Alison Novelli (they/them) is an intimacy coordinator, intimacy director, facilitator and consultant. They are passionate about decreasing stress and co-creating alchemically resilient artistic spaces. Alison practices cultural humility and takes an intersectional approach to all of their work.
As an intimacy coordinator and intimacy director, Alison is dedicated to composing dynamic stories of intimacy for stage and screen. They are committed to realizing a show’s creative vision with an emphasis on authenticity, dignity, and empowerment.
Alison draws on their extensive theater background and professional education to facilitate and consult with curiosity, compassion, and play. Alison specializes in consent, decreasing stress, growing embodied self-awareness, and increasing capacity for ease and challenge. Alison works with individuals, companies, and organizations to build sustainable and adaptive strategies, policies, and practices that are responsive to an ever-changing arts landscape.
Alison is a graduate of Cohort 10, and works on the unceded, ancestral land of the Lenape people, now known as Brooklyn, NY. We spoke with Alison this month about their work and the incredible ways they are integrating The Resilience Toolkit.
Describe your experience of facilitating The Resilience Toolkit in 1-2 words.
Who are you working with?
I work with performers, creatives, productions, and artistic organizations. I infuse the Toolkit in all of my intimacy and consulting work, and it’s especially useful when working on scenes of intimacy. I’ve specifically adapted the Toolkit to help performers tackle audition nerves, bounce back faster, and tap into their creativity when stressed.
How are you working with The Resilience Toolkit?
I work as an intimacy coordinator and an intimacy director. What that means is I act as a facilitator for scenes of intimacy, simulated sex, and nudity, on stage and screen within the entertainment industry. That can also have to do with hyper exposed scenes that draw on an actor’s personal identity, as well. What that entails is a lot of training around consent. A lot of people have a background in mental health. I have a masters certificate in sexuality, women, and gender and clinical psych and education, and that world actually led me to the Resilience Toolkit – that’s how I found it was through that role. Doing any sort of intense scene, whether it be, you know, simulated sex, nudity, or any intense content, it’s a stressful thing. Film sets in general are just stressful, and there’s never enough time. There’s never enough money, especially in theater. It takes a lot of work at a really, really fast pace. So the stress involved is already at a heightened level. And what really drew me to the Toolkit was the fact that there are these practices that you can use to settle and to decrease the stress within 30 seconds to 2 minutes. That’s so efficient and so great. And then, when I actually started doing the Toolkit, that’s when it kind of opened up everything else as the Toolkit really is that trojan horse, and really changed how I approach advocacy and empowerment within my work especially.
Then I also specifically work with the Toolkit in a public facing way, working with performers to manage audition stress. I have a background as a performer and a puppeteer, and 90% of the job is going on interviews and auditioning. It’s a different skill set than a performing skill set, and part of that skill set really involves being able to bounce back quickly. It’s a lot of emotional, physical, and mental labor. There’s a lot of prep work, there’s a lot of training, that is all unpaid. It’s absolutely all unpaid. And so add on top of that, that a lot of the times, you’ll have 5 people in the room, and only one of you will get the part. So unfortunately there is a scarcity mindset to it, because there is only a finite amount of roles or positions. And so what I did personally was, I started applying the Toolkit to when I was auditioning, and what it really opened up for me was just this relief and release from judgment. And it got me to be able to work creatively within my stress states rather than clamping them down, pushing them down, pretending that they didn’t exist, because it can be really distracting, and it can prevent you from accessing your creativity or telling a story – it’ll pull you out of the story immediately as a performer. So to be able to actually build that self-awareness like, “Oh, I’m in a stress state right now…I popped into fight/flight…or I’m having a bit of a freeze shut down…Or oh, I notice myself judging and shaming myself for doing that. Okay, cool. How do I then practice a tool to get back into it?”
