I Want to Be in the Room Where We All Share the Weight

Aug 30, 2022

...Or, Why We Should all be Consent Forward Artists

In my career as an intimacy professional, I have often found myself in universities working on productions as a guest artist. Since I also teach at multiple universities, I tend to be their first call when they need an ID or IC for a production. I love working with students, especially as an intimacy choreographer, because the work I do just makes sense to them. There is such open mindedness and open heartedness in the rooms I work in and so much joy and excitement for the dialogues we have and the work we create. It makes me hopeful for the future - watching the consent-forward community grow, right before my eyes. 


As the school year starts up again, it’s almost funny to think back on some productions that I’ve worked on and how the range of what I have been asked to do under the title “intimacy director” has been so large. I specifically think about the first production I came into, first semester in person “post” COVID, where the scene I was asked to look at was a couple eating dinner together. 


The two actors were positioned next to one another, facing out towards the audience. When I asked to see what they had so far, they presented the moment. At the point in which the male actor was to put his arm around his scene partner, he hovered it above her shoulders and the director called for a hold. The whole team proceeded to look at me then and ask for my help. I was a bit confused at first. I wondered if I had missed the moment and when I asked for clarity on what they wanted me to look at they told me “the arm around the shoulder, is that okay?” to which I responded by asking the actors “the arm around the shoulder, how does that feel for both of you? Is that within your boundaries?”


I was met with no hesitation, “yep!” from both actors, so I said “go ahead then” and they did and the scene carried on. When they finished the moment, the director and them thanked me but I was still left a bit confused. I asked “Was that it? Is there any other moment you’d like me to look at?” There wasn’t. The entirety of the “intimacy” was simply the arm around the shoulder.


While I am so glad I could support the team, this scenario got me thinking… Was that really intimacy direction? I don’t think it was. For me, the definition of “intimacy” being heightened romantic or sexualized storytelling, simulated genital contact, and/or scenes of nudity and hyper-exposure is crucial to defining the scope of practice of an intimacy professional. The moment was certainly “intimate” in nature, but there are many types of intimacy that are not necessarily under the purview of an intimacy director - in the same way that there are many types of conflict that aren’t under the purview of a fight director. I could’ve been a consent or care consultant, or even a sensitivity director. But an intimacy director? Not that. 


In talking with my colleagues, many share similar stories, such as  being asked to be present for every rehearsal - regardless of content, or being asked to be the “intimacy director” on a show that has no moments of intimacy but because the institution has a sordid history of workplace harassment. So, why is it that people often reach out to intimacy professionals for shows with no intimacy?


In my experience, intimacy professionals are often seen as a safety net for those who aren’t as familiar with consent-forward work. And this means that, a lot of the time, the overwhelming burden of ensuring care and consent for entire rehearsal rooms or sets is put on those with the title of intimacy director or coordinator. As an industry, we had a wake up call regarding actor and production safety and a lot of folks are now scared. It makes sense to see intimacy professionals as a fix-all solution for a historically abusive industry. Unfortunately it's unrealistic for any one role to be able to shift an entire industry culture and keep actors safe all at the same time (let alone while also needing to technically craft a moment of simulated sex).


When it happens that I’m asked to be on shows with no intimacy,  more often than not, they actually just want someone whose sole purpose is to emanate a sense of ease and care so that they have supported their actors. 


I love walking into rooms and being able to actively feel the shift and settle into ease of the people in space. But as one person, I can only do so much. I am fearful that we, as an industry, have begun to depend on intimacy professionals for much more than their actual job - which displaces what is a shared responsibility: to create a culture of consent in the arts. Every person in the production process  is capable of incorporating boundary and consent practices into their work and has the capacity to find or build the tools to ensure safety for themselves and their colleagues. Being a room full of consent based artists allows for an even safer and braver space than one with just a singular trained intimacy professional.


So… What now?


 With the growing popularity of the intimacy field, many people feel that the only way they can incorporate the work of care and consent into productions is by becoming an intimacy professional. However, that is entirely untrue. The understanding of consent practices, boundary work, understanding power dynamics, and how to work with touch should be a foundational knowledge for everyone to have. Will people pursue intimacy choreography as a career? YES, and they should because we need more intimacy professionals! But we mostly need a TON more consent-forward artists.


At IDC, we define being a consent forward artist as “someone with a strong foundational understanding of individual agency in the workplace, clear and open communication, and a ‘human first’ approach to art-making… They are individuals with an understanding of how power dynamics can affect consent and they are armed with tools that can help mitigate the negative impact of those dynamics in the entertainment industry.”  


What’s specifically important about how we define this is that a consent-forward artist can and SHOULD be anyone and everyone. A consent forward artist is not a job title, it is also not JUST the intimacy choreographer. It is an informed, consent-forward person in any department. It is the costume shop manager who ensures actors have agency during their fittings. It is the Stage Manager who checks in with an uncomfortable stagehand after supporting a difficult scene. It is anyone involved who steps up and actively participates in shouldering the weight of caring for and supporting every member of the team. We all must be those people. It is supplemental to the work each of us are already doing but doesn’t exist in a vacuum or as a new position. In fact, it shouldn’t be a new position because we can’t keep designating singular people as the keepers of care and consent. We all must be those people. 


Now….Imagine this with me…  if we had rooms where everyone had skills in boundary work and consent-based practices. Systems would change, expectations would shift, and all of the implied rules around what actors ``have to do” would turn into explicit communication and creative collaboration. With time and the expansion of consent forward work, think of how different our classrooms will be and the professionals that they will produce. Students would be empowered to take charge of their learning, and tackle the creative challenges they are ready to meet. They would enter the industry able to communicate their boundaries and advocate for themselves, and set the tone for new cultural norms and expectations in our industry. Actors would feel supported before the intimacy choreographer even steps in the room – and then we’d choreograph some really awesome simulated sex!


We should all have skills that allow others to bring their full humanity to the work. We should all be able to respect each other's boundaries and know the difference between permission, coercion, and consent. We should be able to talk through and perform an arm over the shoulder, a hug, handhold, and even a kiss consensually. Not everyone needs to know how to safely, believably, stage a three or five person simulated sex scene, but we all can and should be consent forward artists. 


If one person/role becomes responsible for the efficacy of care and consent practices, then we will never be able to fully utilize the scope of expertise that an intimacy professional can offer. Intimacy Professionals are storytellers, choreographers, and artistic collaborators whose artistry is built upon a foundation of care and consent. And when that foundation is shared by all professions, imagine the stories we will be able to tell.


Every professional can all be a consent forward artist who shares the weight of care in these spaces. It is the responsibility of all of us, not just the intimacy professionals, to change the culture of our industries into one that is consent and care forward. Intimacy work has led the charge and begun to pave the way, but it shouldn’t and cannot be the only change we make. To create long-lasting and impactful change, we all must be consent forward artists. We all must unlearn and relearn – We must all share the weight.


-Lauren Kiele DeLeon


Where do you see consent making an impact in entertainment? Leave a comment in the Consent Studio!

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