Inquirer Super

Meet Ita O’Brien, Sex Education’s intimacy coordinator

By Pam Pastor
01/26/20 5:00 AM

Ita O’Brien’s work started long “before Weinstein.”

She drops the phrase “before Weinstein” like everyone is supposed to know what it means and everyone with any interest in show business actually does: that was the world before accusations of three decades of sexual harassment against the Hollywood mogul finally surfaced; before the birth of #MeToo, the worldwide movement against sexual assault.

O’Brien, who trained as a dancer, has a master’s in movement studies and works as a movement director, didn’t plan on becoming an intimacy coordinator—someone who coaches actors and filmmakers through sex scenes for stage and screen. It is a role O’Brien pioneered as she worked on her own material exploring the perspective of a perpetrator or abuser. “I knew that I needed to put in place practices and processes to keep my actors safe to help them explore that dynamic in a really healthy way,” she said.

Soon, she was teaching her on-set guidelines at Mountview Academy of Theatre Arts, one of the leading drama schools in the U.K. “That was in April 2015, and by the time Weinstein happened, I had already brought together the guidelines and subsequently, the role the intimacy coordinator has come from that. But, yes, it certainly wasn’t my intention and it’s incredible that this is where I’ve ended up.”

Before Weinstein

Before Weinstein, said O’Brien, she was teaching drama students how to talk to directors about intimate content. “I would tell them, you raise the subject and go, ‘How are you going rehearse this?’ And typically student actors were saying to me, ‘But how can I, you know, straight off drama school?’ And I go, ‘Uh-uh, you’re a professional, the directors are professionals, you’re all professionals in service of creating a really good piece of work. So shift that dynamic.”

And if the director had no plans to rehearse it and would leave the actors to figure it out themselves, she encouraged them to use her guidelines. “They’ll be able to say, ‘Look, here’s a structure that’s going to allow me to bring the best of my artistry as an actor to the intimate content.’ So that’s what I was teaching, but I knew that’s going to be tough. But with Weinstein happening, and then therefore, the whole of the industry going, ‘We’ve got to do better,’ suddenly it was invited, and that’s what was incredible.”

“Sex Education” was the first television project to hire O’Brien as a intimacy coordinator—it was a revolutionary and fitting move by a show that espouses openness and consent when it comes to sex. “She’s a very good part of the team. It really helped, it opened up conversations with the actors,” director and executive producer Ben Taylor told Super before the first season started streaming.

In service of the writing

Laurie Nunn, the show’s writer and creator, added, “It was important particularly in this climate to know that everybody felt safe and secure and that if there was a problem, they could raise it. I think it’s the way forward.”

Ita at work

O’Brien loved working on the show. “It was an absolute pleasure and privilege and delight to be invited and to work with Ben Taylor and Jon Jennings and this whole amazing cast.”

In a show like “Sex Education,” there is an abundance of intimate scenes and to get the young cast members ready, O’Brien begins with open communication and transparency. “That’s the first thing. Nothing’s hidden, nothing’s left to the last minute, there’s clear communication talking with the director and making sure the director’s vision is served. Everybody’s in service of the writing, and that’s what’s brilliant with Laurie’s writing. She really writes the intimate content clearly. We’re looking at why that scene is there, how it serves that characters’ storyline… all of that work is done in talking to them before we even get to set.”

Global training

She asks the actors these questions: “What are you happy with? What are your concerns? What are you worried about? What’s a no for you?”

“Once that preparation is done it means that we can come on set and everybody knows what’s going to happen and everybody knows how we’re going to work and that means that we can really work efficiently, quickly with freedom to really create good scenes.”

She stresses how essential “agreement and consent of touch” is. “The process allows us to choreograph the intimate content clearly to allow everybody to be professional, serve character, serve storytelling. It means that everybody knows that they’re working professionally, nothing’s going to be asked of them beyond what they’re happy with, and then it means that they can be free as the actor to really serve character. That process was trusted and that meant that we were able to, as you can see, create exciting moments of intimacy.”

She recalls one of her favorite memories from the set. “I was really proud of the fight into the kiss with Ncuti and Connor. I really loved working in conjunction with the stunt coordinator because we had that fight going into the intimacy. I was really delighted, then that that kiss was nominated for one of the top 10 kisses of the year.”

Learning never stops

The very first scene from the first episode of season one is also memorable for O’Brien. “Working with Aimee Lou (Wood, who plays Aimee Gibbs) was just gorgeous. That very first scene, full on, isn’t it? But everybody knowing and being really empowered with not only what that scene was saying for the characters’ storyline, but also knowing where it’s placed within the whole production, knowing it’s the very first 30 seconds people were going to see… it was gorgeous, it was great.”

In season two, O’Brien was the overseer but she shared her intimacy coordinator work with someone from her team. “That’s joyous in itself,” she said. “A lot in this series were male gay exploration and he did most of those which was really superb. The masturbation scene with Ola and Otis was great, the comic timing. I created the structure but then they they lifted it to another realm. Watching their skill as actors was just really fantastic.”

Today, O’Brien trains other intimacy coordinators and she’s had people come from all over the world—New Zealand, Australia, Finland, Germany, Canada, LA, New York, South Africa—to learn from her. “I now have about 20 practitioners around the world who I’m mentoring… we absolutely need more.”

Demand is there

There’s a growing demand for intimacy coordinators now, said O’Brien. “This autumn has just been mad. I obviously can’t do everything, there’s some days that I’ve had my practitioners on five different productions on the same day.”

For her and her team, the learning never stops. “We share all our experiences and write that back into our processes. The role is developing.”

We had to ask—what can non-actors learn from an intimacy coordinator? O’Brien said, “I think always open communication is the baseline. If you communicate openly with your intimate partners, it’s always the best. It’s not always easy, is it? But be able to ask for what you want, be able to say no to what you don’t want. It can be challenging but if you have open communication then that leads to healthy relationships and then would allow you to to healthy expressions of your intimate loving of your partners.”