Personification was the name of the game with a lot of American acting schools and schools of thought. That idea was that you would always just use substitutions – you would go into your own past experiences and you would use that as fodder for the story, and to help ignite it. And the shift for me that’s been pretty radical with the Toolkit is that a lot of times when I would use personification it was kind of a crap shoot of whether it would work or it wouldn’t work for me, and what I now understand is why it started to not work for me, or it actually would take a lot of pushing through. It would take a lot more energy and attention and hyperarousal in order to access the intensity required for the role or for the story. And what I’m realizing now is that’s just the greater and greater stress that I was under. Because I was pulling from my past experiences and it wasn’t necessarily a safe environment to do that. And so I was promoting my own dysregulation with it. And, to some extent, the arts in general are a field that promotes dysregulation. I tend to think about catharsis now, or even entertainment now, as the purposeful dysregulation of an audience, to then regulate them. And when you’re doing that also as a performer, with personalization, if it’s not safe, and if you don’t have a way of coming back into yourself and grounding and recentering, then it just becomes this perpetual state of dysregulation, and seeking greater and greater dysregulation in order to get back into the intensity required for the storytelling. And what shifted for me with the Toolkit which has been such a cool thing that I’m so excited to share with people, is that a lot of the times when I can decrease my stress or get back into my social engagement, what happens is that, as you all know, a lot of the times coming into connection means coming into feeling. So the amount of dysregulation that I would need – in actually regulating that, I would be able to connect more deeply with the story. Because the emotional life that was needed for the character was already there – I didn’t have to flip myself over backwards in order to find it. Instead, it’s more of a sustainable process to be able to come into connection and get back into that creativity aspect of it as well.
In my field there’s always going to be dysregulation. I can use an extreme example, like when working on scenes of intimacy that involve sexual violence sexual violence, there is always going to be a certain amount of dysregulation there, because the intensity of the story that you are telling is really fucking stressful. So because it is so stressful, that amount of dysregulation is a good match for the moment. But it’s about being able to differentiate between character in the story that you are telling, versus human being in the space that can then be proud of the work that they did that day and leave it at work and go home and get a good night’s sleep and be able to come back the next day, and either, if you’re on stage, repeat the process 8 times a week, or if you’re on a film set, repeat it until the movie is over.
I also combine the Toolkit with a lot of consent-based practices and some of my own training from intimacy coordination and conflict mediation, too. Because a lot of the times when I’m facilitating, I’m working through differences in people’s boundaries which may or may not align, so then trying to find alternative and creative solutions for seemingly mismatched situations. I think too, one way that I use the Toolkit in my work that is, always surprising, and also very much unspoken of, is to be an anchor in the space – to be a regulated anchor in the space – so that people, whether it be the crew, whether it be the production stuff, whether it be the performers or the directors, so that I can help them regulate in the moment when and if they choose to. Is a different way of being. I’m sure other facilitators especially realize this, that dealing with my own personal regulation actually enables so much more to be done and to be achieved, and creativity within the space.
I guess what surprised me most about the Toolkit is how much my own dysregulation, like when I become activated, how much that is a sign that I’m not actually present and able to serve in the space. Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing, but when judgment really starts to kick in, that’s what I’m now working on – is clocking it as dysregulation, which, then, if I can bring in a tool at a time, if it’s appropriate, if it is helpful, if it’s going to help me in the situation, it allows for me to take that extra 30 seconds to then find a different solution. It’s just really nice to have these mile markers, trail markers, signs that learning The Toolkit has provided, so that I don’t have to just resort to judging myself or seeing it as my own personal failing if I do jump into flight/flight, if I do jump even just a little bit. And oftentimes it is in the subtleties rather than the big jump into distress. That’s probably been the best learning for me that I’m really surprised by – is how much, when I feel judgment coming on or when I notice myself judging a situation, how much easier it is to then move through a problem after I bring in a Toolkit practice.
And my role is also kind of to “fix” the situation – to provide a pathway forward, to help negotiate and facilitate within a space. So part of that fixing energy (of fight/flight) is always there, and that is something that is always going to be pushed up against. I think for me how I notice it is especially if I want to fix something for someone else, for one specific person, because they are having a certain experience. And what the Toolkit has helped me with that is to just withstand greater discomfort in not being able to fix something for someone else, and/or at least to give myself and them the gift of time to figure out how they want to move through it. That collaboration and the empowerment too. To not have to fix it for them in a way that empowers them, because I think especially working with performers, a lot of the times performers aren’t really given a lot of agency over their bodies, over their artistic choices, over the words that they say. So to be able to give some of that empowerment back…that’s the tricky thing is that empowerment isn’t always about feeling good. Sometimes it is about being able to make the harder decisions, and to make them with conviction, regardless of whether you want to or not, or if it feels good.
