When it’s your job to act out an orgy, these theater pros can help

Eli Lynn acted out an orgy for the first time when they were just 19 years old.

In a Shenandoah University production of The Wild Party, the then-sophomore had to perform simulated sex acts with a senior. Lynn, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls the whole scene being an uncomfortable mess.

“I wasn’t sexually active at the time, so I just sort of hovered over and wiggled and tried not to touch her,” said Lynn, now a 29-year-old theater professional in Philadelphia. “I literally had no idea what we even could have been simulating.”

Inexperienced young actresses often report getting roped into “creepy” nude scenes. Actors in the French film Blue is the Warmest Color were forced to spend 10 “humiliating” days shooting a sex scene. A few years ago, it was revealed that the 1972 movie Last Tango in Paris included a graphic rape scene filmed without an actor’s consent.

“Now looking back I’m like, that was borderline harassment,” Lynn said, referring to a different experience during rehearsals for that college play. “But it was never discussed.”

Lynn now helps others handle that kind of sketchy situation as an “intimacy director.” The emerging field trains theater folks to choreograph romantic scenes. The goal is making sex scenes even sexier, while ensuring actors aren’t having their consent violated on stage.

Of just 23 certified intimacy directors in the entire world, two are Philadelphians: Lynn and West Philly theater pro Colleen Hughes. Their healthy romance work was on display recently at several Fringe Festival productions.

By opening a dialogue, advocates say intimacy direction makes the entire production more comfortable for everyone involved.

“It creates a framework for actors to explore within, and they’ll feel more empowered,” said Kathryn MacMillan, a freelance director in Philly. “You’ll get hotter, better, more romantic moments out of it.”

Intimacy director Eli Lynn works with actors at a University of Illinois intensive

Intimacy Directors International / Hoemann

There are five pillars to intimacy direction:

  1. Context: You’ve got to understand the story before you try to plan out the sex scenes.
  2. Consent: What’s everyone comfortable with? Setting boundaries is a must.
  3. Communication: Open conversation, frequent check-ins and an avenue for reporting harassment should it occur.
  4. Choreography: Each intimate scene has to be thoroughly planned out.
  5. Closure: If the intimacy is really intense, Lynn said, “you don’t want to carry that around all day.”

The framework isn’t reserved for raunchy scenes with obvious intercourse. Intimacy can range from a kiss to a coordinated group sex scene with several actors involved.

The hardest part, Hughes said, is what the experts call “holding the room.” At the end of the day, her primary responsibility is to advocate on behalf of the actors. That requires constantly monitoring their feelings during each rehearsal.

Challenges included, the profession feels revolutionary to Lynn. The West Philly resident said they’ve observed that when actors feel safe, they perform a whole lot sexier.

“This is electrifying these scenes,” Lynn said. “It just really helps actors be able to squeeze all the juice, safely, out of these scenes that were previously being ignored.”

The Intimacy Directors International certification was only developed three years ago, one reason it’s not yet a widespread practice.

Another is the intensive training. There are one-off classes you can take if you’re interested, but to get serious about it, you have to apply (with references!) to a nine-day workshop. Then, you apply again to an 18-month apprenticeship program, during which time you shadow someone who already has the job. If you make it through all that, you have to be invited to apply to actually be an intimacy director.

“I think sometimes people are turned off a little bit by the knowledge that it’s going to take a long time,” Lynn said. “You have to devote a huge part of your life to this.”

Even if you get through the certification, there’s no guarantee you’ll get a job. So far, intimacy direction isn’t all that common. And some directors are resistant to the growing field, assuming it’ll be too costly, and will muddy up their artistic vision.

Still, Philly’s already-certified intimacy directors are optimistic their field will continue to grow. Some local directors already say they can’t live without it.

“At any time that there’s a kiss or an embrace, I’ve always been like, this feels awkward,” said freelance director MacMillan. “When is the right time when you trust each other? It’s always felt weird to be the person who’s in charge of saying when.”