Jennifer Ward-Lealand speaks about intimacy

What does an Intimacy Director do?

An Intimacy Director works with performers in the live performance arena to put a professional process in place for intimate scenes, in the same way as you would for fight choreography. These scenes are often where the performer is most vulnerable and exposed and there is greater potential for them to get hurt, either physically or psychologically.

In the past, performers have often been left to sort it out themselves or had to improvise in the moment, which can be very problematic. If there is a power or experience imbalance or any hierarchical structure in place, the performer may feel reluctant to express feelings of discomfort.  At the heart of this work is consent, so the scenes can be robust, repeatable, and importantly, fun.

How long has this been in place?

In New Zealand, this work has really taken off over the last two and a half years. Worldwide it has been in process for less than 5 years. There are very few of us in NZ and it is a profession that requires experience in the industry, along with a certification in first aid, mental health first aid, working with children, problem-solving and harassment, along with very thorough administration skills.

How does this process work?

We begin with the consent process and then break the intimate scene down into physical beats, and then into emotional beats, which put together creates much more of a narrative within the scene. This process enables the performer to anchor the journey into their bodies, allowing them to get on and do what they do best, which is to sing gloriously. They have the confidence too of knowing that the journey with their fellow actor is done with full consent and consequently the performance is more free and the storytelling greatly enhanced.

I also put in place a process where the performer can ‘tap in’ and ‘tap out’ of the intimate or exposing scene. For many years performers have dragged the residue of challenging experiences back home. But I believe that it is important to be able to separate the practice of our art and our everyday life. It is not acceptable anymore to not have a duty of care for performers.

I also want to be clear that this work does not sanitise the intimate scene to the point where nothing’s happening. What we are always looking for is to deepen the moment – whether that is hot ‘n heavy or deeply romantic – and still have a sense of spontaneity.  Intimacy is a legitimate part of the performer’s work and when we bring best practices to these scenes we get the very best from them. Having a third party guide them through gives these performers autonomy and ownership of the work.  

How different is the experience for the performers when they have the support of an Intimacy Director?

I am so thrilled that New Zealand Opera has taken this work on board and seen its importance. Every performer I have worked with over these last few years has said, “Where’s this process been all my life?”  It has clearly been a novel experience for many performers to be asked for their consent. In general, they have just had to take what is asked of them. I’ve experienced this myself. Whether you are in opera, theatre, or in the screen industry, an Intimacy Director makes a profound difference. The fact that this role has been embraced so quickly by the stage and screen industry here in Aotearoa is thrilling. I love this work and find it very creative and I feel particularly happy that I can make a difference to a performer’s experience.