December 2020 – January 2021

The Nation Reviewed

Intimacy on set

By Jenny Valentish
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
Productions now hire advisers to help performers navigate intimate and violent scenes

Scrutinising the intertwined couple, Michala Banas pulled out her phone and opened a karma sutra app. “So, when you say ‘from behind’ ”, she said, “let’s have a look at all the options.”

In November 2019, Banas was called to a rehearsal of Opera Australia’s Faust at the Arts Centre Melbourne, where – under a bank of fluorescent lights – 22 ballet dancers were workshopping an interpretation of the “Walpurgis Night” scene. The finished performance would later be described in the media as either an “orgy” or “rape”, and as “frenzied”, “diabolical”, “brutal” and bringing “gasps from the audience”.

As an intimacy coordinator, Banas is called on to consult cast and crew to ensure clarity and consent is in place around intimate scenes. In a complex scenario such as in Faust, she’ll collaborate with the director, using tools such as the app or a wooden mannequin doll to demonstrate possibilities. On this particular day, she had an hour to dash from couple to couple and choreograph a position that both parties could comfortably hold for, say, 15 thrusts.

“I’m not going to assume just because you can lift your leg over your head that you consent to everything,” Banas says.

An intimacy coordinator may sound like a thoroughly American concept, but the idea germinated in many countries at once in the wake of #MeToo, and it was a British practitioner, Ita O’Brien, who was brought to Australia in 2018 by the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to train people locally. Now, accredited ICs have set up here as sole traders, including Banas, who is one of three professionals working under the umbrella of Intimacy Coordinators Australia. 

It’s not just sex scenes that an IC oversees. There might be scenes of graphic violence, or involving children – having to sit on the lap of an adult, for example – or older people being ill-treated in hospital. 

Banas, herself an actor and singer, is often employed by Melbourne Theatre Company and has worked on the TV series Wentworth and the forthcoming Netflix series Clickbait. She’s found that while there are still old-school attitudes in the industry of “the show must go on” (no matter how great an actor’s discomfort), generally the reaction from production companies has been one of relief. “It is an industry that’s resistant to change, but producers are mad-keen, even if it’s to tick a box and cover their arses,” she says.

The crux of her job is taking assumption off the table by having individual and group conversations about what a scene entails. This protects every party by allowing no room for misunderstanding, and, by being present on set, Banas can also keep an eye on the crew to make sure they themselves aren’t affected. “Let’s say it’s a rape scene,” she says. “There are bound to be people in that room that it could be triggering for.”

As well as recruiting O’Brien, the MEAA commissioned a 2017 survey about sexual harassment, assault and bullying in the Australian theatre industry, on the back of a dossier of testimonies that had been put together by actors Eryn Jean Norvill and Sophie Ross. It found that 40 per cent of respondents had experienced at least one form of sexual harassment at work. Norvill and Ross have since formed Safe Theatres Australia, which delivers workshops regarding consent and boundaries.

In France, the national film board recently made it mandatory that production companies with more than 250 staff are to have an in-house counsellor and every film set is required to have an on-site counsellor. In October, the board began conducting industry workshops to tackle sexual misconduct, and it plans to eventually train 9000 professionals working in film, TV and videogame production. 

In the United States, the Showtime series SMILF was cancelled amid allegations of sexual misconduct by its female creator and star, Frankie Shaw. Among the complaints, it was alleged that actor Samara Weaving was asked to do a nude sex scene with 40 minutes’ notice, despite a no-nudity clause in her contract. When Weaving protested, Shaw is alleged to have pulled off her own top and asked what the problem was. 

Banas had her own version of this kind of experience when she auditioned for a show and was kissed by another actor, despite it not being in the script. The male actor and the director had agreed that her reaction would be more “authentic” if they surprised her – which has awful echoes of Maria Schneider being “surprised” during the filming of Last Tango in Paris, when Marlon Brando and director Bernardo Bertolucci conspired to smear her with butter during an anal rape scene, so that she would appear genuinely humiliated. “It’s her fucking job to do that as an actor!” Banas explodes, at the idea the scene would require real-life indignity. “How dare you?” 

But she’s also careful to point out that for an IC it’s vital to not only have a dramaturgical brain but also to not confuse a job with a cause. An IC is not on-set to confront people or prosecute historic allegations of misconduct. “Some people are so hurt about how things have been handled in the past that they want to right the wrongs,” she says.

In the course of her work, Banas might have to workshop a way around one actor not wanting to kiss another on the mouth – a preference she thinks will increase in post-COVID times. “Working with the shoulders and neck can turn out to be much sexier than mashing their faces together,” she says. Or she might establish a “time-out” word, which could be discreetly used to mean anything from “I’m not comfortable” to “I’ve got cramp in my leg” to “Help, I’ve got an erection”. For scenes of sexual violence, Banas collaborates with stunt coordinators in what can be long and gruelling scenarios.

It’s likely that some actors will have mixed feelings about the benefit of intimacy coordinators, even when scenes are potentially traumatic. Actor Loene Carmen recalls playing Sallie-Anne Huckstepp in the 1995 TV miniseries Blue Murder, a real woman who was savagely murdered. Filmed at night in Centennial Park, the scenes portrayed Huckstepp being punched, throttled, dragged into a lake and held under water. Carmen had to appear to fight for her life in close-up, mid-shot, wide-shot and reverses, and was later stricken by pneumonia from the shoot.

Despite being provided no emotional preparation for the scene – “It was treated like any other, which is normal on film sets” – Carmen found her fellow actors Tony Martin and Damian Monk to be kind and solicitous. “I felt very protected,” she says. “It was all choreographed carefully, but it felt very real when we actually filmed it, because it was just the three of us then, and the brutal physicality of it was inescapable. We all got knocked about a bit and I know it was hard on them emotionally too.”

In Carmen’s experience, Australian crews tend to joke around to lighten a tense atmosphere, though after filming the Blue Murder scene, things were subdued. “I couldn’t stop shaking, and everyone was just very kind, offering cups of tea and biscuits, blankets.” 

Carmen says that while having an intimacy coordinator would make sense for scenes that require great vulnerability or physical exposure, particularly if there are inexperienced or young actors, or even extras, involved, it could also paradoxically disturb on-set intimacy. 

“There does have to be a vulnerability and a flexibility there,” she says. “I think it should be up to the actors, as having a stranger come in to oversee a delicate scene could honestly just heighten tension. Overthinking and choreographing scenes too much can work against authenticity and flow.”

Banas understands the reservation. “I know what it’s like to be an actor,” she says. “You’ve already got hair and makeup, someone putting a mark down by your feet, someone telling you to lift the cup with your left hand, not your right hand… I do get it, so I try not to be in their faces. But at the same time, you don’t give two actors a sword each and say, ‘Figure it out.’ Someone’s going to get hurt. You get in a stunt coordinator.” 

If anything, Banas is a little embarrassed that she’s been an actor for 35 years yet until recently hadn’t considered that there might be a better way to handle intimate content. 

“I’m not going to change the world as an actor,” she says, “but I might be able to make a positive shift in the industry.”

Jenny Valentish

Jenny Valentish is a journalist and novelist, and the author of Woman of Substances. Her latest book is Everything Harder Than Everyone Else.

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