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Consenting choreography: How intimacy consultants keep a safe stage

Rich Ryan

Rich Ryan

“If you’re hired to play Romeo, then you know that you’re going to kiss Juliet,” says Lauren Keating. “However, that doesn’t mean you’ve consented for that to happen in any way possible, and it doesn’t mean you’ve consented to any extension of that.”

Keating has served as an intimacy consultant for certain productions at the Guthrie Theater, where she is associate producer, and elsewhere. There is a movement, in theaters and film productions around the world, to more carefully plan and perform scenes of intimate contact.

“There is an artistic component to this work,” says Keating, who has consulted on productions including the Guthrie’sFrankenstein—Playing with Fire and Theater Mu’s Hot Asian Doctor Husband. “The intimacy director or consultant has the potential to really deepen the work and to achieve the director’s goal at the next level the same way that a fight director is able to.”

Even when everyone involved has the best intentions, if a kiss or a sex scene isn’t carefully choreographed, actors can be left confused, embarrassed, frustrated, or hurt. The practice of intimacy direction has been rapidly expanding in recent years, but Keating notes that “it feels like a very long time coming. There’s been a lot of groundwork to get to this moment.”

Keating has attended training in intimacy direction and is certified in mental health first aid; she brings that knowledge to her work as director and producer as well as, in the past, intimacy consultant. Full-fledged intimacy directors, whose use Keating advocates, have professional certification requiring further training; they bring additional knowledge and ability to productions that employ their services.

Intimacy Directors International emphasizes the “pillars of safe intimacy”: context, communication, consent, choreography, and—crucially—closure. “You check in to the work that you’re doing and you check out,” says Keating. “That helps to create an understanding: That was a performance, and it’s separate from our lives outside of that scene.”

An intimacy director works with actors and directors to devise an effective way to tell a story involving close contact, and also helps to “level the power in the room,” says Keating. “One of the things they’re doing is being a conduit for actors to be able to come to them” with concerns they might hesitate to bring to a director. “A director sits in a place of power. [An actor] wants to be seen as a team player.”

To return to the Romeo and Juliet example: “You know those two characters wake up in bed together. That doesn’t mean you’ve consented to nudity... to anything specifically. In the past, folks have felt that in order to fully be a team player, that’s what’s required. Actually, the work gets deeper and better when everyone feels more comfortable, when they have the option to say ‘yes’ and ‘no’ to things and to contribute in a meaningful way.”