The Belfast-based movement master wants to normalise love scene coordinators in productions.
Choreographer Paula O’Reilly has moved from overseeing dance moves to helping arrange sex scenes.
The Belfast-based intimacy coach/intimate scenes coordinator originally trained as a dancer, but her background, she says, isn’t totally straightforward.
“It came about after I had worked as movement director on an intimate scene in a production I was working on at the end of 2019, just before the pandemic,” she explains.
“It involved a man and a woman, two professional actors, but they had totally different expectations about how willing they were to do different things.”
It became, she says, “an immensely unhappy experience”, which it shouldn’t have been.
“That set me thinking — it wasn’t a gender issue or problem.”
She says it was more about a breakdown between the performers about how they communicated and how far they wanted to go in the love scene.
Paula says later that it’s important for performers to take a step back from what is, after all, a job, but, crucially, they need to feel in control of intimate scenes.
“It’s important to keep yourself detached from your work, but you should be able to say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’” And, of course, to have your view respected.
Her job is also about support and allowing actors to draw a line — in effect, to just say no.
“That isn’t always easy, as we’ve seen in Hollywood revelations about [film producer] Harvey Weinstein and so on. There’s real pressure,” she admits.
In fact, intimacy coordination as a profession — and Paula (36) describes herself as a social intimacy coordinator — emerged on the back of the #MeToo movement.
The role ensures the wellbeing of performers involved in simulated sex scenes or scenes involving intimate content.
Focusing on respect between the sexes, it has grown fast, indicating there’s a need for this work — a fact proven by news that the Royal Opera House in London was appointing somebody in the role for the first time, while working on Handel’s 18th-century work Theodora.
The opera has significant sensitive content, and indeed intimacy, as it’s about a Christian martyr forced into prostitution who is raped before being executed by the Romans.
The aim of an intimacy coordinator is to make the performers feel comfortable and Ita O’Brien, who got the job and is a pioneer in this work, has good experience, with productions such as TV hit Normal People under her belt.
So how does this new role actually work?
“My job is to implement best practice,” explains Paula, who believes intimacy coordinators are an integral part of the crew.
That means reassuring everybody on set about dignity. And those involved may not want a whole team eyeballing what’s going on, so sometimes numbers are reduced. It also means everybody knowing what they’re doing.
“You’re choreographing the movement so everybody knows whose hand goes where,” she continues.
You have to plan scenes, and while there may be room to explore ideas in a more spontaneous way in rehearsal, that really doesn’t work when it comes to love scenes on screen or stage.
Paula adds that language is also important in keeping things professional.
“We use the proper terms for private parts. You’re not going to say to someone, ‘Your d*** shouldn’t be there.’”
After watching sex education material online, Paula was about to train when Covid struck.
“I took courses online and will do more training. I’m still at the start of my profession.”
Her varied CV has helped. The coordinator, originally from Kildare, has worked in theatre and comedy, has toured the United States and boasts a variety of dance roles in her background, all of which make movement direction a natural skill in her armoury.
She choreographed hit shows such as Roddy Doyle’s stage adaptation of his classic novel — and later cult film — The Snapper.
Most recently, she has been working with pioneering Kabosh Theatre Company on its play Callings, which toured after its premiere at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast in February.
Last year, she worked with Kabosh on The Shedding Of Skin, a work that explores women as a “tool of war”.
Callings focuses on the experience of gay men and women in Northern Ireland in the 1970s who relied on a pioneering helpline, Cara-Friend.
There is some gay coupling and a tender kiss that marks the start of a touching but troubled love story.
“It’s important that the conversation, as the actors rehearse, is kept open, upfront,” says Paula.
“I did some movement direction on the kiss and also with the scenes in the shadows.”
Issues in explicit heterosexual or homosexual sex scenes are unsurprisingly the same. Paula reveals she’s been enjoying the original exploits of Sarah Jessica Parker as Carrie and Chris Noth as Mr Big in Candace Bushell’s hit book-turned-HBO TV series Sex And The City, which made her think about her new role.
“I’ve just rewatched Sex And The City and, in terms of on-set behaviour nowadays, it’s quite problematic.”
She reveals she watched it alongside her baby boy, four-month-old Sonny.
“We can’t look at it through today’s eyes. Hindsight makes things different. They never had an intimacy coordinator then.”
She adds that there’s a sense of inequality in the original portrayal of grown-up male-female relationships, with the women appearing as men pleasers.
A good intimacy coordinator acts as a kind of mediator between the actors, the director or producer and their agents.
She explains: “An agent may say it’s up to the actor to do what they want. So say the show wants full-frontal nudity, the actor may not be happy with that but will feel he or she has to do it.”
The intimacy coordinator, however, can ensure the actor is really comfortable with what they’re being asked to do.
As Paula points out, she is still training and gaining experience in what is a new, evolving profession.
Performers will be glad there’s somebody on their side when it comes to the close-up and personal aspect of their job.