Intimacy director Sue Mythen from Wexford ensures the comfort and safety of actors during sex scenes in theatre and film, and says actors deliver more nuanced performances when they are given agency over the work they’re creating
I became an actor in the 1980s and worked for over 15 years with various theatre companies. Along the way I became more interested in physical storytelling so I went to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London and did a masters degree in movement for actors.
As part of that work we learned every element of physical storytelling and the non-verbal communication of acting. I went on to become a movement director and a movement teacher at The Lir Academy, TCD and then, after training with Intimacy for Stage and Screen, I began to work specifically on intimate content in theatre and film.
When I worked as an actor, I had to do work that demanded more intimate content. I was very lucky that I always trusted the people I worked with, and I also had a certain degree of agency.
It’s down to the power dynamics of who’s making the work and who’s in the scene with you. But if there is a certain power dynamic where the actor doesn’t have that freedom, then it can run into trouble.
Actors are trained to say ‘yes’ and step outside themselves into character and into situations that are not their habitual life — so how far can you push that within their comfort zone?
Intimacy coordinators have become an industry standard on film and TV productions where intimate scenes are required. The #MeToo movement certainly popularised the role of intimacy practitioners but, actually, this conversation started as far back as the early noughties.
It came into the academic world in 2006 with a thesis by a woman called Tonia Sina, who wrote her dissertation on her personal experience of being a performer and asking why there was a certain level of discomfort in some of the work she had been asked to do.
A year later, Vanessa Ewan, my teacher at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama, wrote a book on the training of actors in movement, and drew attention to the fact that certain risks were prominent in the making of intimate work. She drew parallels between working in fight direction and having the same kind of protocols around the creation of intimate work.
So this conversation has been happening in the arena of movement practitioners for quite some time but it wasn’t formalised into the protocol, and into the industry as much in a formal way, until post-#MeToo.
We have to remember that actors are at work, and the work we as intimacy practitioners do involves making their workplace safe. Of course, there were periods when actors didn’t have agency on set. For example, they might have been asked to make intimate content on an open set or to improvise the action without rehearsal. Thankfully, closed sets — which means any member of the crew who is not required specifically to be in the room is asked to leave — are now the norm. The actors know exactly who’s seeing them without clothes on or simulating intimate action and they have agency and choice in that.
There were also instances where actors were coerced or tricked into doing action for a surprise response — hopefully that never happens again.
Today, when I work on a production, whether in film or theatre, I meet the actors independently before they ever meet each other. Of course, they might have met each other in a different context such as a table read (a meeting in which cast and crew go over the script), but I like to get involved in a production as early as possible.
In an ideal world, I also like to have a conversation with the director to discuss the tone of the piece and to do a breakdown of the script. Actors can’t consent to something unless they know exactly what it is they are consenting to. They also need to know that consent is reversible at any time.
When I meet the actors independently, I ask are they happy with the script as it is. I then explain to them the protocols around consent and a little bit about how I will work with them.
I’ll also ask if there is anything that should be brought to light that will remain private to them but which I will know and which will mean they will never end up in a vulnerable position where something private, or something from their past, is brought up in the making of the work.
Yes, things may come up, but there are several check-ins before, during and after we make the content. Also, intimacy practitioners are trained in mental health first aid and we’re also trained in body work and non-verbal communication. So we can identify these non-verbal signals and if we see signs of upset or discomfort, we do a check-in and we have protocols in place where we can do a timeout or have a chat.
Can I tell when an actor is uncomfortable doing an intimate scene when I watch films and TV? Yes, I think I can. You can see the discomfort of the actors; you can see it in their eyes and you can see it in tiny little shadow movements over the surface of the body.
On the other hand, when you give actors agency in the creation of the work and in how they choose to work, it brings comfort (and repetition) — and then they have the freedom to act inside that. This allows them to make something that is more relaxed and in character, which has more detail and nuance.
I’m currently working on Good Sex, which is created by Dead Centre with Emilie Pine for the Dublin Theatre Festival. And it’s not like anything else I’ve ever worked on.
It’s a meditation on what intimacy actually means and it also explores the work of an intimacy director. The director, Ben Kidd, wanted to reveal some of the protocols behind the creation of theatre that are not normally seen.
What’s particularly interesting about this production is that we’ll be working with new actors each night. They can be in a state of the unknown — which is what they’ve signed up for — and yet they are never left in wonder as to what they have to do next.
With this production, we start off at the contract stage. We’ve itemised each of the actions that need to be performed (and, where possible, we worked an addendum into the actors’ contracts where we asked for consent on each and every action).
Each night we will craft the scene in terms of the architecture, the orientation and the power dynamic; the journey of the hands and the arms, whether it’s a contact- or non-contact kiss. It’s a road map and only after we move through it do we then begin to craft the scene, always mindful to work within the boundaries of the actors.
There has also been a lot of conversation about stage directions. Even though the stage direction might suggest that one character has more agency in the scene — for example, ‘he grabs her’ — how can you adapt or rewrite that so that there is no ambiguity and so that the actors have equal status in the making of the work?
Allowing actors to have agency in the work they are creating is really the foundation of our process. The action of the characters doesn’t always have to be comfortable or consensual, because it’s rooted in the emotional story, but the actors need to have equal agency in the creation of that.
And as long as the actors are considering and working within their boundaries, it opens up the possibility for more expression for the characters.”
As part of the Dublin Theatre Festival, Good Sex by Dead Centre with Emilie Pine runs at the Samuel Beckett Theatre, Dublin, from September 28 to October 2; dublintheatrefestival.ie
As told to Katie Byrne