Just for my own amusement, I keep a list of job titles that didn’t exist until relatively recently. Most of them are in technology fields: Customer success manager. Code sensei. Scooter juicer. Operations Jedi.
One recently created job, however, depends not on technology but on psychology and stagecraft. Intimacy directors—the title appears to have been invented around 2016 by the founders of Intimacy Directors International, although the discipline was developed about 15 years ago—work with theater actors to choreograph “moments of staged intimacy in order to create safe, repeatable, and effective storytelling,” according to IDI’s website. (Their counterparts in television and film are called intimacy coordinators, and play similar roles in “scenes containing intimacy, simulated sex, nudity or high emotional content.”)
Poster for Frankie & Johnny at the Clair de Lune
I first heard the words intimacy director on June 15, on a segment of NPR’s Weekend Edition in which host Scott Simon interviewed Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon, the stars of a Broadway revival of Frankie & Johnny at the Clair de Lune. Here’s the exchange that got my attention:
SIMON: We should explain (laughter) - you spend much of the time onstage without clothes on. I gather, for the scenes we're talking about, you had - what I guess is called in the business - an intimacy director.
MCDONALD: Yeah, this is a new phenomenon for Broadway, for sure. This is the - I think the first time an intimacy director has been used in a Broadway show. And we had a wonderful woman who came in and not only choreographed our love scenes, as well as the fight scenes; she also sat down with each of us prior to any physical work that we did and spoke to us about what our boundaries are, separately, what we were comfortable with, what we were not comfortable with.
And then she brought us together as a group, and we then spoke as a group. And then she sort of created this wonderful safe space for us to be able to explore the physical intimacy these two characters have at the beginning of the show and do it in a way that was always filled with communication and safety. And I don't know. What do you think, Mike? Just created a safer space for us to work.
Clearly I hadn’t been paying close enough attention, because intimacy directors and intimacy coordinators have been getting ink for a couple of years, ever since the #MeToo movement heightened awareness of sexual pressure and sexual assault in the entertainment fields. In March 2018, playwright Michelle Barnette wrote for The Guardian about Love Me Now, her play “about the toxicity of casual dating and the grey area that so often ensues when it comes to sex”:
We felt it would be deeply unfair to ask this of the actors without limitations in place to protect them, so we hired Enric Ortuno, an intimacy and fight director, to come in and help us make sure everyone felt safe.
Yes, some intimacy directors begin as fight choreographers and add sex scenes to their portfolios.
Alicia Rodis, one of the founders of IDI, worked as an intimacy coordinator on the set of HBO’s “The Deuce,” a scripted series about (among other things) the sex-work industry in 1970s New York. According to a story in the April 2019 issue of Cosmopolitan:
Before a camera is ever trained on its subject, Rodis has already checked in with the director about the objectives for the day and relayed those objectives to the actors. The actors, in turn, share any issues with, say, how much boob or thigh or butt will be exposed on camera. Rodis takes those concerns back to the director, and the negotiations go until a consensus is reached.
Rodis began her theatrical career as a teen actor; she first performed nude in a stage production when she was 18. She later became a fight and stunt director in New York. She told HuffPost earlier this year that on one show, “I was there for a slap and a kiss. … We choreographed the slap and it was fine, then we got to the kiss and the actors were just terrified.” They asked Rodis to step in and, she said, “they went over one another’s respective boundaries and determined how physical moments should move the story forward.”
Rodis and her partners have developed five “pillars” for intimacy direction, all of which begin with the letter C: context, consent, communication, choreography, and closure. IDI offers workshops and certification programs, but it’s not an employment agency: “All of our Intimacy Directors are freelance artists and independent contractors who negotiate their own fees including travel and housing, if necessary.”