Choreographing Love: Pulling Back the Curtain on Staged IntimacyFebruary 14, 20232 min read
Picture this: you’re watching your favorite romantic comedy. It’s reached the best part; the leads go in for that infamous relationship-affirming kiss and bam, happy ending. Everything on screen feels so natural and easy. Well, not quite.
The intimate moments we see depicted in movies, on television and in theatre are carefully discussed and staged before and during production, with intimacy professionals leading the way. To unpack all the romantic details, we turned to Bess Rowen, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Theatre at Villanova University and trained intimacy choreographer.
On set, intimacy choreographers (theatre) and intimacy coordinators (film and television), “make sure that the intimate contact viewers see is agreed upon beforehand with actors and the director. In other words, we don't want to surprise an actor,” says Rowen. The cast and crew work hard to make the romantic moments feel real and spontaneous within the predetermined and agreed-upon guidelines.
While intimacy coordination is a relatively new field, it has really grown in the last several years. “In 2020, SAG-AFTRA (the largest professional union for screen actors and radio actors) laid out guidelines for the use of intimacy coordinators for all union productions,” says Rowen. And there are many organizations that train and produce qualified intimacy professionals, ensuring that they are engaging with new practices as the field continues to grow and evolve.
And, akin to real-world encounters, consent is the backbone of intimacy on stage and screen. “Instead of feeling forced, possibly by a power imbalance in the room to simply agree to the director's vision, intimacy coordinators empower actors to identify their boundaries,” Rowen says. “Actors can feel pressured to seem “easy to work with”, thus creating situations where their consent may get lost. To keep everyone accountable, intimacy coordinators will introduce self-care cues, boundary practice, and other consent-based practices to create a space that foregrounds an actor's boundaries for any and all physical contact.”
As an intimacy choreographer, Rowen understands the importance of the role. “This job is essential because it adds an advocate to set. An actor might hesitate to tell a director they're uncomfortable doing something, but if I'm there and can directly ask an actor about something, then the individual can end up feeling a lot more in control of the situation,” Rowen says. “That consent-based, trauma-informed practice leads, in my experience both as a professional and as an audience member, to more fully integrated scenes of intimacy.” An actor’s comfort translates to the viewer, creating a more enjoyable experience for everyone.
This type of oversight is exciting. “For years we have trained actors to expect the unexpected and be ready for anything, so it takes a minute for them to realize that this training is the opposite of that,” says Rowen. “There aren't surprises or jump-scares in this work. It's about transparency. And once that's made clear, you tend to see people relax in their bodies. It's really powerful.”