21 Apr 2024

Choreographing intimacy in a post-#MeToo era

From Culture 101, 2:05 pm on 21 April 2024

Intimacy coordination is about righting a "huge power imbalance" in the screen industry, a top practitioner says.

Born from the #MeToo movement, intimacy coordinators help to keep actors and crew safe on film and TV sets and in theatre productions.

An intimacy coordinator will work with actors, directors and crew to plan and choreograph intimate scenes, while establishing consent and boundaries.

The Effect - ATC Production

The Effect - ATC Production Photo: Supplied

Miriama McDowell is the intimacy coordinator for Auckland Theatre Company’s new show, The Effect.

Written by British playwright and producer Lucy Prebble, the story centres around a clinical trial for a new antidepressant. During the trial, the two main participants start falling in love. 

The show looks at the breadth of human emotion, drugs, ethics and being led by the head versus the heart. 

McDowell has been a professional actor for 20 years, appearing in some of New Zealand’s most well-known films and television shows, like The Dark Horse, Whina, Head High, Waru, and No.2. She started training to be an intimacy coordinator in 2018. 

“We realised there was this huge power imbalance in our industry and we had to find a way to keep actors safe while being able to meet the vision of the director,” she said.

“Our job is to create repeatable intimate content that’s exciting, detailed and tells the story.” 

Speaking to Culture 101’s Perlina Lau, McDowell described the decision to become an intimacy coordinator or IC as a “beautiful crossroads” of where she was in her career as a director, actor and advocate.

“I’d found this pathway through my work where I often get called in [to] hold space for people of colour or indigenous people so it just made sense for me.”

Aside from being an actor and director, being a Māori woman added another layer of importance and understanding. 

“There are a lot of Māori stories being told in this country and they want to work with people who come from their culture and have an understanding.

Romy Hooper

Romy Hooper Photo: Supplied

“Just basic things: like the head is tapu in our culture - I walk in understanding that. Or I would never choreograph a scene on the table or the kitchen bench, unless it was very intentional the character is going against tikanga.”

Voice artist and actor Romy Hooper started training as an intimacy coordinator following her own experiences on set.

"I was blown away by how different the experience felt, being on set as an actor, with an IC present versus other instances where there had been sexual content and there wasn’t one.

"It made the work joyous and playful instead of daunting and intimidating."

However, McDowell said having an intimacy coordinator could be a challenge for actors who wanted to improvise. 

“They want to feel the moment and see what happens in their chemistry with the other actor, so we have to find the best way to work with each person.”

Miriama McDowell

Miriama McDowell Photo: Supplied

In those instances, she said, it was about “creating a map” - a zone with consent and boundaries in which the actors had freedom. 

McDowell founded Intimacy Coordinators Aotearoa (ICA) in 2018 along with actor and Equity president Jennifer Ward-Lealand and actor and Equity vice-president Tandi Wright.

Ward-Lealand and Wright both trained with Ita O'Brien (Intimacy on Set, UK) and are among the first to be fully accredited intimacy coordinators in New Zealand. 

Hooper has also been working to make sure intimacy coordination can reach the community level. The company has been approached numerous times by local or regional theatre groups for advice and assistance. 

Hooper said those environments were usually not professional and there was generally no funding. People were participating in productions out of love. 

“Because a lot of them lack the funds to bring in a trained or willing IC, they often forgo that as a part of their processes,” she said.

The hope and plan was to train up intimacy advocates to uphold the main protocols and Equity New Zealand guidelines which would be expected on a professional production.

The Effect is at the ASB Waterfront Theatre in Auckland until 11 May.