NEW RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
As the film and theatre sectors wrestle with the #MeToo reckoning, a new campaign aims to protect actors cast in sex scenes. Rosemary Neill investigates
When actors are asked to perform stunts, sword fights or dance routines, they receive specialist training. But with sex scenes, says Ita O’Brien, the working assumption is that “everybody knows how to do it’’, so performers are often left to improvise, or buckle to the demands of “all-powerful” directors.
O’Brien is Britain’s leading “intimacy coordinator”, and in the post-Weinstein era her mission — applying a formal code of conduct to intimate and nude scenes in stage and screen productions — has taken on a new urgency. Traditionally, she says, most actors “had no rights as far as intimate scenes were concerned. There wasn’t any protocol or structure about how it was done, which left it at the discretion of the director.’’
She has worked with actors who agreed to partial nudity but ended up naked and simulating sex on camera because a director demanded this on a film set, where “every minute is money”. The theatre industry also presents risks for actors who perform sexualised or romantic scenes up to eight times a week. “I had a lady,’’ she says, “who said a new cast member came along and kissed her and stuck his tongue down her throat. It was supposed to be a slide of the hand down her back but he went on and grabbed her buttocks.’’
Now, at a time of heightened interest in sexual harassment in the entertainment industry, sex scenes in film and theatre are being closely scrutinised — and O’Brien is at the forefront of that change. She has worked with the BBC, Netflix and Amazon, and has spent the past month in Australia leading workshops on how to make intimate scenes more transparent and, the theory goes, harassment or distress.
A movement director and ex-dancer, she says “experienced” and “influential’’ Australian theatre and film figures have signed up for her workshops and seminars in Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Perth, which have been organised by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance’s Equity Foundation.
Her intimacy-on-set guidelines cover stage and screen auditions, rehearsals and performances, and address issues from kissing to genitalia coverings for nude scenes. The guidelines call for closed sets for sex scenes, banning nudity or simulated sex at auditions, and employing intimacy co-ordinators to talk through and “sculpt” sex scenes, gesture by less likely to lead to gesture, before they are performed. The protocols also state that theatre actors should be asked ahead of every performance if they are comfortable with their love scenes. “You do exactly the same thing with intimate content as you would a fight call; you have an intimacy call,’’ says O’Brien.
Has she encountered opposition? “Yes,’’ she admits, chuckling huskily. “I’ve had directors say: ‘I don’t want you coming in and taking over the moment of intimacy that’s the pinnacle of the love story.’ It’s not at all about taking over from the director. I’m there to offer a structure and a clear process.”
The drive to regulate intimacy on screen and stage is occurring against a highly charged backdrop, as the local theatre and screen indus- tries split — often along generational lines — over #MeToo-related reforms and allegations.
On one side of the divide are those who fear film and theatre are at risk of losing their sense of playfulness and sexual edge; or that some careers are being damaged unfairly by poorly tested allegations of misconduct. On the other are those who say artists’ so-called playfulness and lack of inhibition have been used to excuse abusive behaviours that would not be tolerated in other industries.
Sophie Mathisen, director of the For Film’s Sake Festival, which promotes women in film, says the #MeToo movement has exposed a “huge schism” between the culture industry’s gatekeepers — who she characterises as older, private-school educated and predominantly male — and younger people who work in the industry. She points out that older powerbrokers often dismiss younger arts workers concerned about harassment or bullying as “a bunch of whingers’’. She says of these intergenerational tensions: “My sense is that it’s going to get worse before it gets better.’’
O’Brien has also noticed a generational divide over the intimacy reforms she is championing, with younger actors more likely to be receptive to them. “Absolutely, there are people who just want to get on with it and do it their own way, and perceive the presence of an intimacy co-ordinator as interference, censorship or dulling down a sex scene,’’ she says.
Although those fears were understandable, “what you’re looking at is a clearer and more conscious rehearsal process, which creates freer and more passionate sex scenes’’.
Last year, an MEAA study found that 40 per cent of those surveyed had been sexually harassed in the live-performance industry, and