Ted Hewlett on Intimacy Direction

The Cake is the first production at the Lyric Stage to enlist an intimacy director. Intimacy directing is a new role to the entertainment industry and has become more prominent as productions seek to create a safe and comfortable environment for actors during vulnerable moments. We sat down with Ted Hewlett to discuss this emerging role and the significance of an intimacy director in the artistic process.

Can you describe the role of an intimacy director and its importance in theatrical productions?

Intimacy direction is a three-pronged approach and job description. First, we are advocates for actors in what is shown or revealed about their body, or how their body is interacting with other bodies. We want them to be able to approach their work with enthusiastic consent so that they can feel confident about what they’re doing. If there is not enthusiastic consent, we find another way to tell the story. There are dozens or hundreds of different ways to tell that story. The second part of our job is to set up protocols for a particular production, the theatre company itself, or an academic department with student actors, so that the performers are in an inclusive consent-based workspace and that other actors, directors, and producers use language that is not demeaning or othering. The third part is that we help to craft the moments of what the actual choreography is in order to tell the story as authentically and as deeply as we can. Just like a fight scene, intimate scenes that involve sexual touch need to be choreographed so that the performers know what to expect and not be surprised by changes from performance to performance.

What interested you in becoming an intimacy director?

It’s kind of amazing to me that in my lifetime of professional work, this position is such a recent idea to everybody, including me. As a professional fight director, I’ve long been called in to stage scenes of sexual assault because of the combative nature of the narrative. And sometimes I’d be asked to help with a moment of physical safety, such as when two actors who are kissing need to safely fall off the sofa and not bang into the coffee table, for example. But for far too long it has mostly been assumed that if the action between the characters is consensual, it must also be consensual between the actors simply because that’s what actors are expected to do— it’s in their job description. But those clearly aren’t the same things. And sometimes liberties can be taken or steps missed due to a lack of communication and a culture that thought it is in an actor’s lot to simply endure, to suffer for their art. A few folks (like Tonia Sina, Alicia Rodis, and Siobhan Richardson, who are the co-founders of Intimacy Directors International, the leading industry group) had been advocating for change, but weren’t getting much traction. Then in 2017 with the worldwide recognition of the #MeToo movement following Harvey Weinstein, the theatre and film industries suddenly started to pay attention. The national and international conversation about sexual harassment and consent in the workplace has put intimacy direction more at the forefront.

It seems like such a necessary role, why do you think it took so long for it to be at the forefront of theatre-making?

Traditionally, actors are at the low end of the scale as far as power dynamics. I think in many cases, it’s just simply not brought up, not through malice or ill-will, but through a lack of education or an understandable awkwardness that can arise during discussions of simulated sex and nudity. Sometimes actors are damaged in that process or are exacerbating trauma that they’ve already experienced. Intimacy directing is expanding our ideas of what is acceptable, what is healthy, what is required for the profession—we can treat people like people and not just like props.

It’s great that as a society, we are moving in a direction where that’s becoming more of a concern now.

In the past, we trained actors from the beginning that they’re not allowed to say “no,” that the only acceptable answer is “yes.” But if you look at the changes in society and education, even in preschools now, there is more talk about the fact that not everywhere on someone’s body is okay to touch—that you actually have to ask. Or that it’s not a healthy idea to force kids to kiss a seldom-seen relative, for example—it’s a confusing message to send that we only have agency over our own bodies sometimes, but that at other times it’s perfectly normal to be forced to do something that falls into the large spectrum of what could be considered intimate touch. The more that happens in young people’s lives, I think, the more that that will happen by the time people in middle school or high school are being introduced to the theatre.

What is your intimacy directing process like?

Ideally, I would have a script so that I can read it, and have conversations with whomever the creators are—whether that’d be the director or if there’s a living playwright that we are in collaboration with—so we can come up with at least some of what we’re thinking ahead of time. That way we can include known moments in the casting process, being upfront and clear with the actors so that they can make informed decisions about whether to accept the role. Of course, theatre and film are two of the most collaborative disciplines there are, so there will definitely be changes and discoveries throughout the process; but even then it’s not a one-sided conversation, and the actor’s voice needs to be included and considered. Since I’m sometimes brought on after casting has already happened, I usually want to be at the first rehearsal to be able to introduce myself and to have conversations with actors, hearing any questions or concerns they have from reading the material, and taking that back to the director, the costume designer, the stage manager, and whatever other personnel needs to know that information. I usually lead exercises early in the process, introducing some of the new protocols that largely haven’t been articulated in rehearsal rooms, whether that’s in an actor-training program or a professional production. But someday this won’t be so necessary as more directors, stage managers, and actors will have worked with an intimacy director before, and there is a widespread understanding and acceptance of working with consent. For example, I don’t need to do any of that as a Fight Director, because people are used to a specialist being brought in to choreograph fisticuffs or swordplay in order to keep people safe. Right now, we’re still introducing this shift regarding Intimacy Direction, but it’s encouraging because it’s changing so rapidly, and I hope it won’t be long before there’s less of a need to start from ground zero, and that more personnel already know what to expect.