Perhaps you’ve heard the job title intimacy director bandied about over the last couple years but haven’t really understood what it means or what it’s about. For Santa Fe-based actor and intimacy director Zoe Burke, it’s an era of stage, film and television work that brings a new level of safety to intimate scenes between actors. Burke moved to Santa Fe three years ago and has been ensconced in the local theater scene since. You can find her performing as Phoebe in the Santa Fe Classic Theater’s production of As You Like It starting July 29, and you’ll find her answering questions about intimacy direction below. (Alex De Vore)
In a nutshell, what is an intimacy director?
An intimacy director is a movement specialist who works with actors to create choreography for moments of intimacy onstage so they’re safe, both physically and emotionally. This allows them to still tell a dynamic, character driven-story without worrying over the scene. People have been working on this since probably 2007 or 2008, and it really started picking up, and not at all coincidentally, with the #MeToo movement. Then, in 2017, in the film world, it became really prevalent with The Deuce on HBO. The actors requested Alicia Rodis to be their intimacy coordinator—for stage it’s “director,” for film it’s “coordinator. With that normalization on HBO, it started getting picked up.
There are a lot of programs for training. Theatrical Intimacy Education does a lot of work, and Intimacy Coordinators of Color tries to make everything accessible and equitable, especially for intimacy coordinators of color. Heartland Intimacy Design does it, too. It’s a lot of “Here’s the tech, study it, go work with the actors,” and then they give almost realtime feedback about how the work is going, how it needs to be.
I got into it because I had a really great experience in 2019 at the International Shakespeare Center Repertory Season. One of our directors brought in an intimacy director from Albuquerque named Sean Boyd, and he did a course with the class that was an absolute game changer. Instead of “Where do I put my hands?” we had that set choreography, and it freed us up to live as the characters in those moments. I was hooked and started seeking out training.
Why is this position so important at this point in time?
Historically, the performing arts have not always been the most consent-based practice. We have this culture of “Yes, and...” where people tend to agree to whatever the director wants them to do, whatever the director wants to hear, because they want to make sure they’re consistently hirable. That can be damaging and dangerous. This is something that frees the actors up to express their boundaries and what they are or aren’t comfortable with. The performances can be better, safer and braver.
Do you think these jobs will continue to spread throughout film, television and stage industries?
I absolutely do. I really think it’s going to kind of get the same standing that a fight director would have. You’d never ever tell actors to go punch each other and figure it out—it’s ridiculous, it’s dangerous. And for the most part, actors are excited. Any sort of lack of excitement comes from a misunderstanding of the field. A fight director will have almost all of a fight figured out before they step into the room, whereas an intimacy director does a lot of work actually with the actors. We’re asking them “How do you see this story? What’s your instinct? How do we see that in choreography?” All the actors who come in have horror stories—we all have horror stories, but the actors who have been resistant to intimacy direction have really come around. This isn’t somebody controlling vulnerable moments, it’s someone supporting them