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Sir Ian McKellen: Intimacy co-ordinators spoil the ‘purity’ of theatre

Sir Ian, 83, tells Poet Laureate that he has a ‘bit of beef’ with growing number of backstage roles while many actors are hired precariously

Sir Ian McKellen claims that some of the technical staff involved in productions do not, themselves, know what their role is CREDIT: David M. Benett/Getty Images Europe

Sir Ian McKellen has questioned the need for intimacy directors in the theatre, saying that in his day such things would have “taken care of themselves”.

In decades past, the actor said, a director would be responsible for all aspects of a production, including intimate scenes between the actors. They would also oversee the casting, lighting and scenery.

Now, the number of technical roles involved in putting on a play can outnumber the actors performing in it, Sir Ian said.

Sir Ian, 83, was reflecting on the changes he has seen in the industry since beginning his career in repertory theatre more than 60 years ago.

‘Why can’t it be the director?’

“There have been many changes, not always for the better,” he said in an interview with Simon Armitage, the Poet Laureate.

“Look at the back of a theatre programme now and see that the director has got an assistant director and an associate director and something called a dramaturg. I don’t know what dramaturgs actually do; I’ve asked many of them what they do and they’re not too clear themselves. However, they exist.

“Then there’s the lighting designer and then there’s the sound designer and then there’s the dialect coach. These were all, in the past, not needed because people got on with [it] by themselves.

“The latest is the intimacy co-ordinator. This isn’t yet mandatory, but I can imagine there are situations when you have to be careful and people find it difficult to be intimate, and therefore a co-ordinator is just the thing.

“But why can’t it be the director who does that? Why has it got to be somebody who’s been trained in how to do it?

“This has been a huge change and it’s a little bit of beef for me, because with all these names of people doing all these jobs which would previously seem to have taken care of themselves, you won’t see any actors other than those you see in the play that night because they’re not permanently employed,” said Sir Ian, speaking on The Poet Laureate Has Gone To His Shed.

Sir Ian said he preferred the “purity” of a production in which there are “as few people as possible getting in the way”.

But Yarit Dor, a leading intimacy director in theatre, suggested that Sir Ian might be pleasantly surprised if he worked with someone like her.

“If he has a chance to do a play with an intimacy director he might see the benefits,” said Dor, saying that the role is welcomed by actors and directors alike.

“I know a lot of directors who have been in showbusiness for a long time and who have sounded very uncomfortable asking actors to do something that is quite vulnerable.

“They find it freeing to have these scenes handled by someone whose sole role is to look at the actors’ comfort levels and to create a safe protocol; to check with the costume departments about modesty garments.

“It has allowed directors to be much more straightforward and truthful about the levels of nudity or physical contact that they would like.

“Having that third person in the conversation also changes the power dynamic. Actors want to impress or to be considered for the next project and sometimes they say yes to things they might not feel comfortable with.”


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