Actor safety is of critical importance as we tell stories onstage. When we have a sword fight, we don’t hand out swords and just tell our performers to “Have at it!” When we have a dance, we don’t just play the music and say “Have a ball!” We carefully choreograph these moments so that the story is effectively told and the participants are kept safe.
And yet, when it comes to intimacy we don’t always give our actors the same protections. My dear friend Liz is a trained intimacy director who specializes in keeping actors safe and comfortable as we tell important and beautiful stories. I asked her to jot down a few ideas about herself and what she does, and she graciously agreed. Read on to learn more!
Hello from your friendly neighborhood intimacy director!
I’m here to tell you all about what intimacy direction is, why it’s important, and how you can make your theatre safer and more professional, while still creating compelling art.
Wait, who are you?
My name is Liz Whittaker, and I received my initial training with Theatrical Intimacy Education. I consult and intimacy direct for theatre, and when I’m not doing that, I’m acting, directing, or sound designing.
What the heck is intimacy direction?
Short answer: It’s like fight choreography, but for staged kissing, simulated sex acts, instances of nudity/revealing dress, and any kind of intimate touch on stage.
Long answer: It’s a set of tools, practices, and philosophies that help us to establish and communicate boundaries, address challenges, de-sexualize the rehearsal room, and create intimacy that is safe and repeatable. It’s all about creating thought-provoking and powerful theatre without sacrificing consent. (Intimacy directors can also help theatres look at their policies and suggest changes to make things safer and more professional for everyone.)
For decades (centuries?), directors and actors have just sort of “figured things out” themselves when it comes to kissing or simulating sex acts onstage. But even though this field is less than five years old, this is the direction the industry is going—theatres and film/television companies around the world are starting to require intimacy directors.
So how does intimacy direction even work?
When I do intimacy direction for a project, it usually consists of some discussions with the director and then attending a rehearsal or two.
At that rehearsal, I tell actors that they are allowed to have boundaries, and they’re allowed to communicate them. I give actors a “pause button” word to use when something violates/is about to violate their boundaries. Then, we establish what those boundaries are. There are different ways to do this, but the ultimate goal is for actors to know exactly where their scene partner does not consent to be touched. Then I use de-sexualized and specific language to create the stage pictures we need to tell the story. (Instead of saying “Stand behind her and violate her space?” I can say, “Stand behind her and take about one count to use the tip of your nose to draw a line from her collarbone to the top of her ear.”)
Directors get exactly what they want, and actors know exactly what’s coming.
Why is this so important?
Because consent matters!
Because we do things in theatre that we would get FIRED for doing at other workplaces. But we can still be professional. Intimacy direction bridges the gap between the demands of theatre and the demands of professional conduct. Intimacy direction helps us avoid sexual abuse and/or harassment.
When actors are physically and emotionally safe and respected, they can do their best creative work. Intimacy direction also frees artists from having to share their own intimate personal experiences. It prevents putting people on the spot for knowledge or vocabulary gaps, and it’s automatically inclusive of trans, queer, and non-binary artists and stories.
Yeah, that’s cool, but I don’t need an intimacy director.
You might not. But any show with a stage kiss or any kind of intimate touch can benefit from intimacy direction—it isn’t just for Spring Awakening and Equus.
This seems dumb. If you’re not willing to be naked or simulate sex acts onstage, then don’t be an actor.
NOPE. Actors are allowed to have boundaries, and we can create whatever story we need to with your boundaries in place. Actors should know what the script demands before an audition, and a director or producer who forces you to do something you have boundaries about should face consequences for doing so.
Maybe this is what it used to be like. But not anymore. And time’s up for anyone who tries to convince you otherwise.
Okay, you’ve convinced me. I’ll get your contact info to hire you in a minute, but what can I do in the meantime?
Ask the stage manager what the rules are about sexual harassment and physical touch, what the consequences are for breaking those rules, and who to report to if it happens. If there isn’t already something in place, this will help motivate the theatre to put some policies in writing.
Use non-gendered, non-sexual language when talking about bodies. Think muscles/bones. Instead of using the word “groin,” you can say “the front of the pelvis.”
Start using physical check-ins. Before rehearsal, get with your scene partners and say “I don’t want to be touched on the front of my chest, the front and back of my pelvis, and the back of my knees. What parts of your body would you like me to avoid touching?”
Change “yes/no” questions to “how would you feel about” questions. It keeps conversations open and helps avoid any power dynamics that make it difficult to speak up. Instead of “Can I touch your neck?” you can say “How would you feel about me touching your neck in this moment?”
Implement a “pause-button/safeword.” I use the word “button” because it’s a neutral word and it’s easy to remember. If something violates a boundary/is going to violate a boundary, the actor can simply say “button” and then everyone works to find a different solution.
Don’t ask people to explain or justify their boundaries. Stop them if they try to. Just accept the boundaries they communicate and work with them.
Implement “place-holders.” Before jumping right into stage kisses, actors can simply touch hands (kind of a slow high-five). Hands can tell the same story as lips do, and it’s a good way to warm up to kisses. Actors and directors can decide when to replace placeholders with actual kissing.
I wanna hire you! How do I do that?
Talk to your stage manager, director, and/or producer. Since this field is so new, a lot of theatres may not have room for this kind of work in their budget, so I’m very flexible on payment (my current rate is whatever you can afford between 2 comp tickets and $200). Send me an email at email@example.com or text/call me at 208-709-8945 (text is best).
Where can I learn more?
My website (contains links to articles!)
Theatrical Intimacy Education
Intimacy Directors International