Careful about sex scenes: Working as an 'intimacy director' in Ireland

#MeToo is one of the reasons why the role of an ‘intimacy director’ has become more prominent on many sets, writes Marjorie Brennan.

In a recent interview with Rolling Stone magazine, writer David Simon spoke about his most recent television show, The Deuce, which explores the nascent porn industry in 1970s New York. 

The Wire creator revealed the producers had hired an intimacy coordinator to facilitate the filming of simulated sex scenes.

Ita O'Brien, intimacy co-ordinator

“’Cause it’s hard work, a lot harder than violence. You know, everyone’s an old pro about simulating violence. But I don’t think I’m ever going to work without an intimacy coordinator again,” he said.

While intimacy co-ordination is a relatively new concept in itself, such work comes under the umbrella of movement direction, an area which has been gaining more prominence in the theatre, television and film industries of late.

Ita O’Brien trained in movement direction at the prestigious Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and now works as an intimacy co-ordinator for film, television and theatre in Britain. 

O’Brien, whose parents were born in Tyrone and Tipperary, was raised in Kent and previously worked as a dancer in musical theatre, later retraining as an actor. 

She says there has been an increase in demand for her expertise in the aftermath of the Harvey Weinstein revelations and the explosion of the #MeToo movement.

“Actors are now being listened to and acknowledged. In the past, people would have spoken out and it was dismissed. That was a big shift. Nobody should be subject to harassment and abuse in the workplace and that applies to the theatre and film industries as well,” she says.

According to O’Brien, the previously haphazard approach to performing sex scenes is no longer an acceptable mode of practice.

“If you are going to do a stunt, you will go and rehearse with your stunt crew; if you have a dance, you will go and rehearse with the choreographer, it should be the same if you are doing a sex scene. 

"It is not enough to just talk about it, to say ‘you are going to kiss here, take off your clothes off there, jump on the bed, and you are going to have intercourse here’. 

"Somehow, that seems to be what people think can happen with a sex scene.”

Lauren Coe as Emma in Asking For It, the adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s tale which begins its run at the Abbey in Dublin next week. Pic: Hugh O'Connor

Asking For It

Sue Mythen is another graduate of the MA in movement direction and teaching at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. 

She is head of movement at the Lir Academy at Trinity College, Dublin, and has been involved with numerous Irish theatrical productions over the last decade or so. 

Mythen was brought on board for the stage adaptation of Louise O’Neill’s novel Asking For It, which received a rapturous reception when it premiered at the Everyman Theatre in Cork this summer and is starting a run at the Abbey Theatre next week.

Mythen helps performers to focus on what people convey through their movement: “How bodies move in space and in relation to each other and how even a thought or feeling can change how we move.”

Asking For It is a hard-hitting portrayal of the devastating aftermath of a rape and Mythen closely collaborated with director Annabelle Comyn across the whole production. 

Sue Mythen

Mythen’s expertise was particularly necessary, however, when it came to the build-up to the pivotal scene where Emma, the central character, is sexually assaulted. 

Before the party at which the rape takes place, the characters are at a nightclub celebrating the local Gaelic football team’s victory, a concept which was used as a central element in building up to the traumatic assault.

“We looked at the notion of sport, how an energy and adrenaline takes over where rational thought disappears. In order to feed that feeling and prolong it, substances are taken. There is also a certain bravado and provocation… So we recognised those dynamics and we started building on that,” says Mythen.

Her holistic approach is used to outstanding effect in a scene where the characters are participating in a kind of dance-off in the nightclub. 

It is one of the most highly-charged scenes in the play and one about which Mythen felt some trepidation.

I was nervous about the choreography because I don’t have a dance background. My movement direction is generally concerned with the insides of people, their thoughts and feelings and how they manifest. For that scene, in particular, it worked the other way around. I created the dance and then filled it with the acting afterwards.

“They are competing with each other… they are all in isolation to begin with, in their own world, pumping themselves up. 

"They all need to escape in one form or another. Their inner life is entirely separate and different but they are doing the same thing at the same time.”

As well as featuring contemporary dance moves, Mythen also took inspiration from rave culture.

“Just when you think you can’t take any more, it ramps up again… they take off again into something even faster. 

"You know in rave dances, it kind of peaks, and then you have what is called the drop, we wanted to build up to that frenetic energy so we would have the drop afterwards, when they land back into real life, and they enter the house and the party. 

"Everything that happens within the party is coloured by the level of activity that happened beforehand.”

The same level of preparation went into the scenes where Emma is assaulted, even though much of the action is conveyed off-stage or in disembodied audio and visual effects, conveying Emma’s disorientation amid the heady fog of alcohol and drugs.

“Everything is about consent and stages, you don’t just go in and run the scene, you break it all down into component parts and direct it; like you choreograph a dance, you do the individual steps,” says Mythen.

O’Brien takes the same approach, and adds that when it comes to co-ordinating scenes of an intimate or sexual nature, preparation and setting expectations is key.

“In theatre, the rehearsal process is given time and space, whereas on TV and film, time is of the essence. A big part of what I have learned is at what point do I need to flag things up so I can get that extra 30 minutes to rehearse, or a closed set? 

"For example, if there is going to be a woman in a place of vulnerability I try to ensure there is some parity on set so you don’t have one lone woman performing a full-on intimate act with a man in front of a completely male crew.”

Areas of touch

Part of O’Brien’s mission is also to ensure that actors aren’t seen as ‘difficult’ for raising issues around a sex or nude scene. 

She encourages them to agree areas of touch before shooting or performing a scene.

“An actor being clear about where they are happy to be touched on their body doesn’t mean they are a tricky actor, it means that actually they are a very present and aware actor,” she says.

While things are changing, O’Brien says there is still a long way to go, especially when the gender balance behind the camera is still so skewed.

I have been in a situation trying to explain what I require to a wall of male producers, a male director, a male first assistant director, and they’re all looking at me all saying this is unreasonable, this isn’t needed. They probably haven’t even thought about it.

O’Brien has compiled a set of ‘intimacy on set’ guidelines which have been endorsed by Women in Film and Television, a voluntary foundation promoting increased representation of women on screen and behind the camera.

“I just did some work for a large production company who have asked me to write up my processes so they can start including them as part of their fundamental practice, which is amazing,” she says.

“Ultimately, my goal is that the whole process will be known, from producers to directors to actors. 

"At the moment, there are actors who say ‘I don’t want to make a big thing of it, let’s just do it on the day’. 

"But if they understood, they would know that [the way I work] doesn’t make it worse, it just makes it normal. 

"That means it’s just like rehearsing a stunt, fight, or a dance, you know what you’re doing, you’re comfortable and you can just get on with the job of acting.”

Asking For It runs at the Abbey Theatre from Nov 9-24


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