Choreographing intimacy: Meet the Edmonton woman who stages sex

Sharing a first kiss with a stranger can be unnerving. Sharing that kiss in front of a captive audience can be truly daunting.

Intimacy directors help steer actors through sex scenes

Isaiah Bell, left, and Thomas Hampson share an intimate scene in Rufus Wainwright-composed opera, Hadrian. For many actors, staged intimacy is part of the job description. The scene was choreographed by Siobhan Richardson. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

Sharing a first kiss with a stranger can be unnerving. Sharing that kiss in front of a captive audience can be truly daunting.

For decades, theatre and film scenes involving sex or intimacy were staged by directors with little experience in establishing safe boundaries for the performers. Or actors were left to their own devices.

Now there is a new player behind the scenes.

Intimacy directors specialize in choreographing any part of the script involving intimate touch — a simple kiss, simulated sex, an orgy, a violent rape.

For many performers, staged intimacy is part of the job, and there is growing demand to make that work safer and more respectful, said Samantha Jeffery, an Edmonton-based intimacy director.

There was a hole in the net that no one has really worried about for a long time.- Samantha Jeffery

Jeffery sees herself as an advocate for actors during their most vulnerable moments. In the worst cases, ambiguity and miscommunication can lead to misconduct.

"People are coming to realize that there was a hole in the net that no one has really worried about for a long time," Jeffery said in an interview Tuesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"Especially with performers, people are starting to find their voice.

"I've had more than one person tell me that they wished I had been there in past productions and they hope that I get hired on future ones."

'Creating an illusion'

Jeffery began her work as an intimacy director a few years ago. It grew naturally out of her background as an actor and a combat director.

She said there are parallels between staged fights and staged sex. 
Edmonton-based actor and combat director Samantha Jeffery began working as a professional intimacy director a couple years ago. (Ryan Parker Photography/Facebook)

"We're faking something on stage but trying to make our audience believe that it looks, sounds and feels real, while keeping in mind the mental and physical health of the performers," Jeffery said.

"It's all about creating an illusion and making that as convincing as possible, and as affecting as possible, while still making sure that everyone is doing something that is repeatable and that is not going to cause them harm."

Jeffery is among a growing contingent of intimacy directors working in the industry. HBO announced in October it would hire intimacy co-ordinators to monitor on-set sex, and productions across North America have followed suit.

Established in 2016, Intimacy Directors International is considered the leading organization for the trade. It offers yearly internships to applicants across North America to meet the growing demand. Jeffery trained with one the founders, Siobhan Richardson, an actor and fight director based in Canada.

While Jeffery said she has performed many intimate scenes for stage and theatre, and come out of the experience largely unscathed, the needs of actors are often overlooked.

Performers — not wanting to disappoint their colleagues or producers — often resign themselves to performing acts that make them uncomfortable. 

"I've always been pretty good at standing up for myself but I've had quite the range of experiences," Jeffery said.

"Like, I need something to wear, I need a robe in between scenes. And can I have five seconds to introduce myself to my scene partner before we start making out on stage?"

Having an intimacy director on set or in the rehearsal space can help empower actors to set clear boundaries and speak up when they feel uncomfortable, too naked or emotionally exposed, Jeffery said.

"A producer is the most powerful person in the room," she said. "They're the person who decides if you're going to work next time. So as an actor, you feel you can't stand up to them. You always want to be the person in the room who is saying yes."

It really allows people to lose that fear of going too far, or not going far enough.- Samantha Jeffery

Jeffery goes over the script line by line with the director to determine how the scene should look and feel, and consults the actors about their expectations around nudity and touch — relaying any concerns back to the producers

Then she choreographs the scene, movement by movement.  

If an actor begins acting inappropriately or deviates from the choreography, she is there to intervene.

Not only does her work help maintain a safe work environment, it also helps make the performance more steamy. 

Having set choreography gives actors the space to perform without guess work, Jeffery said. Fear or insecurity can ruin a performance. 

"I mean, everyone has seen a production of Romeo and Juliet where you just don't believe, no matter what, that Romeo and Juliet love each other on stage.

"We come in to help build that emotional connection and maybe a physical connection too.

"It really allows people to lose that fear of going too far, or not going far enough. They know exactly where they can be every night."

With files from Ken Dawson


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