In her BAFTA acceptance speech for the breathtaking consent drama I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel thanked her intimacy coordinator, Ita O’Brien.
“I want to dedicate this award to the director of intimacy, Ita O’Brien. Thank you for your existence in our industry, for making the space safe. For creating physical, emotional and professional boundaries, so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power without being exploited or abused in the process.”Michaela Coel, 2021
So what are intimacy coordinators and why are they so important in exploring issues such as exploitation and abuse sensitively through art?
What is an intimacy coordinator?
Intimacy coordinators are staff members responsible for ensuring the wellbeing of actors participating in sex scenes or other intimate scenes in television, film and theatre.
Demand for intimacy coordinators grew in the industry after the the 2017 Harvey Weinstein scandal and the Me Too movement, which highlighted the routine nature of sexual harassment and misconduct in the industry.
Intimacy coordination comes under the umbrella of ‘choreography.’ However, the role is also about negotiating consent and communication between actors and directors. They protect actors’ boundaries, ensuring they feel safe and comfortable performing intimate scenes, while also helping directors execute their visions.
Who is Ita O’Brien?
Ita O’Brien is a British movement director and intimacy coordinator. She has worked for TV, film and theater and has also taught at some of Britain’s leading acting schools. O’Brien was the intimacy coordinator for Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You. She also worked as an intimacy coordinator on Sex Education, Gentleman Jack and Normal People. These programmes have all received praise for their sensitive and realistic portrayals of intimacy.
In addition to her work on film, TV and theater sets, she founded Intimacy on Set. Intimacy on Set is an organization that trains new intimacy coordinators under the Intimacy on Set Guidelines. O’Brien played a central role in creating the Intimacy on Set Guidelines. They are a list of best practice when working with intimacy, simulated sex scenes and nudity. The guidelines are increasingly becoming standard throughout the industry.
Why are intimacy coordinators important?
Intimacy coordinators are integral for a number of reasons. They communicate actors’ boundaries to directors so directors can then listen to and accommodate these boundaries. This makes sure that everyone on set feels heard, safe and comfortable, and that any intimate acts are consensual.
Intimacy coordinators help directors to portray intimacy sensitively and realistically on screen. This ensures that content is not harmful for viewers who have experienced sexual trauma. They are also important for making the working environment comfortable and safe for those who may have suffered sexual trauma. This could be actors or people who are working in other roles on the film, TV or theater set.
Intimacy coordinators create a safe space in which actors and directors can create art that tackles important themes such as exploitation, trauma and abuse of power. These are stories that should be told, but the storytellers must be protected in the process.