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"Sometimes the sexiest scenes have the most unexpected physicalities"

Suz Mawer: What I learned in Ita O'Brien's intimacy workshop.

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Category: Conversation
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The Intimacy Revolution

Date: 21 Nov 2018

Eight actors and five directors nervously wait to begin the second half of the day, the first half relived the horrors directors and actors face when approaching scenes involving sex or intimacy…

What would the workshop element bring? What will we do? What will we be made to do? What will we be forced to reveal about ourselves? Can we do this?

We stretch out our muscles and begin …

Like many working actors, I have a day job. In that job, we have risk assessments, rules, policies and procedures – all necessary to provide a safe and inclusive workplace.

So why doesn’t my arts career offer the same level of thoroughness? Why is it appropriate for all industries but the arts to be accountable for safe work practises and appropriate mitigation of risk?

The simple answer is it is not, and the stage and screen sector need to catch up fast or it will forever be mired in the unsafe work practises that allow predators in our workplaces and leave grey areas that open us up to litigation.

Recently, I was cast in a role that required me to be in a fight scene. The description of the fight in the text was:

‘They set upon Banquo’.

Full stop. End of story.

And how was it handled? Were we as actors expected to ‘just work it out’?

Hell, no. A fight choreographer was engaged and we marked every step out. And every night pre-show there was a fight call where we rehearsed again. Did it look any less real? No. Did I feel safe as an actor and free to explore the emotional terrain? Hell, yes!

Why should scenes involving intimate contact be any different?

The descriptions we see for intimate content are often as vague as my Shakespearean example.

‘They kiss’.

Yes, but when they kiss, where are their hands? Who initiates? Who accepts the kiss? How does the kiss serve the character and the scene? Marking this out is just as important as knowing who is throwing a punch and when to duck.

Intimacy on stage and screen is not just nudity, sex or kissing. Intimacy involves crossing that invisible personal barrier. You know the one (and if you’ve ever travelled CityRail at peak hour, you know what I mean).

How close is too close? How does that make us feel? Is that different for a stranger on a train as opposed to a lover or friend?

Thanks to the Media Entertainment Arts Alliance I was accepted into a workshop with UK-based Intimacy Co-Ordinator Ita O’Brien. Ita has been working for the last four years to develop a set of ‘intimacy guidelines’ for use in our industry to protect everyone involved in a production – from the actors, to the director right up to the producers.

It’s nerve-wracking for actors and directors to approach scenes involving intimate contact.

The experiences that the participants in the workshop shared were common and terrifying and they all stemmed from an inability to professionally and clearly name what actions were required and whether the actors were comfortable with completing the actions.

More terrifying still, it seems that there is a mentality that as actors we are all trained the same and, therefore, all have the same physical boundaries and that nudity is part of the job. Stories of actors being coerced into nudity or intimate contact that they were uncomfortable with are rife in the industry.

We stretch, and Ita leads us through a discussion of animal sex – we all saw the pre-course videos (try explaining why you are watching slugs have sex to your housemates…). Then the work begins. We explore the rhythms of animal sex using Laban’s movement techniques and gradually transform from the animal to a human in the physicality. We do this through a range of animals. No one has had to discuss their personal sexual experiences. The work is distinctly separate from us. And we all feel freer for it.

The approach to intimacy that Ita O’Brien advocates for is head-slappingly simple.

Mark out the scene. Establish consent. Anchor the action. Anchor the beats. Join the dots and go. And if the intimacy is not consensual, doesn’t support the story or the character – it won’t look authentic.

We choose our scripts and agree on areas where we can and can’t touch. The scene I’m in is written to culminate in a kiss, but on discussions with the actors, a kiss is a no. So how do we make the scene sexy with the parts we can touch? We explore the beats of the scene, we choreograph the places that can be touched. We speak our character intentions through the movement. We find pace, duration and distance creates an electric sensuality. We end the scene gently swaying, forehead to forehead, suspended in our own world. ‘Cut,’ says the director. And she’s happy with the scene – it’s totally authentic to the intention of the scene and the intimacy of the characters.

There were some key learnings from the short time I spent with Ita that I’d like to share:

Always have a third party present when negotiating or choreographing intimacy. If it’s in private, it’s not professional.

Always check where is a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’ for physical contact. ‘Maybe’ means ‘no’.

‘No’ is a gift – and when we hear a ‘no’, don’t force a ‘yes’. Let’s be creative. Sometimes the sexiest scenes have the most unexpected physicalities. Not being able to leap to a kiss may lead to a more intimate exploration of touch – the pace, weight and duration of the stroke of an arm. The caress of a lip to an ear.

If it’s consensual, and not coerced, the audience can feel that and can enjoy the scene in the context it is being set in. They are comfortable that the actor being abused in the scene isn’t being traumatised in real life. It is after all a job, and no one should be traumatised by doing their job.

Choreographing intimate scenes is part of our craft as arts professionals. If done well it creates authentic and memorable scenes. If done badly, it creates trauma.

We are at the cusp of some very exciting changes in our industry – changes that will make our places of work safer, and the work more authentic and exciting.

It’s about time.

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