Manitoba's only intimacy director helps actors safely navigate 'dangerous work' of sexual scenes
Anyone who has regularly set foot into a Winnipeg theatre likely knows Sharon Bajer on sight. The Winnipeg-based actress has been a local stage mainstay since she graduated from Vancouver's Studio 58 in 1989 and came to Winnipeg to establish her career.
In this post-pandemic recovery phase of live theatre, she remains a reliable stage presence. Belying her disarming, good-humoured manner, she lately has been twice cast as villains on the stage, as the quietly calculating Cardinal Richelieu in Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre's The Three Musketeers, and the more brazenly fiendish Wicked Witch of the West in Rainbow Stage's summer production of The Wizard of Oz.
Lately, though, the Edmonton-born Bajer has been a decidedly more benign presence behind the scenes in both theatre, film and television production. She has been working as an intimacy co-ordinator, the only person in Manitoba trained for that specialty.
If a project requires nudity or contact of a sexual nature — including kissing — Bajer is there to make the process more comfortable for the actors, and indeed, for everyone.
She had her work cut out for her with the RMTC Warehouse production of Sexual Misconduct of the Middle Classes, playwright Hannah Moscovitch's frank examination of a fraught sexual relationship between charismatic professor Jon (Kevin Aichele) and his brilliant 19-year-old student Annie (Bailey Chin), including its aftermath.
The play, which runs at the Warehouse until March 18, covers 11 years, with the #MeToo movement compelling a sobering examination of the affair in the play's latter half.
Bajer has had to perform in sexually charged scenes herself: her work as a deranged puppeteer's lusty mom in the 2017 Warehouse comedy Hand to God comes to mind.
But her entry into intimacy work encompasses her larger skill set, including directing and writing (Burnin' Love, Molly's Veil and the upcoming vampire musical Afterlight, created with Duncan Cox.)
"To me, each thing feeds the other," Bajer said.
She first heard about intimacy work in 2016, coincident with the awareness that came with #MeToo, in which powerful figures such as producer Harvey Weinstein finally began to see consequences of the sexual abuse they wrought on vulnerable women for years.
That year, Bajer happened to be in Stratford, Ont., when she heard about intimacy work required in director Jillian Keiley's production of Euripedes' Bakkhai.
"It had all these orgy scenes and had tons of intimacy scenes, and [Jillian] was telling me that she hired an intimacy director … because, as a director, she felt uncomfortable staging those scenes.
"So she had put feelers out in the world: Is there someone … that does intimacy choreography?" Bajer said. "And she found this woman, Tonia Sina, in the States, who had been doing intimacy direction on productions all over the U.S."
Sina was part of a collective called Intimacy Directors International.
"They were just in the process of putting together an organized set of protocols, so they can train other intimacy directors," Bajer said. "They could see that in the future, there was going to be a real need for this kind of work in theatre, in film, on stage."
Bajer signed up as the only Canadian in a 10-day intensive on intimacy work, originally thinking it would help her work as a director.
"I had no idea that it would turn into a whole other stream of work."
Contemplating the "Rolodex" of her own personal experience, Bajer quickly saw the value of the work.
"It's all consent-based work.… You're providing advocacy for actors."
"Thinking back, when we just did intimacy scenes as actors, you didn't really question it. You would do whatever the director told you to do," Bajer said.
"There were grey areas. Lines could be crossed."
She said she knows of women who left acting because of "having a bad experience in an intimacy scene or with another actor they felt uncomfortable with. And at the end of that contract they just said: 'I'm out.'
"Once you start doing this work, you do hear lot of stories."
'I got a lot more kiss than I was expecting'
Sexual Misconduct director Kelly Thornton has stories herself.
"When I was in university, I remember I had to perform a kiss," Thornton, who is also RMTC's artistic director, recalled in an interview in the Warehouse lobby.
"And I got a lot more kiss than I was expecting to get. Because actors just came up thinking, well, that's what you do. You just throw yourself at that.
"But in reality, it's like choreography. It's technical."
Bajer, who is also a director, is "quite brilliant because she speaks very technically, but very much in terms of storytelling, and she makes it very safe to create very authentic-looking intimate moments between the actors," said Thornton.
"Boundaries need to be created to keep people safe."
Bailey Chin, who plays the role of Annie in the production, is appreciative of that sentiment. Still a University of Manitoba theatre student taking on her first major theatre role, Chin, 22, was excited to read Hannah Moscovitch's play when auditions were announced.
She also recognized that the role would require exposing herself in sexual situations.
"There was a bit of anxiety going into it," Chin said.
"But Sharon was incredible. I always felt safe, that I always knew that I always had someone I could talk to … free of judgment, free of consequence," she said.
"It can be really vulnerable and scary because with the people casting you, hiring you, there is this fear of being difficult to work with … and a lot of people have not spoken up about their comfort levels because they want to be hired again in the future," Chin said.
"It's amazing to know that, no matter what, my comfort and safety are prioritized, and if all of a sudden I didn't feel comfortable doing something, there was always a way to do it differently."
Kissing a co-worker
Intimacy work is equally important for male actors, according to Kevin Aichele, 50, who takes on the difficult role of Jon, a professor who plunges into an inappropriate affair with a much younger student.
"What other jobs do you go to where you kiss a co-worker?" Aichele said.
"I don't want any risk of anyone misinterpreting touch," he said. "It protects both people."
As a veteran of many musicals, Aichele embraces the word "choreography" when it comes to planning intimate scenes.
"You're in a situation where you just met this person, and you're trying to navigate," Aichele said. "It always feels a little mechanical — your hand on her waist and then on her shoulder, and then you're kissing.
"But having those clear steps makes it easier to adapt to it and make it comfortable."
Sex scenes 'awful to do': director
Bajer has worked extensively on movies and television shows where, from her own experience, intimacy work is even more necessary.
One of her most recent jobs in film was on the Farpoint Films production Wintertide (premiering on Super Channel in April). Local film director John Barnard, who made the sexy 2016 feature Menorca — about a soccer mom-turned shameless hedonist — was happy to have Bajer work on his new film, set in a northern city where an epidemic of depression leads to a breakdown of sexual mores, among other things.
"This is the first time I've had an intimacy co-ordinator, and after working with Sharon, I'm never going back," Barnard said. "It's a total game-changer."
Anyone who believes that directing a sex scene makes for a salacious good time should talk with Barnard.
"It's awful to do," he said. "They're not comfortable for anybody. They're not fun to make.
"You do them because life happens a certain way … and when people have sex, they don't do it with their clothes on."
While the scenes are typically uncomfortable, "having Sharon there changes everything completely," he said. "It's about keeping a friendly, happy workspace for the actors."
She also helps him as a director, he said.
"For instance, she's watching continuity on actors during intimacy scenes. She's helping the art department arrange bed sheets around actors during these scenes. She's helping costume department with modesty garments. So all told, she's actually working in five different departments."
Bajer asserts that her job is not to be the "sex police" to diminish sex scenes on stage, TV or film.
"My job is to help facilitate these beautiful scenes," Bajer said.
"A fight director wouldn't go come in and say, 'No, that's too dangerous. Let's not do that.' He'll say, 'That's dangerous, so let's make it as safe as possible."
She's a fan, she says, of the slogan of Intimacy Directors International: "Creating safe spaces for dangerous work."
"Because that's literally what the job description is in a nutshell."