What has been most satisfying in your work as a Resilience Toolkit Facilitator?
I like to call it “the click,” that moment of deep knowing and relief when a client realizes that they don’t have to push through discomfort or give up a part of themselves in order to create art. When clients learn this, especially when it drops into their bodies, our work then becomes joyful and full of creative possibilities.
Describe a challenge you have encountered in your work as a Resilience Toolkit Facilitator.
Performers in general and artists in general, tend to have a greater awareness of tapping into their bodies, or their emotions, or their thoughts, and they go deep, really fast. So a lot of the time I think the greatest challenge that I have is h when working in a field where catharsis is is such a big aspect of it and a goal of the space, then how to actually bring in those smaller steps of settling so that performers can sustain throughout the entire performance, or so directors can sustain throughout the entire filming process, or what have you. So that they’re not burnt out or exhausted, and collapsing by the end of it. And part of that difficulty is just dealing with these great shifts in arousal, particularly when within the space those great shifts in arousal are actually really valued, and they’re seen as important factors of the artistic process. Which maybe there are and maybe they aren’t – that’s not for me to judge. The greatest challenge for me is when that is already in the culture of creating art or telling a story, how then, to add value with smaller shifts, with smaller sizes of settling, how to bring that in, or even titration – to bring that in as well when a lot of the times people just really want that payoff, that release, that relief. It’s actually what I struggled with in the toolkit as well is banking in those smaller practices, those smaller acts of settling, and just trusting that was actually enough. Especially after my first 6 months of the Toolkit because a lot of times in my first 6 months in the Toolkit, I would settle really fast and really quickly, and it was just too much sometimes. And that’s what I’m finding within my work, is that a lot of the time, people want to settle really fast and quickly, and other times they just want to do it really gradually, but they don’t necessarily value the gradual. And so the challenge is how to meet people at each stage based on what they value, and then also providing other possibilities, and ways of being and ways of working that, going back to empowerment and advocacy, that they can then pick up or put down as they see fit for them and as best their process.
Performing is a mobilization response, like if we’re acting or doing, it requires mobilization, and a lot of the times what that then translates into is hypervigilance, which is why then a lot of people then just collapse at the end of the day, and get really exhausted and burn out. So it’s working within that. The biggest difficulty for me is when what’s familiar isn’t necessarily all that’s possible. When the familiar just feels safer than the unknown.
How are you seeing alchemical resilience and transformation show up in the work that you’re doing?
The entertainment industry, and maybe I can just speak to the theater industry in New York City, is undergoing major shifts with DEI initiatives and looking at areas of inequity, and who gets representation, and whose story gets told, and who’s behind the table, who is in what position, and how does that affect the space? And so I’m seeing alchemical resilience in the shifts that the industry is making. I don’t see it as a big picture thing – I see it more in the individual change that is happening based on certain organizations that are doing work, that are able to sustain it, that are taking their time with it. I see it also in how performers are orienting towards their work now. In general, a lot of my friends are performers and creators, and during the pandemic, especially for theater makers, we didn’t have jobs. We did not have an industry anymore. And for a few months there we didn’t know if it was ever going to come back. So I see it now in the way that people have been able to pause, been able to reconnect with their art, and rather than following the script of where you’re supposed to live in the world, how you’re supposed to create, what you’re supposed to wear to an audition, where you’re supposed to go to audition, what theater even looks like anymore, who’s working is getting done – in all of that reassessment, I’m seeing people make more sustainable life choices, or more sustainable choices for their careers so that it gets back to like the joy of it and that ability to self-advocate for the career that you want, rather than the only career that is available to you, or the only track that is available to you.
I see it more in the small acts. Like, I see it in my friend going to an audition in the morning, and not pushing through to something else, and not beating herself up, but then going to be able to pick her kid up at 1 pm every day. I see it in the ways that my friends are able to have full home lives without letting a show or a feature take over their lives. I see it with people actually asking for assistance, and calling out of a process, or taking a day off and having somebody else calling a friend, or calling a colleague to cover them for that day. I don’t necessarily see it in the system, but I see it in those practices, and I also see it in the way that people are willing to remain engaged and work through it without getting burnt out by it. And there’s less there’s a lot less shame, too. I’m seeing a lot less shame.
