Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Colleen Hughes

By Jade Dressler

Welcome to NYWIFT, Colleen Hughes!

As an intimacy director and coordinator, Colleen brings a trauma-informed and human-first approach to scenes of simulated sex, nudity, and hyperexposure. Through her collaboration with trusted colleagues, she is at the vanguard of a movement to bring increased agency and transparency to the entertainment industry.

She has collaborated with artists from around the globe, including Maya Hawke on the official music video for “Thérèse,” with over 5 million views on YouTube (also available on Apple Music); Samantha Shay at Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch in Germany; and immersive work with Virgin Atlantic’s cruise line in the Mediterranean, and Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More in NYC.

Colleen is part of a team of thought leaders in the field of consent and intimacy work. As Director of Core Training at Intimacy Directors and Coordinators (IDC), Colleen led the development of the company’s groundbreaking Consent-Forward Artist training program. She is currently working on a book entitled A Volunteer from the Audience: Consent Work in Interactive Performance that examines the role of agency in immersive performance.

NYWIFT Member Colleen Hughes


How did you get started in this relatively new field?

I first learned about this work at a time in my life and career when I was looking for a way to more actively integrate my creative work with my values. I was working as a movement director and choreographer, while also volunteering for various political campaigns and progressive organizations. I was feeling a disconnect between those two vital parts of my life, and I didn’t know how to bring them into more intentional alignment.

Then in 2017, I read an article in The New York Times about how Tonia Sina was working with a production of Bakkhai, an adaptation of The Bacchae at the Stratford Festival as an intimacy director, a term that she coined in 2006. I am not, by nature, a particularly impulsive person. But by the time I finished that article, I had decided to make a decisive pivot in my career. From that time on, intimacy work has been the focus of my study, training, and work. I have never looked back. It is deeply fulfilling, highly challenging work that is continually being refined and improved as we collectively learn how to best serve performers and the industry at large.


This Bitter Earth (dir. Tyrone L. Robinson)


Interestingly, we’ve heard that being a film or stage production’s fight director leads to intimacy direction. Did you have this experience?  

I didn’t! This was something that I noticed when I first began training at Intimacy Directors International. The founders of the organization had that background in common, as did many of the individuals with whom I had the pleasure to train as part of IDI’s first apprenticeship program. I am someone with a dance and movement background, though, so I had a similar relationship to physical storytelling.

This role is – at its core – that of a movement specialist, which is why so many individuals come to it from fight work, stunts, dance, physical theatre, circus, and other movement practices. The WHY of the work is to help facilitate consent-forward practices for scenes of simulated sex, nudity, and hyperexposure. The HOW of the work requires expertise in physical storytelling.

While intimacy work is generally not pre-choreographed and “put on” performers in the style of some dance choreographers, intimacy coordinators (ICs) need to have the facility to help strategize how to achieve the director’s vision within the performers’ boundaries. This problem-solving element of the job is significant, and it requires a deep understanding of how physical storytelling functions on stage and/or screen. It enables us to offer on-the-spot proposals that effectively serve both the narrative and the agency of the humans who are using their bodies to tell the story. It’s a joyful, creative, and necessary element of the work, and I believe it’s why so many of us come from a movement background or study it in depth during training.


Colleen Hughes teaches a consent workshop


How did you develop your consent model vs. the old model of “throwing people and actors together, come what may.”

The tools and principles that I bring onto set or into rehearsal would not exist if it were not for the collective and ever-expanding knowledge and expertise of others who approach this with shared principles. My consent work is built (and continues to develop) in deep collaboration with mentors and colleagues including Claire Warden, Alicia Rodis, Lauren Kiele DeLeon, Renee Redding-Jones, Samantha Kaufman, Nicole Perry, and many others with whom I have had the great privilege to collaborate over the years.

The old model that you describe is certainly outdated. However, it may at times have been the result of individuals attempting to do their best with sensitive material and virtually no tools. When I first began to study this work, I couldn’t understand why anyone would have ever approached a scene with such little preparation or parameters. Since the #MeToo movement that Tarana Burke initiated, we have heard countless stories of perpetrators in our industry as well as those who knowingly uphold dangerous and coercive practices. This is a reality that we continue to contend with today. At the same time, there have always been professionals doing their best to work in a respectful and professional manner with challenging material prior to any consistent industry standards. With that understanding, I developed a more nuanced relationship to these outdated habits, and I let go of some youthful self-righteousness. In some cases, directors may have intuitively understood the nature of their own power and saw the ”figure it out themselves” method as a better option than standing inches above performers in highly exposed scene work, telling them exactly how to move, perhaps treating them like clay models or chess pieces.

