Many theater productions and films in the past few years have added a person on set beyond the cast and crew: an intimacy coordinator.
This third-party advocate creates a “safe space” during moments of intimate physical contact, emotionally triggering scenes, and generally, anything that makes someone uncomfortable.
The profession initially began as a corollary to those who choreograph fights, but instead of working on scenes with violence, they would come in during scenes with nudity or sexual simulation. It was sparked by a litany of Hollywood scandals that caused women to push back against rampant sexual aggression in the industry, whether that meant being coerced into wearing nothing but lingerie in front of the entire crew when unnecessary to sexual assault.
“The rise of the intimacy movement came hand-in-hand with the rise of the ‘Me Too’ movement,” says Monica Sampson, a local actor, director, and intimacy coordinator. “My job as the intimacy coordinator is to be a liaison between the director’s vision and the actor’s boundaries.”
She was introduced to the profession in 2018 while training at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London and says anyone who’s ever watched the steamy series Bridgerton has seen the work of an intimacy coordinator. But the role has evolved to encompass a much broader responsibility.
According to SAG-AFTRA, the labor union representing about 160,000 people in entertainment and media, “intimacy is anything an actor deems as intimate,” Sampson says. “For one actor, prolonged eye contact can be intimate. It doesn’t always have to be simulated sex to be intimate.”
And even if an actor feels comfortable, she adds, an intimacy coordinator can be helpful for the director, set designer, or wardrobe or prop person. Sampson has worked on not-yet-released feature films as well as with various local theater companies.
She’s been the resident intimacy coordinator with Stray Cat Theatre since September 2021 and is now working on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play Fairview, a Stray Cat Theatre production at Tempe Center for the Arts, which deals starkly with racism. The Black cast members can’t simply leave that at the door when they’re no longer in character, so she helps them with ways to acknowledge the trauma and mitigate it temporarily so they can perform.
“When I step out of here, I’m still that Black man in a racist society,” says Eric Banks, who plays Dayton. “And I see it every day ... We’re already looked at as these aggressive animals who are not intelligent and have no common sense.”
Dayna Donovan, who plays Jasmine, adds, "It’s harder as a Black person, because we go back out in the world and we experience the same things we experience in here.”
Banks, Donovan, and fellow actor Lydia Corbin, who plays Beverly, say Sampson is a great advocate for anyone who’s triggered on set. For example, she’ll stop a rehearsal if someone isn’t feeling safe, or she’ll act as a liaison if someone encounters a microaggression.
“It has been interesting because I never thought of intimacy outside of touching or the kissing we’re going to be doing,” Corbin says. “It’s more than just a physical touch. There’s other things that can trigger emotions that we can talk to Monica about.”
Sampson gives the cast tools like exercises for breathing, mindfulness, and cooldown to help separate themselves from the character. Unlike Method acting, which urges actors to fully immerse themselves in the character to be believable, intimacy coordinators help actors maintain a healthy separation.
For example, what if a character has an eating disorder? They certainly don’t want to truly experience that.
“Our job is to help actors empathize with the story instead of taking on that pain,” Sampson explains. “Your body has a very difficult time assessing when you’re actually in pain or when you’re playing pain. We help so their body is able to decompress at the end of the day from feeling these very heavy things, and they’re able to go back into being themselves.”
Stray Cat Theatre founder Ron May brought Sampson in during the production of La Ruta in 2022, which was based on the true story of women who were murdered en route to their factory jobs in Mexico. Six young Latina women played the roles, and the play included a sexually violent scene that Sampson helped with.
“There was a sense of safety they all had, a trust that was established,” May says.
With Fairview, he notes, Sampson helps with making everyone more sensitive to each other’s triggers and learning how to avoid microaggressions in the first place.
“You can’t control what someone else has been through,” May explains. “You can’t prescribe that someone needs to deal with something the exact same way you do when they’ve had a different life experience.”
So how does someone become an intimacy coordinator? Sampson has taken online courses through Principal Intimacy out of Canada, which is one of the few accredited by SAG-AFTRA. It outlines standards and protocols for the profession and allows them to join the union.
Online, SAG-AFTRA has 69 intimacy coordinators on its registry list and 11 more on its pre-registry list, most of whom are in the U.S. but also Canada, Europe, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.
“This is the new direction the entire industry worldwide is headed in,” Sampson says, adding that the most recent intimacy conference was in Berlin.
She notes that some of the training programs are selective about who they accept. “They’re looking for people who are genuinely invested in this because they care about changing this industry for the better,” Sampson says.
The rise of intimacy coordinators is one of the good things that evolved out of the pandemic when theaters were closed and the industry was able to take a step back, May says. “With more conversation, it came about that pretty much every actor in every room felt uncared for when it came to intimacy when it came to emotional protection.”
He adds, “We got to take stock of what we all needed to fix and this was one of the more immediate things to tackle. It’s a huge paradigm shift.”
Fairview by Stray Cat Theatre runs through May 6 at Tempe Center for the Arts, 700 West Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe. Tickets are $12 to 30 and are available online.