In the wake of #MeToo and #TimesUp, the entertainment industry initially had a reckoning with the casting process. But over time, questions about what actors were being asked to do for their jobs arose. Physical and emotional intimacy—as well as violence—take place on sets and in rehearsal rooms regularly, yet actors have often been left to figure it out themselves. Enter the intimacy director.
As intimacy director Francesca Betancourt defines, “Intimacy direction as a whole broadly refers to sexual content, but for me, relates closer to sexual content, and also violent content… facilitating or supporting any content that feels intimate.”
In some cases, intimacy directors have been compared to fight choreographers for sex scenes. That’s not wrong. Part of an intimacy director’s job is to choreograph sexual moments, but it’s not the whole job.
The field of stage combat and fight choreography is also changing with the advent of violence directors.
“We're both in the business of safety, comfort, and risk management,” says Jake Haven, a violence director who worked with Betancourt on Normal Avenue’s production of Indoor Person. “But we're also both movement professionals who want to enhance and specify the aesthetics of whatever piece that we're working on.” Their work crosses like a Venn diagram.
“It's not a realistic expectation for the director, who has to do blocking, has to call the scenic designer, has to make sure that the costume designer is on schedule… to also expect that person to be the one whose eye is on physical and mental safety,” Haven says. “So it's an invaluable position to have someone or two people.”
Just as choreographers tell stories through dance, intimacy and violence directors specialize in telling stories through their media. And if physical and emotional safety of your actors matters, these professionals need to be part of your budget. Many directors in this field are willing to consult, if working full time is not in the cards.
Here, Betancourt and Parisse lay out their step-by-step processes to unshroud the work they do and why the results lead to a better experience for actors and audiences alike.
Background: Trained actor, intimacy director with two years of professional experience
Training: Abuse prevention, cultural competence, accessibility, anti-racism, bystander methods, and inclusivity, First Aids Arts certification, trained in trauma-informed pedagogy, mental health first aid certification
Purview: “I look for things that feel like they would go in a content warning. Assault or violence, things that are related to severe mental health issues, things that are related to traumatic events.”
“I see intimacy direction in three prongs,” she says.
1. Safety, Comfort, and Consent
Consent work, boundary-setting, and establishing a vocabulary for everyone working on the production.
“A lot of that is on the front end of a process. Consent work is a lot about agency and communication. And so I essentially tell a director before I even work with them: 'Your actors can say no to anything.' I tell actors that they have control over what happens to their body and they can, at any time, ask me or the director or the violence choreographer...why something is happening. We do an intake form where we break down what the expectation is in the script and what the actor understands the expectation to be. But with sexual consent, sometimes actors get to a point where they have to do a nude scene or something, and they realize that there's a boundary they didn't know was there. For a lot of us who've been in positions like that, we've just buried it and been like, ‘OK, I guess I'll do this anyway.’ That's not a particularly healthy way to work, and that doesn't result in the best content or the best story. [We establish] red, yellow, and green zones. Green zones are, basically, you can touch me on this part of my body at any point with any quality of touch. Yellow zones are, you can touch me here, but I need to know about it before it happens. Red is you can never touch me here or you never touch me with this quality of touch. And, for a lot of people, that's like tickling."
2. Rehearsal and choreography
“We actually figure out where hands go, how we physically get from one position to another, where actual kisses happened, where actual touch has happened. We build the framework. Intimacy table work, we'll talk about what the quality of their actual physical interactions is. Is it awkward? Is it flirtatious? Is it highly sexual? What do they imagine it to look like? If these characters have previously had a lot of physical interaction or this is their first physical interaction, how their bodies relate to each other in space [differs]. Intimacy really comes down to duration and attention during an intimate moment. Whether it's a violent intimate moment, whether it's a platonic intimate moment, or romantic or sexual or passionate or whatever. The attention is always at 150 percent—the highest attention that someone could have. The duration is really what you play with in order to get what quality you want. Whoever initiates [the contact] is one of the really big things that we pay attention to.
