Intimacy direction — a new discipline that helps film, television and theater companies depict physical and emotional closeness — isn’t just for the movies or Broadway.
Denton theater teachers say intimacy direction is changing the way they teach acting and directing.
“I think the guidelines that we do find in Intimacy Directors International, that we’ve seen come forward as best practices, those guidelines are certainly guidelines that we try to follow here,” said Patrick Bynane, the director of Texas Woman’s University Theatre. “I think they’re good guidelines. They’re certainly not counterintuitive. They’re guidelines that, when you read them you sort of say, ‘Yes, we should be doing this.’”
Trained intimacy directors and choreographers help guide directors and actors in depicting everything from nonsexual physical closeness to physical intimacy, nudity and simulated sex while respecting the boundaries, ethics and safety of everyone involved. Intimacy direction and choreography gathered momentum around 2017, when the #MeToo movement pulled back the theater curtain onto the potential for harm that can accompany performances that involve raw physical and emotional vulnerability.
In one of the most famous incidents of on-set abuse, actress Maria Schneider recalled her very real humiliation when director Bernardo Bertolucci and actor Marlon Brando conspired to surprise Schneider with an unscripted rape scene in the 1972 film Last Tango in Paris. The two men agreed to tell Schneider about the plan just before filming, and Bertolucci said he surprised the actress because he wanted her “to feel, not act.” Schneider spoke as if the humiliation was still fresh 42 years later.
Local university theater teachers and their students say the new discipline feels familiar and new all at once.
For Bynane, an intimacy director doesn’t just help companies stage intimacy.
“They’re also providing what also what might be best referred to as an emotional safety net,” he said. “For the actors — and I suppose the director as well — [the intimacy director is there] so that there is an additional set of eyes to observe the process of staging a moment that involves moments of intimacy. I’ve heard the position referred to as a fight choreographer but for scenes with sexuality.”
Hannah Fuller, a TWU sophomore pursuing a theater degree, is studying intimacy direction. She applied her new training to a recent production of Equus, though she was hired as an assistant director. The drama, written in 1973, includes nudity and sex.
“It has a simulated sex scene,” Fuller said. “It was a lot of research for what goes into planning this. You have to make everyone feel safe, and just generally in a good spot. You never want someone where they feel unsafe or where they feel they can’t say no in a situation whenever it’s of that nature.”
Bynane and Fuller said film, television and theater are so competitive that performers will often push past discomfort. A lot of performers fear that saying no to a director will cost them work in the future. Bynane pointed to actress Ruth Wilson, an actress who left the Showtime drama The Affair, for which she earned a Golden Globe, in part because she resisted reportedly increasing frequent nudity and the nature of it in the show.
Fuller and Bynane both said intimacy direction is changing the game when it comes to saying no.
The discipline is so new that it hasn’t restructured TWU’s theater faculty.
“We don’t use a designated intimacy coordinator here,” Bynane said. “It is so new, to have somebody on staff who is trained exclusively in this — between 2015 and now — we would have had to have found somebody, trained somebody or sent them to school for this and hired them on. Even though Intimacy Directors International started in 2015, I think the first reference I recall from The New York Times is only as recent as 2017. It is an incredibly new position. That said, the guidelines we find from IDI they are certainly guidelines we follow here.”
Fuller said she directs intimate scenes with lots of talking, and lots of “checking in” with the performers. The idea, she said, is for the performers to understand what they can and can’t do and how actions evoke emotions that are on and off the page. Bynane encountered the process last spring, when he directed Lauren Gunderson’s play Emilie.
“I don’t think it had any intense physical intimacy — it did have kissing, a lot of holding,” he said. “The first thing I did with the actors is make it clear that me as the director, I can give you permission, and the script gives you permission. But only you, the actors, can give each other consent.”
As people in the industry — many of them women — push for policies and procedures that put safety and ethics at the center of the creative process, Bynane said some material might fall out of favor (he cites violence in the final scene of the musical Carousel).
Fuller said most viewers might assume that the most people most vulnerable to harm are actresses, especially young actresses navigating sex scenes and nudity.
“For me personally, from what I’ve seen, it’s anybody directly involved with the scene that may be a part of it,” she said. “Yes, it may be an actress. But it also may be an actor. Whenever I was doing Equus, there was full frontal nudity from a man. And he was at risk had he not had someone there to look out for him. And it’s just a matter of ‘Are you a part of this? How can we make you feel safe? How can we get you to feel comfortable?’ It’s not just about protecting women. It’s about protecting anybody who is involved.”
Directors will have to reconsider their own practices.
“Here at Texas Woman’s University, I think we have a supportive environment for women,” Bynane said. “While there are still certain problems — there are problems everywhere — I think we are not as exposed to some of the other problems you may see at a very large coed university. Or at a professional theater in which there is a real sense of power imbalance. But when we look at the creation of intimacy coordinators, it does come out of a #MeToo moment. ... It should be. It’s long overdue.”
“But,” he added, “it’s also about not hanging actors out there emotionally. ... Actors shouldn’t leave a rehearsal feeling like they’ve gone through a divorce.”
Fuller said in her practice, closure is the most important of the pillars of intimacy direction. At the end of a rehearsal or a performance, actors have rituals or practices that help them leave pain or passion on the stage. Bynane said closure can also help actors understand that feelings such as arousal and attraction are often just byproducts of physical closeness during rehearsal or performance.
Bynane said he’s aware of his position at TWU, and how power dynamics take on more importance.
“As a white cisgender male, it would be improper for me to ask a student to do some things,” he said. “There’s a reason you don’t see nudity at TWU theater and it’s not prudery.”
Even Denton’s high school theater programs are shifting as a result of intimacy direction. Kerri Alaina Peters, associate director of Denton High School Theatre Department, has begun training in intimacy direction. She’s amassed close to 30 hours of training.
The discipline has already affected her program for the better. Denton High theater students produce mature work about mature themes, including romance and love.
“I think of my students as young adults,” Peters said. “I know they can do the work. As a young adult, I know I was doing work that was vulnerable and at a high emotional level. I’m so incredibly excited that I get to start this work with them and with the program. We started doing consent talks with scene partners, and I have had so many students come up to me after and say, ‘Thank you so much for showing us this.’ They’re already talking to each other, communicating about how to create these relationships.”
High-profile intimacy directors have worked on professional productions where sex and nudity are in the script, but Peters said high schools — which produce plays that are appropriate for all ages — can benefit from the emotional safety the discipline promotes. And with the training they’re getting at Denton High, teen actors who pursue theater in college will be ready to advocate for their boundaries and safety.
“I haven’t had a single parent contact me about intimacy direction,” Peters said. “But before I started this training, I developed a plan for that, because I thought it might come up. We always, always approach it from a nonsexual standpoint. This is not about sex. ... This is about being vulnerable to a moment, and teaching them how to do that with consent, with safety. I’m so excited to see how this is helping the students grow.”