The Weekend Read: Intimacy Co-ordinator Vanessa Coffey

“It provides a framework and a language”

Royal Conservatoire of Scotland acting lecturer Vanessa Coffey is Scotland’s first intimacy co-ordinator, a role that’s fast becoming one of the most talked-about in the entertainment industry. Here, she tells Linda Robertson about the importance of creating a safe on-set environment.

It’s a question often asked of actors… just how do you prepare for an intimate scene?

Whether on stage or screen, many will have encountered nudity or sexual content during the course of their careers. Yet, typically, actors are often left to navigate such scenes themselves, improvising or with an expectation to experiment.

Until now that is. Enter the intimacy coordinator, a role that’s fast gaining pace and prominence across the entertainment industry. In the space of just a few years, TV, film and theatre have responded to a global conversation about boundaries and best practice around staging sensitive scenes.

“A fight scene will be carefully choreographed to look realistic and keep the actor safe but there has been no such thing for a scene involving nudity or intimacy,” says Vanessa Coffey, an acting lecturer at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland and the country’s first intimacy coordinator. She’s also believed to be the first permanently employed in-house specialist in a UK drama school.

“Performers have previously been left to get on with those elements themselves, which can result in a poor scene, or worse, improper conduct.”

Earlier this year, US actors’ union SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists) published a ‘landmark’ document to regulate sex scenes. Standards and Protocols for the Use of Intimacy Coordinators provides a framework for the use of skilled intimacy coordinators professionals who help performers and productions navigate highly sensitive scenes that feature nudity and simulated sex throughout the entire production process.

“The role is becoming increasingly important and I hope that it becomes industry standard,” says Vanessa, who contributed to new guidelines, developed by Directors UK, for scenes featuring nudity and simulated sex the first of their kind in the UK.

“It has definitely sprung from the MeToo movement and the Times Up campaign, with actors saying, ‘actually, this is something we need to think about’.”

As well as advising on all intimate scenes in RCS productions, including the play San Diego (below) and opera Dead Man Walking, Vanessa recently worked on a teenage drama for Netflix and a Sky Original production.

A couple kiss in a scene from the play San Diego, staged at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Vanessa Coffey was the intimacy coordinator on set and in rehearsals.

Vanessa explains that intimacy choreography helps shape a scene that requires any kind of sensual proximity. Intimacy coordination may do the same, but is focused on liaising between all parties to ensure there is an explicit mutual understanding and agreement of what is required for the scene.

“It provides a framework and a language,” she says.

“It’s about having the conversation and agreeing literally what’s happening so that the actors can then put their authentic emotional response behind all of those technical things. It’s exactly the same as fight direction it’s all marked out and they know what the boundaries are and what they’re consenting to, instead of wondering ‘where is that person’s hand is going’.”

And this finely detailed approach also takes away actors’ anxiety about having to improvise: “What often happens for actors is that they default to their own sexual behaviour, which is very exposing and wouldn’t always translate to an audience.”

The role of intimacy coordinator was pioneered by American Alicia Rodis, a stunt performer and actor, who was hired by HBO to work on The Deuce, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal, and set in the porn industry in the early 1970s.

“The show was very intimate so Alicia came on board to help them craft the sexual scenes,” says Vanessa, who has also worked as a professional actor and movement director.

Vanessa’s official move into intimacy coordination began last year, with the RCS opera Dead Man Walking. Based on real-life events, the story centres on a Louisiana nun who becomes a spiritual advisor to a prisoner on Death Row. Vanessa choreographed the moments of intimacy and worked with the fight director to co-choreograph the production’s rape sequence.

A play with intimate scenes followed: “Two students came to me and said ‘we’ve worked with each other before and we’re really comfortable but we’d love you to come in and look at the scenes that have intimacy in them’.

“A lot of the time it was just naming what they were doing, like ‘you put your head above her vulva’, and calling body parts by their actual name because it just makes it more comfortable so that we’re not like ‘oh, then there’s the scene that’s got the ‘you know’.”

Rehearsals for intimate scenes are done in a closed theatre environment with only the necessary people there the actors, the director, the stage manager and Vanessa.

“Students are completely aware they can ask for this kind of assistance on productions and that they have the power as an actor to say ‘I’m not comfortable doing that so how else might we do the scene to still facilitate your vision of what that looks like?’”

Two couples on stage in a scene from the play Anatomy of a Suicide. Vanessa Coffey was the intimacy coordinator for this produciton.
BA Acting students in a scene from Anatomy of a Suicide

In October last year, Vanessa and Hilary Jones, lecturer in voice, presented Shifting the Landscape: Why Changing Actor Training Matters in Light of the #MeToo Movement at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Poland. They took students who talked about their experiences of working with Vanessa as an intimacy coordinator on Dead Man Walking.

Vanessa, who is originally from Sydney, Australia, was a corporate lawyer before she re-trained as an actor. She lectures in professional practice on the BA Acting programme and her experience as a working professional, educator, intimacy coordinator and movement director means she negotiates sympathetically between actors, directors, casting directors and crew.

“I’ve been asked if this work gets in the way of actors producing an authentic response but it does the opposite of that it makes them confident because everything is totally mapped out and results in a more realistic version of a scene.”

Find out more about Vanessa on her website

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