A Conversation with Claire Warden, The First Broadway Credited Intimacy Director

by Howard Sherman
Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Slave Play.
Paul Alexander Nolan and Teyonah Parris in the New York Theatre Workshop production of Slave Play.
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In response to an observation that five years ago she wouldn’t have been having a conversation about intimacy direction, Claire Warden responds, “It didn’t exist five years ago, in this form.”

But intimacy direction has rapidly emerged as a distinct discipline on the creative teams of plays and musicals, and Warden has been at the forefront of that movement. She is the first person to have been credited as the intimacy director of a Broadway show, for Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune with Audra McDonald and Michael Shannon. She’s about to be the second person thusly credited, as Slave Play, first seen at New York Theatre Workshop, moves to Broadway.

Warden was an actor and fight director who says she first learned about intimacy direction when a friend sent her an article about Tonia Sina’s work on a production of Bakkhai at the Stratford Festival. “It was just one of those seminal life moments," says Warden. “I read the article and I just knew that’s what I was put on the earth to do. Not just the discipline, but that what this discipline needed was to be more.”

She reached out to Sina and her partner Alicia Rodis, who had just established Intimacy Directors International (IDI), and after what Warden describes as a series of “long, long conversations,” she was invited to join the team. While Sina and Rodis had already established the practice, Warden says, “We added what we thought were fundamental pillars of the work, we developed how to teach it. I brought a fair amount of information about working with actors with trauma, which is something I’d spent a fair amount of learning about at Shakespeare & Company.”

Warden noted perhaps the most immediate need in this new field, saying, “It’s about the education of the industry of what this is.” At the same time, Warden also makes clear that the field is being rapidly accepted, describing another need, saying, “It’s about comprehensive training opportunities for people that are interested. We’re at a point right now where demand is so vastly outweighing supply that we’re absolutely overwhelmed with the demand for intimacy directors and coordinators. But because it’s such a specialized skill, and it requires such a range of specific expertise and training, it takes a while to train someone in it. We’re not willing to compromise the quality of training.” This demand is not unique to theater, as IDI team members also work in television and film.

On the Intimacy Directors International website, intimacy direction is described as “the codified practice of choreographing moments of staged intimacy in order to create safe, repeatable, and effective storytelling.” The description goes on to say that the intimacy director is “an advocate for the ensemble and for each actor, takes responsibility for the emotional safety of the actors and anyone else in the rehearsal hall while they are present.”

Warden also noted some points when looking at pursuing the discipline of an intimacy director: "All of the IDI intimacy directors are mental health first-aid trained. You need diversity training, sensitivity training, implicit bias training, conflict and concern resolution. You need to be skilled in diplomacy and various styles of communication depending on what’s needed. And ideally some kind of training in trauma, support, or understanding of trauma in the body, because it does and will come up in the actors, and we need to know how to recognize it and support it and deal with it if it comes up to a point that’s unhealthy or debilitating to the actors."

Talking about her process on a production, Warden says her first conversation is with the director. “If they haven’t worked with an intimacy director before,” she relates, “it’s a good chance to introduce what the work is and how it supports them. I want to know how the director likes to work. I want to know their vision for this show, their thoughts about the stories we want to tell, if they have at that point before we start, actual ideas about how much we’re going to see or what, what’s the tone, what questions do they have, what are their concerns. So that I can really build an understanding of their work, so that I can work as collaboratively with them and support them as much as I can.”

She goes on to describe her interactions with the actors. “I have a conversation with all of the actors that are going to be involved in the intimacy and/or nudity, individual conversations. Again, sometimes this is to introduce what this work is and also to let them understand that my job is to be an advocate for them, to ensure that at all times they maintain agency over their body in what happens to it and what is shown, and that anything we do has to be enthusiastically consented to or we find another way. We’ll talk through their thoughts of what’s coming up for them, what we have in the script. Any things that they know right up front, ‘I’m okay with this, I’m not okay with this, I’m going to need this kind of support or these boundaries’.” Warden also works with the entire company, so that everyone understands the work and the protocols.
Warden working in rehearsal with actors Because the field of intimacy direction is so new, and there is no accrediting body or academic training program, one has to wonder whether it is still a work in progress. Warden says that she and her colleagues are still evolving the practice and learning as they work. But she notes, “The fundamentals of the discipline are fixed and have been tested again and again and again.” At the same time, they are actively working to teach the process, asking themselves, “How do I teach this thing that’s now just an instinct for me, that I’ve just figured out how to do? How do I distill it?”

Given that intimacy direction is not an academic discipline, but is rapidly being assimilated into university training programs, the question arises as to whether, beyond the academic leadership that is now bringing her and her colleagues in, she finds resistance among faculty whose own pedagogy and training did not include intimacy direction. She responds by saying the process for faculty is not very different than the process for students, specifically the understanding of power dynamics.

“That’s something we as intimacy directors need to have very strong knowledge of,” says Warden, “how power dynamics fundamentally compromise a person’s ability to consent, and the myriad of power dynamics that are in a faculty-student relationship in a training institution. They really need to understand that—and how to disrupt it and negate and work around the power dynamic that might be compromising the students’ ability in a faculty-student relationship, as well as student-student relationship. We’re really bringing that language and those tools and that space to them.”

Warden makes clear that as the field grows, there is work to be done, particularly in regards to racial diversity among practitioners. She says that IDI has a number of transgender and genderfluid intimacy directors and apprentices and is firmly declarative that the field has to be fully inclusive and diverse.

“What is really important for the world to know is this is not a gendered discipline,” notes Warden, “and just because you’re a woman does not mean that you’re better at it, or that you’re allowed to do it more than men. I, in fact, think it’s very important that men are seen to be doing this to show a model of a man that not only knows the right way but is teaching and creating it for others—the man is there as a steward and protector of consent.”

Asked how she defines success in her work, Warden says, “I think… When the actors, whether it’s in rehearsal or once we get to the performances, a kind of a light in their eyes and their bodies of, ‘Yeah! Let’s do this.’ When the scenes of intimacy are just as interesting and exciting to them as the other scenes in the play, as opposed to things like, ‘Oh god, here we go, it’s the making out scene.’  When I see them excel in their craft, to me it means that they feel confident enough and protected enough and free enough to do their job.”  

You can learn more about Intimacy Directors at https://www.teamidi.org