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Intimacy Training

The demand for change in the performing arts is leading to a new kind of sex talk.

Since the advent of the #MeToo movement, many institutions have found themselves in need of a makeover. As survivors of sexual violence come forward by the dozens, organizations have experienced massive upheavals and businesses are updating their codes of conduct. Rules prohibiting sexual harassment are more strictly enforced and perpetrators are finally being dealt with accordingly.

Of all the industries affected by this movement, the performing arts are no exception. Numerous Hollywood icons have lost their status due to their misconduct, and many women have been outspoken about the misdeeds of those in power. Theater, in particular, is making some strong headway toward creating a safer, more equitable environment for those on-stage. The movement has gained headway due, in part, to what is known as “intimacy training.”

A Need For Change

Intimacy training has become prominent over the course of the past three years as a result of the general discontentment among many actors — especially women — with regards to how sex, nudity and kissing are handled in theater.

Many stirrings in the social and political world contributed to its implementation, including the Kavanaugh hearings, the dethroning of Harvey Weinstein and the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In theater specifically, the revelation in 2016 concerning the long history of violence and abuse within The Chicago Profiles Theatre was a huge shock for many and marked a turning point in how performing arts workers regarded sex on-stage.

When it comes to intimacy in the real world, we all have boundaries. People are outspoken about what makes them uncomfortable and express a strong particularity toward who gets to share in that intimacy with them. However, this has historically not been the case for actors. If a certain action does not sit well with an actor, they may not have the ability to speak up. With little communication, the production team fails to learn each other’s boundaries, which can lead to sexual harassment and traumatization.

Since more actors started to come forward to share their grievances, there came a need for action. In response, three women banded together to form the first official intimacy training organization. Their names are Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis and Siobhan Richardson, and they founded Intimacy Directors International in 2016. All three women come from acting backgrounds and have experienced sexual misconduct firsthand.

“I saw a lot of trauma happen on stage,” Sina said in an interview with CBC, who endured a similar experience after a fellow actor went rogue during a show: “[One time] my partner added a bunch of intimacy and I had to receive it in character,” she explained. “I was sexually harassed in front of 500 people.”

Intimacy directors aim to prevent such occurrences from happening. Hired by schools and production companies, their job is to join the actors during rehearsal and strategically choreograph romantic scenes between them.

The Five Pillars

The directors adhere to five “pillars” of intimacy training during rehearsal and performance: context, consent, communication, choreography and closure. The directors take the actors through these steps in order. First, the needs of the intimate scene are established. Once these needs are understood, the actors must consent to the specific actions they are comfortable receiving.

After the groundwork is laid, the intimacy director can get to work creating a roadmap for how the scene will play out: where the actors can place their hands, how they are to kiss, etc. It’s much more effective than simply forcing actors to feel it out in the moment.

“If you think about it, nothing else in the show is improvised, so why is this moment improvised?” Sina asked in her CBC interview.

Along the way, communication is key. This includes checking in with the actors to ensure continuous consent, as well as presenting an opportunity for the actor to report any sexual harassment, should the need arise.

Finally, a ritualistic closing moment is practiced among the performers so the actors know when they are officially tapping out of a scene. This intentional exercise helps the actor establish a distinction between real life and the production. And, perhaps most importantly, any conduct consented to during the scene does not carry over once the performance is complete.

The Future Of The Performing Arts World

Since the launch of Intimacy Directors International, other organizations jumped onboard, including Theatrical Intimacy Education, Canadian Intimacy for Stage and Screen and Intimacy Coordinators Alliance for film and television.

Intimacy training is slowly but surely making itself normalized in the realm of performance arts, whether it’s with university students or on-set of a professional stage production.

Moreover, the effects are not limited to the theater world. Film and television production teams are quickly seeing the advantages of bringing an intimacy professional on board for shoots. HBO hired Rodis to work on-set of “The Deuce,” a series surrounding the porn industry in the 1970s; due to its subject matter, the series is filled with sex scenes and thus, a need for choreography.

Rodis helped the actresses, many of whom play sex workers, navigate their scenes. Along the way, the intimacy director ensured that the performers were always comfortable and, when the actors encountered issues, relayed these concerns to the director.

David Simon, co-creator of “The Deuce,” took a lot from the experience. “We’re protecting the emotions and the dignity of everybody who’s involved,” he told Rolling Stone. “Cause it’s hard work, a lot harder than violence… But I don’t think I’m ever going to work without an intimacy coordinator again.”

Above all, intimacy training will change the performing arts industry for the better. Actors are owed the right to a comfortable, inclusive space, an environment that will ultimately improve their performances. Creating a roadmap for navigating sexual scenes seems like an idea that should have been put into practice a long time ago. But, now that such a service is here and thriving, the industry will hopefully witness a drastic decrease in sexual harassment and oversee an increase in better performance experiences for everyone involved.

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