“For kisses, I do what I call beats and breaks. So, this kiss lasts three beats, but there might be one break—like one breath or break away.
“I've heard before that people are hyper-critical of intimacy direction because they're worried that it will make things look clinical. But I have only found that when people really trust each other and feel comfortable, they can really let go all the way with their acting work because they don't feel like something is going to happen to them. So they can completely let go of their protective brain. You can build chemistry by building trust and comfort.”
“This is later in the process where I'm watching runs, and I'm there to make sure that the choreography is consistent and they're not taking it and running with it—that it's still looking the way that we choreographed it.”
“I'll say, ‘Hey, this touch is coming off in this way. Is that storytelling wise, what you are trying to communicate? Because if you want to communicate romance, then maybe we need to make it longer or we need to make it softer.’”
Jake Haven Parisse
Background: Actor and violence director who first took stage combat with a fight master during undergrad at Muhlenberg College
Training: Stage combat, directing courses, certification in theatrical firearms safety, workshops on mental health, personal dramaturgy (“talking to or reading or watching the interviews of different real-world violence professionals, first responders, etc.”)
Purview: Fight choreography, props/weapons safety, physical and emotional violence
1. The Need for Violence Direction Beyond Fight Choreography
“I think when people hear the term fight director, they think in limited terms to that canon—the sword fights in Shakespeare, the dueling plays. But the violence that we see on stage is rarely a fight; more often than not, the stories that we're telling now have moments of violence that are either abuse or explosive emotion expressed physically or accidental injury. [The need for violence direction] all comes back to the new work that is being made now. Moments of domestic abuse, I would say, is the biggest amount of work that I'm brought in for at this stage. Because these moments, they're emotionally charged in a way that is different than Mercutio and Tybalt, or soldiers beating on the battlefield.”
“Society of American Fight Directors—there is a pretty codified understanding of safety and the technique and the necessity that goes into teaching stage combat safely and implementing safety checks. Making sure that the actors know how to establish a proper distance, how to establish a proper cuing, how to establish the props that they're working with. The work of risk management and everybody's safe and your body's comfortable—that half of it is very much codified. But in terms of personal aesthetic and personal approach, that is as diverse as any other discipline. I establish a space and a language for talking about these two different types of discomforts: I am uncomfortable for any reason: the intention of this moment doesn't make sense, I'm having difficulty connecting my character to this action. That is a good type of discomfort that we want to investigate and we want to unpack. Then we have the type of discomfort that is: I feel unsafe. That is the type of discomfort that we don't want to spend time re-enforcing and that we can find other solutions to."
3. Props and the Audience
“The audience doesn't have a subconscious relationship to [swords]. But when we're telling stories that are set in that contemporary world, there is that subconscious relationship. We don't know what type of experiences our audiences are [bringing in]. Making sure the prop is never pointed at the audience, even when the character's movement perhaps is frantic, but the actor is still in control of that frantic and wild movement."
“In Indoor Person, there is a moment at the end of the play where an abusive ex-boyfriend bursts into the apartment in an attempt to hurt her. It was my feeling and the feeling of the creative team that the play did not need to show a woman being abused and struck on stage because it was a level of gratuity that we weren't necessarily interested in. It’s about crafting what we want our audience to be walking away from the story with. If there is a creative team that wants to mount a story that leaves the audience shocked and disgusted, that can be crafted. But that should be crafted. The way that a violence director is best utilized is like a member of the design team. They're brought on before rehearsal starts, they're involved in the table work conversation of the aesthetics of the play, the feelings of the play, and the mission of the creative team.
“We've all seen the cringe-worthy example of two characters onstage yelling at each other, and the intensity is rising, and they're really in the scene, and it's powerful and it's moving. And then all of a sudden they both inhale, hold their breath and go into the stage combat. There's this huge disconnect. I like to work collaboratively with the directors on smoothing over that gap. We often find that it makes the sequences look better. It's also a movement-based form of storytelling. It uses the expression of violence as its media.”