Updated: Mar 21
Romance in Acting and Keeping Artists Safe
by Joanne Roberts
"Do you ever, like, have to kiss someone?"
It's the question that I always get asked when someone finds out I'm an actor, usually followed by: "Is it gross?" "Is it sexy?"
Acting is a fictional representation of life. It explores connection and disconnection between souls, the highs and lows, and every type of relationship under the sun - including romantic relationships. As actors, it's our responsibility to bring these stories to life for an audience to experience, and inevitably in an actor's career it means simulating an emotional relationship with a scene partner.
Let me answer those burning questions right now. Yep, I've kissed a lot of people. No, it's not sexy, at all. What you don't see as you watch your favourite on-screen couple making out is the dozens of people scrutinizing their every move. A camera pointing in their direction. Hot lights beating down on them. Make up getting smeared and reapplied after each take. Sound sexy to you? No. So why do we do it then?
This is my job. Acting is a job.
Like any other industry, there are great bosses to work with and some that are not-so-great, and they make for both wonderful and horrible experiences on set. My hopes when I walk into a production is that I am fully aware of what's going on with my character and concerns are heard. This is especially true when there are amorous scenes involved. Unfortunately, I cannot say that this is always the case.
The best experiences I've had with romantic scenes are the ones where the director divulges everything that's required of me before casting is finalized. I have a chance to decline. I have read the script, I know who I'm being physically intimate with, and I know for what purpose it serves the story. During the rehearsal process I am able to ask every question I have. We clarify the movements. I discuss with the director and my scene partner in detail what is going to happen. At any opportunity I have a chance to vocalize my comfort level without being penalized. Alternatives are willing to be discussed. And the most important part - once we finalize what's going to happen, nothing changes from that point forward. Every take, every show, no matter how the rest of the scenes evolve, the physical connection remains the same unless we go through the exact same process of discussion and finalization of all changes. Safety, both physically and spiritually, remains the number one priority for everyone involved.
The worst experience I've had was the polar opposite. I had no idea what was required of me before I accepted my role because I didn't have a script to reference. No one told me about the level of intimacy needed for this project. The directions at rehearsal did not prepare me. The intimacy was quickly finalized but never touched on again, partly because my scene partner was unprofessional and never submitted to fight calls. As a result, as each show went on I was left vulnerable to be taken advantage of. A scripted kiss grew more intense and changed with each presentation, leaving me feeling very damaged after the production was over. Though many people could have spoken up in the defence of the artists, the blame cannot be placed anywhere but at the top of this production: this was poor directing at its finest. While absolutely no one wants the scene to suffer, if the artistic team at all feels unsafe and there are no alternatives or compromises available, then it must.
Because of so many artists coming forward with horror stories about on-screen or on-stage romance gone awry, the industry is calling for professionals to help ensure situations like mine are no longer commonplace. Intimacy coaches are becoming more present to guide scene partners (and sometimes directors) through difficult staging with the goal of ensuring the art doesn't suffer, but more importantly, that everyone involved feels safe and respected. In addition to complete transparency between the production team and the actors, it is my opinion that intimacy coaches should become industry standard. When approaching any script involving physical intimacy, intimacy coaching should be a necessary part of the budget. Low to no budget productions and companies may not be able to afford professional intimacy coaching, and that is a struggle that many artists face with budgetary restrictions. However, ensuring the safety of the entire team cannot be valued in currency. When intimacy coaching is unavailable it is still the responsibility of the production to guarantee that safety and respect are held in the highest regard. There needs to be absolute transparency that begins at the first casting call. There needs to be open discussion without penalization, which includes a willingness to discuss alternatives and compromises. There needs to be set choreography. And finally, there needs to be mutual respect between the entire team.
This is a job. And should therefore be held to the same standards of safety as any other profession.
Joanne Roberts is a multilingual Canadian actress best known for originating the role of Janelle in the Evie nominated co-production of Que faire d'Albert/What To Do With Albert. She is also a producer for Ode Productions, and is a co-founder for the Winnipeg theatre company, Wonderful and Meatballs.