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  • Amanda Grupp

Dressing the Set with Empathy

What I hear from all of us is this pressure to say yes all the time and to override our instincts. But our job is to tune into our intuition and listen to our bodies and advocate for what we need. It’s hard to do when the tide is going in one direction.” — Marybeth Craig Gorman

While planning to film a feature film (HERO, for anyone who is interested), we knew a priority was to create a safe space for the cast and crew (professionals and students). The first day of film set orientation, we gathered the group of forty people into a large room, circled up some chairs, and went around the room to have everyone say their name and what they wish to learn from the experience of creating a film together.

An overwhelming number of people said they wanted to learn how to make a safe, comfortable environment for others. While this is not something the film industry is known for, we were excited to recognize that we were all in agreement.

Part of creating the culture we want to work in is leading by example. And that’s something that Marybeth Gorman Craig, an intimacy coordinator expert, does well. Production leadership brought Marybeth in to lead a workshop on how we want to operate as a team on set—with understanding and grace.

On a film set, intimacy coordinators help protect actors. On the set there is a lot of gear and at times, in the rush and high pressure of the moment, actors become gear—or at least inadvertently treated and moved around like gear. The coordinator helps actors and crew set boundaries that keep the humanity and empathy that makes films great in the filmmaking process itself.

This was an important precedent to start from pre-production. As Marybeth said, “when leaders feel like they’re doing their best, we assume that everybody knows we’re doing our best. If I have a space that feels safe to me, I feel like it feels safe for everyone.” However, that’s not always true. And that’s why it’s important to create the ability for cast and crew to be honest with each other, and leadership. Everyone has to honor that with an open curiosity throughout the project.

There is vulnerability that comes from saying, “I don’t know the answer” or “I don’t feel comfortable doing that.” Expressing that vulnerability builds trust. When you’re able to let someone in or delegate, it counter-intuitively creates connection with that person.

During the workshop, the entire team brainstormed what makes someone successful in a high pressure work environment (good communication, knowing their limits, go-getter), and why they might fail (burnout, lack of acknowledgement from leadership, imposter syndrome, not delegating, ineffective conflict resolution). Marybeth noted that, “We’re whole people and we need to bring in our whole selves. It’s a balance between our needs and how we deliver for the people we’re working with.” We don’t live, or work, in a vacuum and it’s a constant balance of how to show grace to yourself and others.

Part of this grace is the ability to say “no.”

Building Healthy Boundaries (and How to Communicate Them)

To practice saying “no,” Marybeth had the group play the yes game (ironic, I know). Standing in a circle, we would point at someone across the room and they would say, “yes.” That means we could take their spot. And then as the game progressed, we were allowed—and at times told—to say no. And that felt really different. When asked how it felt to say no, students said:

“It felt weird, like I wasn’t supposed to. It felt like I was letting someone down. It felt like they needed me.”

“I’m a very people pleasing type of person, so I wanted to dive in and say no because I had permission to say no. I wanted to experience it and realize it’s okay.”

And that’s something that we can all relate to. We have a lot of pressure to say “yes,” especially in stressful situations. Yet, we have to pause and listen to our instincts. Is this right? Is this safe? Am I okay with this?

"The Intimacy Coordinator Workshop was an amazing exploration into the simplicity of consent and boundaries. We often tend to overthink these two principles, however, when we boil it down, a direct, "yes," "no," or "I need a minute," is the most effective way of communicating within a group setting." — Kyla Little, Costume Designer

As with most things, it gets easier with time. By practicing saying no and even learning a codeword used by the Theatrical Intimacy Educators group—button—to highlight needing a boundary, we practiced saying no in a softer way. This practice connected the team, and by saying no we were able to open up to each other more. Students were more willing to say when they didn’t know something and we could have honest conversations about how topics in the script relate to contemporary conversations.

Only one week into pre-production with the entire team, it’s a powerful lesson to see how much people care about having a healthy environment. And it makes sense—when you spend 12 hours a day with people it matters that you treat each other well. Additionally, it matters that you treat yourself well. The intimacy coordination workshop changed our set. It opened our hearts and minds to create a foundation for a healthy, fun film set.

Marybeth came into intimacy coordination from her professional career in the acting world for 20+ years. Marybeth says, “I feel connected to intimacy coordinating more than I’ve ever felt connected to anything before. You learn how to work through conflict and advocate through uncomfortable situations. There is no world where it doesn’t collide. It carries over into other areas and I’m interested in the consent piece of it, which connects to the choreography piece of it that I love. The choreography piece excites me as a storyteller; there are many storytelling possibilities in focusing on a moment of staged intimacy rather than glossing over it because it’s awkward. When the choreography is done with informed consent, the performance is better. So, when the entire company is brought into the consent conversation, EVERYONE’s performance is better!”

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