Intimacy directors: more important than ever | Performing Arts Feature | Chicago Reader

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Intimacy directors: more important than ever

As theaters and studios get back to work during COVID-19, they provide a roadmap for safe practices.

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Gaby Labotka and Carin Silkaitis - JOE MAZZA/COURTESY CARIN SILKAITIS
  • Joe Mazza/Courtesy Carin Silkaitis
  • Gaby Labotka and Carin Silkaitis

Seven months and over 223,948 lives lost. As a theater practitioner who has given her heart, soul, and emotional well-being to her craft, I think a lot about how we protect artists going forward. As studios resume production, theater conservatories open up to students, and theatrical unions release their own COVID-19 guidelines, we have to consider the importance of personal boundaries and emotional safety of every individual involved with these productions. 

I can’t help but think about the importance of intimacy directors during this time period and their role as we transition back into the world of entertainment. 

Intimacy direction is a practice in which a trained movement practitioner is employed for a stage or film production to choreograph a simulated sex scene or an intimate moment. They are the advocate for the actors in the room and act as a voice between them, the director, and the rest of the crew. 

This practice was codified by Tonia Sina via her theater pedagogy graduate thesis, “Intimate Encounters; Staging Intimacy and Sensuality,” in 2006 at Virginia Commonwealth University. She eventually cofounded a nonprofit, Intimacy Directors International (IDI) with Alicia Rodis and Siobhan Richardson in 2016, with its core pillars being “Context, Consent, Communication, Choreography, and Closure.

Rodis was one of the key players responsible for bringing this practice to TV/film during the #MeToo movement with HBO’S The Deuce. Cast member Emily Meade advocated hiring an intimacy director to showrunner David Simon, in part because of past uncomfortable on-set experiences.

Rodis was hired for a new position—the intimacy coordinator. Rodis’s work on The Deuce was so successful that HBO pledged to have an intimacy coordinator on board for every production involving intimate scenes.

Since then, Rodis has also collaborated with SAG-AFTRA to create new standards and protocols to address intimacy on set and to make an intimacy coordinator a requirement for any scenes that involve intimacy. 

IDI closed its doors on March 15, 2020, giving way to a new company—Intimacy Directors & Coordinators (IDC)—that provides online workshops, education, and pathways to certification for intimacy direction and coordination while assisting “in preventing sexual harassment in the workplace.” 

Recently We See You W.A.T.—an organization created to combat racism and prejudice within American theater—demanded “the presence of a contracted intimacy director for every production.”

Chelsea Pace, an intimacy choreographer, coordinator, and educator, developed her own pedagogy for staging theatrical intimacy. She eventually collaborated with Laura Rikard in cofounding Theatrical Intimacy Education (TIE) in 2017, specializing in “researching, developing, and teaching best practices for staging theatrical intimacy.”   

Their core principles are “Ethical, Efficient, and Effective.” They have worked with multiple institutions including Boston University, Princeton, and most recently Columbia College Chicago to further education surrounding theatrical intimacy.  

Carin Silkaitis, chair of the Columbia College Chicago theater department, has worked alongside both IDC and TIE on numerous occasions. She finds tremendous value in the work both from an education standpoint and an industry standpoint. 

Silkaitis said, “When I was going through theater school, it was truly horrifying. I remember teachers being so cavalier about these things, and it was so damaging. They would say things like ‘Y’all know you want to go rehearse and make out with each other, so have a good time!’ I was put in so many situations where I had to go to my scene partner’s house to rehearse and when we got to the kiss scene, he pushed me back to his bed and was like ‘Well, while we are at it.’ I was just put in unsafe situation after unsafe situation, and I didn’t know what to do. I just never want anybody to go through this ever again!” 

After reading Pace's book Staging Sex: Best Practices, Tools, and Techniques for Theatrical Intimacy, Silkaitis decided to work in collaboration with Pace to create a program at Columbia College Chicago. 

They hosted workshops for both undergraduate students and faculty supported by the department “to create a culture of consent and to outline a system of best practices that we can work together at this department, so that everyone in my program is speaking the same language,” said Silkaitis. She and Pace are also currently pushing for a graduate certification program in collaboration with TIE. 

Scene from Pride Films and Plays' 2019 production Desire in a Tinier House, featuring intimacy direction by Gaby Labotka - ELIAS RIOS
  • Elias Rios
  • Scene from Pride Films and Plays' 2019 production Desire in a Tinier House, featuring intimacy direction by Gaby Labotka

Gaby Labotka is a performer, fight choreographer, writer, director, and certified intimacy director with IDC. I spoke to her about intimacy direction and COVID-19.

Labotka said, “When there’s a vaccine and a way to safely return to the rehearsal hall, I believe that intimacy directors are going to be our shepherds to being able to be close to each other again. Intimacy directors are armed with the knowledge of how to articulate, share, and respect boundaries between people. Now everybody has a better awareness of boundaries because of COVID-19. A mask and six feet apart are measurable, vital boundaries, and for so long theatermakers were taught not to have boundaries. The only option was to say ‘yes, and,’ but that doesn’t allow for actual consent if you are only allowed to say ‘yes.’ Now everybody has a boundary of a mask and boundary of distance, and it may be easier to articulate boundaries because now everyone has practical experience with them. I think intimacy directors are going to be the ushers back into creating safe and healthful work.”

Labotka also noted, “Zoom productions are creating interesting problem-solving opportunities for us. It’s tricky because if the script says there is nudity, you can’t do nudity over Zoom and you can’t necessarily simulate sex acts because the line is still nebulous. I would ask the director the same questions as if I was choreographing for the stage anyway: ‘What does this nudity or sex act mean to you? What are feelings you want the audience to get from this? What is the story that you are trying to tell? Why does the playwright want this character to be nude?’ We can then have a conversation to figure how we can accomplish that without using actual nudity. For example, do they just shed a layer of clothing and still have a tank top underneath it? 

“Figuring out how can we communicate a sex act and its meaning to the audience without simulating it, what the context is, why we’re telling that story, what do we want the audience to feel . . . That’s how we can be creative on how we interpret those stage directions and to permeate the feelings that we want through the computer screen.”

We’re in a time when individuals are trying to navigate their own boundaries and what that means, especially while sharing a rehearsal space with someone else after being quarantined for nearly seven months. We need intimacy directors now more than ever, for our emotional, mental, and physical safety.  v

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