What’s something that has piqued your interest recently that you would want to share with other Toolkit facilitators?
I am always fascinated by, and wanting to promote media literacy. Entertainment and storytelling is used a lot of the time for people as an escape, as a way to be moved to connect, especially if it’s theater. Or you go to see a movie in a theater – it is a collective experience. What’s happening – with that now taking a little bit of a shift, especially with social media being where it is, and especially with the pandemic and everything being online – is that a lot of people don’t know how TV is made, how films are made, how shows are made, and don’t understand that when you are watching a scene of intimacy on HBO, it is completely simulated…it is not a thing. It’s camera angles. It’s just prosthetics. It is not real. And that can often burst people’s bubble, because it ruins the fantasy. It ruins the escape. And I guess this is where I’m just a little bit of a shit kicker and a killjoy, in that I want to know that something was made ethically. When I’m watching a story around trauma or around violence, I want to know that no one was injured. I want to know that everyone there is consenting. That will actually enable me to enjoy it more rather than less, knowing that it’s not real.
Where that line really gets blurred is around documentary films because documentary films are about real life. They’re about things that happen in real life. But again, it’s all in the framing, it’s in the editing. I just read an article that was really interesting, about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, particularly when you’re making a film under capitalism (which we always are), so what does that then look like? And it has a larger impact with not only who are we putting in front of the camera, but how are subjects being compensated, if they’re being compensated for their time. What happens after a film is released? How much time is put into it? What are the stories that are being told, and what are the stories that actually aren’t being told, due to distribution issues, or not getting people to see it, or not having the right marketing? I find that very interesting. I also find it interesting because anytime that we can ensure greater understanding, I think you can actually find greater pleasure from it. And you also can like something not just because it made you feel something, but because it actually ignited something greater or different or bigger in you.
The way that I came into media literacy was that there are some schools that are actually teaching sex ed and media literacy with porn, with teenagers. There are few, I think, that were also in the new recently – I read a couple of articles about that. But the documentary film one was very interesting, especially because I know with my schooling, I was in a clinical psych department, and they used documentary films as case studies. I had to explain to my teacher in the group that, the way that this was framed, is based on editing. It’s not a true to life representation. It literally is how a film is made. Which is primarily on the editing floor.
Anything else you’d like to add?
Storytelling in general has a long tradition of being associated with healing and healing practices. And Nkem kind of caused me to have an identity crisis when she told me there is no healing in catharsis, and I had to sit with that and I had to really explore, “well, why am I doing what I am doing? I thought I was healing and telling stories!” and all of that. And how I’ve started to think about it in general is through the Toolkit and is through behavior change, and specifically looking at the function of stories within moving from precontemplation to contemplation. So this is how I’ve started to think about storytelling, really, as dramatic relief, as the as the way for people to begin their process of getting ready, of finally being able to see that, and which would then fits with empathy bridges that are being built through storytelling, and especially through telling different types of stories and having different representation, that is very important, and give people the the opportunity to see what’s possible, and to see themselves, and to see their stories.
But that’s not the whole step – telling the story isn’t the whole step in healing. What the next step is then going out into your life and moving through those behavior change stages, making the change. What I do worry about a lot with the way that storytelling has such an impact and importance in people’s lives – and cross-culturally, truly too – but that’s not the change. It is a step on the way to change, on the way to alchemical resilience and healing. But it is not the full behavior change. That’s kind of how I’ve started to think about it, and for me personally, it’s helped me then come to terms with the fact that I work in an industry where people are going to be constantly dysregulated on purpose. That’s what really caused me to have an identity crisis – it’s like, “wait a minute. I work in an industry where people are purposefully dysregulated!” And now for me, the purpose for that dysregulation has changed so that it stops being about the dysregulation, and it starts being about the seed that it is planting in an audience member’s own journey.
If you are interested in connecting with Alison, you can find them on Instagram: @cheektocheekintimacy and Facebook: Cheek to Cheek Intimacy.