Ita O’Brien, Circle Member, Global Feminist, and leading proponent of creating safe spaces and boundaries when working with intimate content in film and television, discusses her activism with Beth Vaughan, Communications Lead at The Circle.
I first meet Ita O’Brien on a zoom call. As we introduce ourselves her eyes fill with tears. After a pause she says, “You know those friends who are integral to your life, the ones you can’t imagine being without. Well, my friend Sarah was one of those friends, but she passed away at the weekend.” Her voice breaks, as she adds: “If it is ok, I would like to dedicate this piece to Sarah – an extraordinary and inspiring director, producer and theatre maker, whose career spanned some 25 years.”
It is a heart-breaking start to our interview, but it quickly becomes clear that O’Brien is at ease with difficult conversations. They are central to her activism, her work, and her philosophy as a feminist. Having worked on Sex Education and Normal People, which received high praise for their depictions of sex, nudity, and intimacy, O’Brien is now the leading intimacy coordinator on productions that are seeking to embed a professional process when working with intimate content. Her book, “Intimacy On Set” is an industry bible.
The impact of Ita’s work and swiftly growing profile was given even further prominence when Michaela Cole dedicated her Bafta for her work on ‘I May Destroy You’, in which she said, “Thank you for your existence in our industry… for creating physical, emotional, and professional boundaries so that we can make work about exploitation, loss of respect, about abuse of power, without being exploited or abused in the process.” But even before these most recent pivotal moments, Ita has been working quietly as an activist behind the scenes for decades. Long before the #MeToo movement and the downfall of high-profile predators, O’Brien had begun looking for ways to change an industry which was synonymous with sexual exploitation.
“As a creator and deviser of work I was exploring the dynamic between the perpetrator and the victim. I was looking at what practices and principles I needed to put in place in the rehearsal process to ensure the actors could delve into this exploration safely. The actors often asked why the industry did not have guidelines for consent in intimate scenes. I knew we needed to find a way to work ethically, and I knew I could help.”
She makes light of her achievements, and despite the huge gains she has made, she is at pains to point out that there is a long road ahead in an industry still wracked with sex and abuse scandals. “Some people just don’t want to know. I was talking to a director who said ‘they (the actors) only need to have chemistry for the sex scene to work.’ I was incredulous. I said they need to feel safe and empowered to make it work. The idea of respect and boundaries are still an alien concept to many.” “I had a producer once say to me, ‘You are here for the girl, right?’ I said I am here for all. If you say we are only here to protect girls, we are casting them as the victims. This keeps men in their place of power. When you flip it and put boundaries in for everybody you start to bring safety for all and change the culture from the inside. I was told by an American producer I was affecting the production adversely, ‘No you can’t ask them (the actors) what they want.’ He said, ‘Shut up and go home.’”
She describes her work as common sense, “I am simply putting in a structure that helps everyone regardless of their race creed and gender. It means men are equally empowered to say they are not ok showing their naked buttocks as women are saying they are not ok showing their breasts. We are inviting people to tell us their boundaries and to tell us what is not ok for them. Inviting the actor’s ‘No’ is a gift, as it allows us all to trust when they say ‘Yes.’ I realised many actors were simply too scared to say no when they were asked to do something uncomfortable in an intimate scene. This goes for everybody, male, female, queer, gay whoever. I am simply advocating for fundamental respect for all.”
Reluctant to sing her own praises, O’Brien allows herself one nod to her success. “It is a testament to those productions that have the intention to work with best practice, and as part of that, put my work in place, that have also happened to have been the ones that hit the zeitgeist. Sex Education, It’s A Sin, I May Destroy You and Normal People.”
As a member of The Circle, a global NGO founded by Annie Lennox to empower women from all walks of life, O’Brien is clear on her activism.
“Taking a global perspective on feminism is vital as we must keep opening out the conversation on how we create equality of women and end the atrocities so many experience. I feel we can answer to these atrocities of women by bringing parity. We must teach our young men and boys, along with your women and girls, fundamental respect right from the start. We need sex education programme in schools which aren’t fear led. We need a safe forum for all young people to learn about their physicality and arousal that doesn’t come from pornography. It should come from a positive place. Let’s take the lid off and explore it together. Until we open everyone out and talk more authentically about sexual awakening and sexual activity as a natural normal thing and take boundaries and consent seriously, we won’t start to change. We need to rethink how we help all our young people have respect for themselves, and for each other. Everything must come from fundamental consent, and consent-based learning.”
Looking back at her formative years, O’Brien explains that she knew from an early age that her relationship with her self-expression through dance would shape her life, and as it turns out, it would create safety and equality for many others. “As a young girl I had an amazing ballet teacher, Madeleine Sharp, one of the Royal Academy of Dancing’s most respected ballet teachers, who inspired me. My love of dance is the fundamental light that drives my work today. I had a knowingness that I would continue to work with dance, with the love and joy of expressing through movement, into my adult years beyond those as a professional dancer. My years as an actor were imperative to understanding how to physically transform to tell all aspects of our human experience, to embody the human condition. These are the skills I bring to my role as an Intimacy Coordinator, bringing a professional process and structure that allows all to bring their skill and inspiration to their work.”
Today she is inspired by Circle Founder, activist, singer and songwriter, Annie Lennox, her friends who use their creativity to support other women like Katie Rose, also a Circle member, and leading lights like Olivia Colman, Judy Dench, Jody Comer, Jane Campion, Emma Thompson, and others who are using their platform to create change.
As we end our call, her sadness still palpable, she finishes with characteristically thoughtful advice to others: “Ask yourself what is your soul’s mission? In life whatever you feel is the most personal to you, try and have the courage to come from that place, for the irony is that whatever is the most personal to you is also invariably, the most universal. Part of my learning is setting my boundaries and making my time with my family, my ultimate inspiration, a priority. With a wry smile she adds, “I used to think I had to say yes when anyone asked but now, I’m getting better at saying no!”
“This piece is dedicated to Sarah Davey Hull, the most inspiring creative practitioner, who gave me the love and support of a friend to allow me to be me.”
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