We Need to Talk About the Birds and the Bees by Chi-San Howard
In today’s industry, seeing the words “Intimacy Director” on a theatre programme or listed on the end of program TV Credits is becoming more and more commonplace. From Netflix’s Sex Education to the BBC’s Normal People, the advent of the Intimacy Director and their increasing presence in both the theatre and film industry, is proof of an evolution and ever growing push towards performing intimacy responsibly. Sex can be a tricky topic at the best of times, let alone with a bunch of strangers thrown together in a room. However, in order to have a safe, open and creative room, being able to talk about sex clearly and responsibly is essential to navigating the waters around staging intimacy - this is where an Intimacy Director comes in.
According to Intimacy for Stage and Screen’s Guidelines for Live Performance, “An intimacy-movement specialist is trained to oversee consent and to facilitate safe intimacy choreography for the stage. Their role involves advocacy, liaison, choreography and safety.” The communication and relationship between Intimacy Director and Director is incredibly important. Below is a small, by no means comprehensive, starter guide for directors on working with an ID and possible alternatives when you don’t have access to one.
When working on intimacy it’s worth sitting with your ID and discussing the initial ideas for the work before you start casting. It’s important that you aren't thinking about it for the first time when in the room with the actors. This doesn’t mean mapping out every move ahead of time, as it’s important that everyone involved is present and contributes. However, it might mean having thoughts about style - naturalistic? stylised? abstract? - what the story is behind the act/acts, what are you looking for the audience to receive? It’s important that you are able to clearly articulate the work to the actors and the wider creative team, to answer any questions or concerns they have and be able to hold space for any conversations on the topic.
Do your homework
Whilst the ID must be in charge of the creation of intimacy for the show, the responsibility for content and context is shared. Be aware of the potential dynamics in the room and the narratives, prejudices and assumptions that may exist within yourself and in the wider company - educate and prepare yourself with your Intimacy Director as to how you might best approach any issues that might arise. Know the correct terms for gender identity, sexuality, anatomy, sex acts and any other related terms. If you’re going to use kinks and kink work, it is important to research, understand and contextualise each act.
Actors should be informed of any and all possible Intimacy work associated with their role before the audition process and there should be space and time to discuss this at any time during the audition process. Consent for performance should be treated the same as consent in everyday life. It must be freely and enthusiastically given - the need for consent is renewed every time the act is to be performed. Consent applies to everyone in the room, not just those who are performing the intimacy. Anyone in the room, should be there fully informed and fully aware with the freedom to leave at any time. It should never be assumed nor given under pressure. It is also possible for consent to be withdrawn at any time and so it is useful to think ahead of time about what acceptable alternative versions might exist - including a non contact version. This includes during the run of the show.
No Intimacy Director?
If you can’t access an Intimacy Director, there are a few possibilities to look at. The number one question is what is necessary to tell the story? Exercise your creative brain, can the same story be told symbolically, abstractedly without contact? e.g. An adaptation of The Tempest had Miranda and Ferdinand fall in love over a picnic that escalated into a particularly enthusiastic food fight (If Room Enough by withwings Theatre Company, 2012). Another production depicted a sexual assault via the slow deconstruction of a restaurant dinner table (MEAT by Gillian Greer, 2020). Human bodies may not be necessary at all - what is important however is to really weigh up your ability to be able to still hold the space to explore and discuss the content with the company. Naturalism does not need to be the default, not due to any prudishness but because it is important to understand the level of responsibility in depictions of intimacy.
Finally, it’s so important to approach all of this with warmth, openness and a sprinkling of good humour. Intimacy shouldn’t be a point of fear or trepidation, it should be no less enjoyable or creative as the rest of the rehearsal process. Staging intimacy for performance can often end up being the sex ed class you never had at school, full of new thoughts, ideas and possibilities.
It can be a real creative push towards more interesting, more imaginative ways of telling stories about the wider world. Theatre has been permeated with stories of love, sensuality, sexuality and intimacy for centuries and so it is incredibly important that we approach this part of human nature with all the joy, curiosity and openness that we approach the rest of the human condition.
Intimacy on stage can be but is not limited to any of the below (Intimacy for Stage and Screen)
• Simulated Sex
• Undressing to a state of nudity/semi-nudity
• Non-consensual action such as Simulated Sexual Assault, Simulated Sexual Violence, Simulated Sexual Manipulation.
• Kissing on the body
• Non-contact kiss
• Intense mouth-to-mouth kissing
• Groping or Making Out
• Portrayal of contact with chest or genitals
• Presence of Child Actors, Young Adult Actors or Vulnerable Artists in a scene containing intimacy
• Use of prosthetic genitalia or prosthetic breasts
* Intimacy for Stage and Screen’s Guidelines for Live Performance by Adam Burns, Yarit Dor, Nick Fletcher, Jennifer Greenwood, Ian Manborde, Lizzy Talbot
Chi-San Howard Chi-San is a Movement Director, Choreographer and Intimacy Director for Theatre, TV and Film.
Chi-San's work specialises in creating and developing clear and coherent movement languages for performance on both stage and screen. She trained in Movement Directing at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama graduating in 2016. She has worked at theatres across the country including Nottingham Playhouse, Royal Exchange Manchester, Hampstead Theatre, Orange Tree, Dundee Rep amongst many others.
As a Movement practitioner, Chi-San has facilitated workshops and projects at the Young Vic, National Theatre, RCSSD, MouseTrap and Southwark Playhouse. She has taught at St. Mary's Twickenham on the BA Acting Course and BA Applied Theatre course, as well as the Identity School of Acting. She is also the Movement Tutor for DreamArts, an arts charity operating within the borough of Westminster running dance and movement devising sessions for children from low income backgrounds with limited access to the arts.
Chi-San also works as a performance coach offering inclusive techniques towards confidence, body awareness and public presentation for both performers and non-performers. Most recently she worked with the Museum of London's tour guides and as a Guest Facilitator for Kanlungan UK who work with low paid migrant workers, leading workshops aimed at building and developing confidence