Intimacy directing facilitates consent-based theater

By Sydney Wood, Assistant buzz Editor

Since their creation alongside the rise of the Me Too Movement in 2016, intimacy direction and coordination is a growing field within the entertainment industry that advocates for actors’ physical and emotional well-being. 

Zev Steinrock, assistant director in the University’s theater department and professional actor, fighting director and intimacy director, was a fighting director for more than a decade before also becoming a certified intimacy director in 2018.

He said his background in fight directing enhances his work as an intimacy director, and in the past, fight directors were often used to coordinate non-consensual intimate scenes. 

“The actual care and foundation that is necessary for the healthy staging of scenes of intimacy has not really been a part of the training of fight directors,” he said. “Historically, that is slowly changing.”

Steinrock said intimacy direction and coordination are artistic positions that involve crafting and choreographing specific stories within consent-based spaces. 

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Intimacy direction, Steinrock said, refers to theater, while intimacy coordination refers to film and television. 

Steinrock defined consent-based spaces as being trauma-informed and crucial for scenes of intimacy, saying intimacy directors and coordinators are “ambassadors of consent” who understand how to receive and maintain consent. 

“The job of the intimacy director is to advocate for the actors in scenes of intimacy and nudity to facilitate consent-based practices around those scenes and to help serve the story that the director is trying to tell while honoring the boundaries and capacities of the actors,” Steinrock said.

Steinrock uses the same definition of consent that Planned Parenthood uses, which is known as FRIES, meaning consent must be freely given, reversible, informed, enthusiastic and specific. 

He said actors’ consent is specific to a given scene, and once a scene ends, the actors still don’t have another’s consent to continue any intimate motions. 

“If we’ve created a consent-based space, then that means that the consent must be reversible,” he said.

Sometimes, he said, scenes must be reworked to avoid crossing actors’ boundaries. 

 “A really good intimacy director has 50 different ways to do the same moment,” he said.

 Steinrock said his background in acting gives him the empathy to understand how difficult it is to manage the vast number of responsibilities actors have that contribute to actors’ hesitancy to set boundaries. 

“We’re in an industry where actors have been trained to always be a yes, (and) that if you are in any way difficult, there’s a line of 100 people who look just like you waiting out the door to take this job,” Steinrock said. 

Steinrock said before he became an intimacy director, he assumed that because the acting was fake, it would be safe for everyone to do. 

But he said he later learned that wasn’t always the case.

“It’s not necessarily safe for an actor – for a human – that has lived through physical violence, to practice telling an imaginary story of it,” Steinrock said. “It is not necessarily safe for that person, especially if the gestures are too similar to what they lived through.”

He said actors’ sexual lives are both irrelevant and deeply relevant to intimate scene building. 

“We’re in a workplace where we’re literally being paid to tell a story, but we might be telling a story about sexuality, in which case the lived experience of that human is relevant,” he said.

He said an actor’s compounding identities – such as one’s sexuality and gender identity – are critically relevant in creating a space where the actors can put their full effort into their work and still go home healthy afterward. 

“It’s also critical to understanding all of the power at play that can either support or interrupt the capacity to give to freely give informed consent to any action or a moment or story,” he said. 

Steinrock said he begins his approach to intimacy direction by asking himself questions like, “What are the needs of this particular story?” and “What is the context of these characters?”

Another important question he asks himself is, “What is the makeup of this audience?”

“That’s so important to know,” he said. “Like, are we telling a story about sexualized violence to survivors of sexualized violence? That’s a big piece of context.”

Then, he has private conversations with each actor to discuss the actor’s needs and boundaries, saying he advocates for those boundaries “without disclosing those boundaries or the reasons for those boundaries.” 

He also is on set on the days when actors rehearse intimate scenes, and after the scene, he leads them through closure rituals – which are exercises, like meditation, that aid performers to come out of character and acknowledge that the intimate scene wasn’t real. 

He said closure exercises are crucial because actors’ bodies cannot tell the difference between emotions generated from scenes and real-world emotions, so actors have real emotional responses to fake stories. 

“Having that distinct moment in which the work ends helps your body and your emotional life and your brain to actually separate that,” Steinrock said. “It’s critically important when we’re doing scenes of violence or scenes of non-consensual work.”

He said intimacy direction offers answers to problems in theater and film that go beyond intimate scenes, which is why consent-based theater-making and trauma-informed work should be acknowledged in all aspects of theater and film. 

“If we want to remake the American theater,” Steinrock said, “It needs to be remade consciously with consent and centering the wellness of everyone who interacts with it.”

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