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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Cover Story -

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

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