What is an intimacy director? They coordinate make-out, sex scenes

In a small studio theater at Metropolitan State University of Denver on an early August evening, two women stood facing each other, eyes meeting. Simultaneously, Betty Hart and Tamara Meneghini hovered one hand each over Meneghini’s arm, inches above her skin, moving up to her shoulder, across her neck, and over the rest of her body.

The exercise demonstrated to Hart where on her body Meneghini was OK being touched. It’s a common practice in theatrical spaces where “intimacy training” has been introduced. Meneghini and Hart were among a group of instructors at a panel on staging theater intimacy at Metro on Aug. 8.

You’ve likely witnessed a stage kiss before — in a TV show or movie — or perhaps even endured the awkwardness of one yourself during a middle-school play. Today, a small yet rapidly growing group of professionals called “intimacy directors” (also known as intimacy choreographers or intimacy coordinators) often facilitate those moments between actors in a production.

Trained intimacy directors like Denver’s Samantha Egle have choreographed everything from a simple hug to simulated sex. Egle, a movement director, uses intimacy training practices to make rehearsal spaces as safe and comfortable as possible, as the work can be emotionally heavy.

Intimacy “lives in the context of your production,” she told the panel that night, explaining the importance of intimacy direction in theatrical spaces. “We want to try to take the work of carrying this journey home with us each night, take the emotional load, and minimize it.”

That’s because intimacy on stage has caused harm, leading some actors to come forward to share stories of sexual harassment, manipulation and even  assault. The demand for intimacy choreographers nationwide spiked as a result of the #MeToo movement in 2016, when Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse of women, for which he was convicted in 2020, and other Hollywood horror stories arose. Today, HBO requires intimacy directors on the set of every show, and SAG-AFTRA has endorsed seven intimacy coordinator-training programs.

While Colorado is no Hollywood, actors everywhere are not immune to the same situational pressures. At the start of the panel, Hart read from a list of a dozen testimonials from area actors, some of whom experienced uncomfortable situations in recent months.

Egle has trained with Intimacy Directors & Coordinators, a nonprofit training ground founded in 2016. She’s choreographed intimacy for theaters in Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins, though has focused much of her work at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, which now includes an intimacy director on nearly every one of its shows, even ones that don’t directly call for intimacy in the script.

“It doesn’t have to be because there are people kissing or something like that,” she said. “It is making sure that there is full consent with people … and we want to make sure that throughout the whole process that everyone feels comfortable in those intimate moments.”

Egle will appear on the playbill as the intimacy director for DCPA’s fall production of “The Chinese Lady,” which plays Sept. 9-Oct. 16.

Her work has taken some time for others to embrace. Once, she was stopped during a consent exercise by an older, male director who believed actors should not be able to say “no” to what the director wanted from a scene. His philosophy, which she said has now changed, was like that of many traditional directors: “He thought that actors should be willing to do anything and everything that any director requests of them.”

Her first time formally choreographing intimacy was for DCPA’s 2018 production of “Vietgone.” The director, Seema Sueko, had specifically requested an intimacy director for the show because there were over 20 intimate moments in the play. Egle came in for a few days to lead workshops with the entire cast before moving on to work with individual actors on their intimate scenes.

Just a few years ago, a pair of actors might have simply been asked to start experimenting together before going in for a kiss or staged sexual act. One actor from “Vietgone,” Brian Lee Huynh, remembers being in high school musicals when scene partners would be told by the director, “‘OK, guys, kiss now!’”

Lee Huynh recalled feeling skeptical at first when Egle entered the “Vietgone” rehearsal room. It had also been his first experience with an intimacy director, and he didn’t see the point of her replacing the director he trusted, even temporarily.

“The intimacy director came in — I didn’t know her at all — and she took over rehearsals,” he recalled. “This was the first time I had to not rehearse the play in order to do this kind of work, and it was slow, and at first, I was a little like, ‘Shouldn’t we be rehearsing?’”

But Lee Huynh warmed up. He even became the show’s “intimacy captain,” a role that ensures intimacy is being repeated consistently, as choreographed, after the intimacy director leaves.

And, yes, Egle does leave after just a few days of working with the cast, although she might be called back by the show’s director before the show opens to tidy up movements.

Sueko, who will also direct “The Chinese Lady,” said even though the play does not include any overt intimacy, there is almost always emotional intimacy in plays that makes having an intimacy director in the room valuable.

And besides, even if intimacy is not explicit in the script, Egle said, intimacy directors empower actors to protect themselves and others — and not just physically.

“We really have tools to help facilitate emotional safety and psychological safety,” she said.

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