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Influential Women in the Arts: Liz Whittaker

Influential Women in the Arts: Liz Whittaker

Liz Whittaker (she/they) is an incredible theatre artist and one of the many inspirational women in the arts that I look up to as a role model. Among their many positions in the arts, Liz is an intimacy coordinator (film/tv) and intimacy director (live theatre). Since Liz is also a writer, I’m going to let her tell you her story! Thank you Liz for being such an inspiration!

How did you get this job?

I’m a “gig worker,” much like other positions in theatre, film, and television, so I hop from job to job. I began training in 2019 and after I had some knowledge under my belt, I sent a thousand emails to theatres and directors I knew, offering my services. I also posted on my personal social media about my work as an intimacy professional a lot (I still do), and I think that helped get the word out.

What is your educational background?

I have a Bachelor’s in Theatre Education and a Master’s in Writing, both of which (surprisingly) serve me well in my intimacy work. One gave me leadership skills and the other gave me script analysis skills. I have roughly 200 hours of training in intimacy work with various professional organizations, and I’m currently completing a certification with Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC). And to be honest, I also credit the informal education of just…doing theatre and film. I’ve learned so much just by DOING.

Did you always want to do this sort of job?

I didn’t even know it existed until a few years ago! But it also didn’t exist at all until a few years ago. I always knew I wanted to do theatre, and have been acting for 25 years. I recently began to shift my focus to directing, and when intimacy direction and coordination came into my life, I was like I WANT TO DO THAT. It’s the perfect combination of so many things I love: physical storytelling, social justice, and mental health advocacy.

Can you give an overview of the duties, functions and responsibilities of your job?

I serve as a choreographer, advocate, and liaison between actors and the rest of the production when it comes to scenes of nudity, simulated sex, kissing, or any other intimate content. The detailed list of my duties is long—but it includes everything from making sure actors have barriers between their bodies during simulated sex scenes, to choreographing movement, to checking in with actors, to telling the 1st AD we have a closed set, to telling the director about an actor’s boundaries, to bringing Listerine strips, to teaching actors closure exercises. The main purpose of having an intimacy director/coordinator on a project is two-fold: to help disrupt the power dynamics that exist in the industry, and to bring my expertise into the room.

Although it was only for a short time, you served as artistic director of AOTC in Provo, UT. What was that like? What else would you like to share about your time with AOTC?

I loved serving as Artistic Director of AOTC. It was a challenging time for our theatre—we had recently lost our space, and the theatre community was still feeling the pains of COVID. But I feel very proud of the work we did during that time, and the relationships I built with other theatre professionals. I also learned so much about producing! But most importantly, serving as Artistic Director gave me an opportunity to put some walk into my talk when it comes to equitable theatre. The arts should be for, by, and about those who have been othered, and we can uplift those voices by the works we do and how we do them.

Is your job what you thought it would be when you started?

Not at all! Or, kind of. When I first started this work, I had a very “rigid” approach…there was ONE right way to do things and I knew it and I was going to evangelize it to the world. But when you’re only carrying a hammer, everything looks like a nail. I’ve come to incorporate so many other principles and practices into my work—now I have a whole toolbox! There’s still time for using a hammer, but not everything looks like a nail now. I approach intimacy work with much more confidence and collaboration, and I’m not clinging so tightly to my own need to “do things right.” (To reference John Steinbeck, now that I don’t have to be perfect, I can be good.)

What is your proudest accomplishment in your field?

I feel very proud of the amount of effort I’ve put into my training and education. I took advantage of the time at home during 2020 to seek as much virtual training as I could, in as many aspects of this work as I could. Every hour I’ve spent in workshops has broadened and deepened my expertise, and I feel so lucky that I get to keep learning for my entire career.

What is your favorite project that you have worked on?

My favorite project is often whichever one I’m working on at the moment. (I’m doing “Shakespeare in Love” at West Valley Arts right now, and adore everyone and everything in it.) I always love working on actual Shakespeare, too. I (perhaps selfishly) like working on projects where there’s a LOT of intimacy, simply because I like doing what I do.

If you could change anything about your job, what would it be?

Because the role of an intimacy director/coordinator is so new, I spend a lot of time educating other people about my role. There are a lot of misconceptions and quick judgments about this work. Sometimes there are also people attempting this work without strong training, and that can perpetuate the misconceptions. I look forward to the day when I can just focus on my work, instead of also trying to convince people of the value of my work.

What do you believe is the biggest challenge facing the arts today?

The arts as a whole are not at all equitable. In so many ways, the arts continue to perpetuate misogyny, transphobia, racism and white supremacy, and fatphobia. The arts are not always accessible for those who use mobility aids or have hearing/vision impairments. We have such an opportunity in the arts to represent the world as it could be and uplift the voices that have been silenced. For an industry founded on imagination, sometimes the industry as a whole LACKS IMAGINATION. Let a Black woman play Richard III! Put Ado Annie in a wheelchair! Incorporate ASL into Spring Awakening! Give us a fat Belle in Beauty and the Beast! Sometimes we get so used to doing things a certain way that we forget how powerful it can be to reimagine things. 

What advice do you have for young women aspiring to be in leadership roles in a world largely operated by a patriarchal system?

Your softness is your strength. I know it sounds like I’m playing into gender stereotypes here, but I would actually say the same thing to men or nonbinary folks aspiring to leadership, too—It’s just that women are often told to toughen up in order to get ahead. But why should we have to toughen up? Why can’t the rest of the world soften up? When I say “softness,” I mean approaching challenges with curiosity. I mean treating people with compassion. I mean clearly stating and maintaining your boundaries as an act of love for yourself. I mean valuing your own voice and perspective so much that you can speak up with confidence. It’s understanding that everyone is doing the best they can with what they have, and giving them (and yourself) space and tools to grow. There are plenty of women who naturally have the traits that are valued by patriarchy—assertiveness and efficiency and reason. Those things aren’t at all bad. It’s when society tells us that those are the ONLY traits that will help us succeed that things get rough for everyone involved. You can lead with both assertiveness and receptiveness, efficiency and ease, reason and emotion.

Learn more about Liz’s work at www.intimacywithliz.com and don’t forget to follow on Instagram!

 

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