I’m an actress and a sexual assault survivor, and over the last few years I became increasingly aware of how often sexual harassment occurs in the film, television, and theatre communities. Let me be clear: this is not new, nor is sexual harassment exclusive to one industry, but since Harvey Weinstein was accused a year and a half ago, the climate change in Hollywood has allowed more people to come forward and report their horror stories of abuse in the industry.
I wondered why the industry holds to a strict standard of professionalism when staging combat scenes, yet does nothing of the sort for staging intimate scenes. It seemed to me that creating structure around intimate scenes was essential to preventing actors from being emotionally and physically injured.
It is imperative that we actors learn to work together safely. We can no longer afford to “just go with our impulses” when it comes to intimate scenes. There are too many artists who are crossing boundaries with their scene partners, and there are too many scenarios where boundaries aren’t being defined in the first place. If I’m in a play and my character is sexually assaulted, my body thinks that the assault is real, especially if the scene happens eight times a week. Unless I have a structure in place surrounding the creation of the scene, the experience of the scene, and the aftercare for the scene, I may incur emotional and physical injuries that endure long after the play has closed.
This is not to suggest that scenes should be censored or choreographed rigidly. What intimacy directors are proposing is that directors and actors create a constellation of acceptable actions to use in the context of a scene.
In some cases, an intimacy call may be useful. Much like a fight call, an intimacy call is an opportunity for you to check in daily with your scene partner to ensure you are connected and on the same page when performing an intimate scene. The scene would be performed at quarter speed, half speed, and full speed, and supervised by a stage manager or certified crew member.
There are many ways to achieve closure, but the easiest is simply to tap in and tap out with your partner. Before an intimate scene, tap in with your partner by standing face to face, doing a “high ten” (high five with both hands), and then inhaling and exhaling deeply. This activates the brain’s mirror neurons, those synapses we have that make us want to empathize with our partners. When finished with the scene, performance, or rehearsal, tap out with your partner by giving them another high ten and taking one more deep breath together.
I also recommend creating closure with your character, especially if the character is emotionally taxing to perform. Create your own ritual to release the character for the day. Perhaps you light a candle during the performance and blow it out afterwards. Maybe you listen to a song that brings you back to the reality of your daily life. Maybe you take a moment to thank your character and release her. Do whatever works for you, but be sure to maintain boundaries, distinguishing when it is okay for the character to inhabit your body and brain, and when it is time for the character to leave so that you can get back to your life.
Especially in light of the #Metoo and #Timesup movements, I think it’s vital to clarify our boundaries and practice safety and respect. Doubters may think that implementing structure around intimate scenes will squelch the actor’s creative impulse. On the contrary. Putting the staged intimacy protocol in place will invigorate actors and create more potent, more truthful, and more beautiful art.