The tools of transparency and communication are vital, and our industry needs to work to uphold the bodily autonomy of performers in scenes of intimacy. We certainly now know that the “figure it out themselves” approach is rife with risks of confusion and worse. There are much more effective ways to approach scenes of intimacy. I love this work, and I feel privileged to be able to share it, shift it, and refine it with colleagues every day. At the same time, I think it is important that intimacy professionals resist the trap of the savior complex, incorrectly believing that we have all the answers or that everything that came before us was harmful. That belief can lead us away from one of the core components of the work, which is to be available to LISTEN to performers who wish to reach out to us in our role as advocates.

Claire Warden speaks about this role of intimacy professionals as being “in service” to the story and to the artists crafting it. This philosophy is one that particularly resonates with me, as it helps me and other intimacy professionals avoid practices that are paternalistic, infantilizing, or based on assumptions; it reminds us to listen deeply to the adults we are working with and to collaborate with them directly to support their agency, that of their colleagues, and the shared work they are engaging with.

The goal of strong consent-forward practices is transparency, agency, and bodily autonomy structured in conscientious relationship to existing power dynamics. It is not about creating coddled spaces where everyone is suddenly treated with kid gloves. When an adult actor actively chooses, with proper time, options, and context to engage in a scene that is challenging, difficult, or uncomfortable, it is my job to make sure that this element of their workday is carried out with as much support and professionalism as any other scene that requires specific planning and considerations.

Art is often uncomfortable; that is one of the things that we love about it. There is nothing wrong with that discomfort as long as all of the professionals engaged with its creation are doing so willingly, without coercion, and in a manner that considers their humanity. That’s what my role seeks to uphold. All workers in this industry should be able to leave the day feeling as though they were not traumatized, assaulted, or abused in the course of their duties. With clear and open communication around scenes of intimacy, that is exactly what we are working towards in this work.


Maya Hawke’s ‘Thérèse’ (dir. Brady Corbet)


Can you explain how consent training is conducted?  

When I facilitate classes for folks training in this field, they are generally working their way through a study of anti-oppression work, power analysis, industry-specific dynamics, intricacies of physical storytelling, trauma-informed practices, inclusive and affirming gender and sexuality studies, communication and harm-reduction techniques, and other complementary fields of study.

Once that foundation is solidified (but certainly not “done;” all of the best ICs I know are lifetime learners, and certification programs require ongoing study for regular recertification), those in training then move on to learning the specific tools and practices of the day-to-day work. Finally, most professionals move formally or informally into a mentorship phase in which they work in open communication with a more experienced IC through their first several projects.

I firmly believe that an unprepared intimacy professional can cause a greater risk to a production and its team members than having no one in that role at all. To give a hypothetical example, an actor may choose to engage in particularly challenging material with the understanding that an intimacy coordinator will be supporting the space, whereas that same actor might have specified more “guarded” boundaries in their rider to better protect themselves on a show without an IC. In an unfortunate case in which the person hired does not have the training and experience needed for the job, the underprepared IC may find themselves in “over their head.” The actor is then left engaging with vulnerable material without proper support, which was not what they signed up for. For that reason, it is important for producers to know what to look for in a well-qualified IC. The SAG AFTRA qualification gives a great overview, and it is always a good idea to check references. In this new(ish) but well-publicized field, it is particularly important.


Mother Melancholia (Co-commissioned by Tanztheater Wuppertal (dir. Pina Bausch and Samantha Shay)


Any advice for industry folks wanting to learn more or those who might want to move into this special role?

Absolutely! Seek out training from an organization that shares your values, then really allow yourself time to absorb the work. You owe it to yourself, and to the performers who you will advocate for in the future, to take your time through what can be challenging and nuanced material.

This work has a tricky way of seeming simple in theory and being very challenging in practice. I often say that good intimacy training is like cooking onions – let it simmer low and slow. The kind of tiny calibrations that this job requires benefit substantially from months of focused and intentional study, prep, practice, and mentorship.

The job can be difficult, and it often asks a lot of us emotionally, but it is made it made up of some of the most wonderful professionals I’ve ever met. So, if this is something you are interested in, you can look forward to a warm and supportive community to train and grow with. Hopefully, you will share my experience and never look back once you dive into this work. I look forward to being in community with you!


Connect with Colleen Hughes on her website at colleenhughes.com and on Instagram at @ColleenHughesIntimacy


Jade Dressler

Jade Dressler Jade Dressler has imagined, designed and created for mass and niche pop-culture and luxury lifestyle clients for over 30+ years, from nature-inspired body jewelry on major couture runways and media to award-winning landscape art spanning 1000’s of wild acres in Brazil, and her agency is known for touchpoints of meaning that connect and energize all our lives. Jadedressler.com

View all posts by Jade Dressler

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