black woman writing from that perspective, and I wrote from my perspective as a genderqueer, queer person working in the intimacy field. We compiled a list of best practices for how DEI and intimacy work can support brave rehearsal spaces. An example of a best practice could be how we approach our risk assessment of a project. In a white supremacist model, we can (even unintentionally) use time to coerce. We may ask someone to make a decision about a boundary without time to consider it because we’re short on time. If instead, we recognize and name in advance that time will be a challenge, like in a festival setting, then we can make a plan for how we can still make the space necessary to do the project well.

Additionally, as intimacy professionals, we must be clear about what work we are qualified to do and what work we should pass to someone else.

Ann: Now I will tell you, Brooke Haney is the person who will do that. I have seen you in practice, delivering work to other people who may be more suited. And internally from the industry, I see that not happening. There's a disconnect. There's this idea that booking as many jobs as possible sustains careers, when actually if you're not the right person in the room, you could actually be a detriment to the industry flowering. So tell me a little bit about that from your perspective.

Two actors kissing on stage.

Angelique Rodriguez and Alice Woo in Vassar College’s production of Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home. Directed by Christopher Grabowski. Music direction by Sarah Rubin. Dramaturgy by Sam Peterson. Production design by Stephen Jones. Scenic design by Pedro Lima. Lighting design by Alexa Lyons. Costume design by Kenisha Kelly. Intimacy direction by Brooke Haney.

Brooke: It’s a detriment to the industry, and I want to go further to say it's a detriment to yourself when you take work that isn’t in your wheelhouse. Your artistic energy is meant for a particular purpose. In this industry, we have such a fear of scarcity. So I understand why people do it, why people say yes to a project that they might not feel totally qualified for, because they're not sure when the next one is coming. However, if we are doing the work that is right for us, the next job will come. And I say that as a gig worker. A gig ends, and I’m like “Okay, what's next? I hope it's something.” When I was an actor, people would ask me, what work do you do? And initially, I would say “whatever someone will pay me for,” rather than looking deeper and saying, “What am I really good at? What are the stories I'm really meant to tell? What's my artistic voice?” and I believe I would have had more commercial success as an actor if I’d homed in sooner on my clarity and specificity. Our industry benefits from those of us who can clearly articulate, “This is what I do. And for other things, let me help you find someone.”

Ann: What excites you about the future of the intimacy field?

Brooke: A couple things. I’m excited to see how intimacy professionals get to know each other’s work and settle into our specialties. I’m excited for us to be like, “Oh, you're doing that kind of show? I'm gonna recommend Cha Ramos for that, or Raja Benz would be perfect for that.”

More broadly, I really do believe that the work that we're doing is going to change the industry in a positive way. I'm excited for even a few years from now when we walk into a room and it isn’t someone’s first time working with an intimacy choreographer. A time when everyone on the artistic team comes to rehearsal knowing their boundaries, ready to explore, and the room feels different because the space for boundary check-ins is an assumed and natural part of the rehearsal process.

Ann: This is something that's extremely exciting, and I think you're one of the professors who are making this happen in a very lovely way. I mean I can't imagine that the students at Marymount Manhattan College are not affected by your enthusiasm and your joy, and you're holding them with your care and concern for their body autonomy and for their consent-based practice. Your students are lucky.

Brooke: What I'm hoping is that the students will have been trained to define their boundaries and how to advocate for themselves. They can practice their first time saying, “Actually, I’d rather try it this way” at school rather than a professional setting.

Ann: And they're fighting the patriarchy in the same sentence.

Brooke: Exactly. It's activism in the rehearsal room.

We're not mental health professionals in the room, but we are sometimes the person in the room with the most emotional intelligence.

Ann: Yeah, 100 percent. So, the final question I have for you is kind of a general and broad one. I just want you to riff on anything we haven't discussed today that you want us to know about your practice, about you as an artist.

Brooke: I want folks to know about the availability of The Actor’s Warm Down, which is the closure practice I created. There's some great, quick closure practices out there: Intimacy Directors International introduced “clap in, clap out,” where actors use a high five (or a high ten) to physically mark the moments of becoming and releasing their characters. Theatrical Intimacy Education teaches a de-roleing practice, which I was introduced to by Laura Rikard who started using it as a graduate instructor in 2008 at the University of Virginia. She told me, “I noticed students carrying the pain of the characters out of the classroom, and that’s when I sat them down and asked them to state out loud what they did as the character and how they did it. I noticed it had positive effects and asked a therapist why. She explained that it works similar to grief counseling in that it is the saying out loud that helps the body and mind separate work from life. It provides repair from the stress the labor of acting can create in the mind and body.” I’ve used both “clap in, clap out” and de-roleing with many casts. Additionally, I've worked with other directors who have their own closure practices.

The Actor’s Warm Down is a twenty-minute practice. It is for when an actor, not the character, is actually in fight, flight, or freeze. Some of my research was taken from Dr. John Gottman's theories around “flooding,” which is when your body is pumping adrenaline. He says that physiologically, it takes twenty minutes for your body to calm down and for your brain to start thinking rationally.

I’ve described it on my website with some audio recordings to help people use it. When we play characters that are experiencing trauma, our bodies are often closed off, so the warm down uses meditation, visualization, and some yoga, which opens you back up. It's part vocalization, some power poses. It's created to get you to a place where your body can calm down and you can go about your day. This isn't a practice that you need for every rehearsal, but when you do need it, it can be helpful.

Ann: What's your website?

Brooke: Brookemhaney.com Part of why I put it on my website was so people could have access to it. Often, I get brought in to teach it to a cast on a show that deals with significant trauma. And I didn't create this so that I'm the only one that can teach it or use it. I created it because I needed it. I created it so it would be available.

Ann: You know we talk about fight, flight, fawn, and freeze in the intimacy captain training that we do at Intimacy Coordinators of Color. We're not mental health professionals in the room, but we are sometimes the person in the room with the most emotional intelligence. Being able to recognize not only the traumatic response, but leading with that in our interaction with actors, knowing those steps, and baking them into our practice in the room—I could see this as being very beneficial.

Brooke: Yeah, I appreciate you saying we're not mental health professionals, because I feel very passionately about that. I've created a practice that may help if you find yourself in an activated place, but I'm not pretending to be a therapist. It is a tool; that's all it is.

Ann: It's the tool. Anyone else in that room has the ability to get that tool.

Such a joy Brooke, to speak with you, and thank you so much for delivering such gems in this conversation.

Brooke: Thank you for including me in this amazing series; I don't take it lightly. I feel very honored.

Two topless actors smiling at one another.

Jenn Harris and Becca Blackwell in the short film "She’s Clean." Directed, written, and produced by Jenn Harris. 1st Assistant Director, Monica Volpacchio. Director of Photography, Charlie Gruet. Hair and Makeup by Dalia Younan.

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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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