By Jill Eickmann
I have been performing, teaching, directing, and producing improvisational theatre (aka “improv”) for over 15 years. I specifically chose to set up my improvisational theatre company Leela in San Francisco, because I could think of no other city that would more whole-heartedly support my feminist values. The national improv scene is majority male and is often built on traditional patriarchal values. Many improv companies refer to participants as players, teams, and coaches. Improvisors are often encouraged to compete: to make choices that are faster, funnier, and smarter than everyone else’s. Now I’m not saying the sports mentality is only for guys, many women thrive in this competitive improv culture, just as there are countless talented female athletes. However, there are many people, men and women included, who do not thrive in such a culture, and who are actually harmed and discouraged while attempting to participate under competitive constraints. There are many companies throughout the globe who encourage a more matriarchal, and holistic artistic sensibility. Improv, however, known in the mainstream as “Improv Comedy”, is usually male-dominated, as we’ve seen in popular television shows like “Whose Line is it Anyway?”
As a femprovisor, an improvisor who looks at the world through a feminist lens, I am committed to shining a light on the inequality and harm women experience in the improv community. I am also committed to changing the tide, changing the numbers, and changing the attitudes. There are significantly fewer women performing, teaching, directing, and producing improv nationally. Why is this? We can all speculate, assume, and poll our friends, but who knows what the answer is? Regardless, it’s still important to ask the question.
I began producing for The San Francisco Improv Festival in 2011. I was the only female out of 9 producers. I’m happy the board has brought on another smart, fun, and fierce female producer Kimberly Maclean from BATS Improv in 2012. Still, I feel there’s more to do to promote gender parity in the San Francisco improv community. When I attend improv jams in the city, the participants are usually 80% men and 20% women. In the loving, supportive, “yes and…” arms of improv, there is surprisingly often no space given to explore the themes of sexism and power dynamics between men and women. Even though there are many tools, guidelines, and structures to support improvisors in creating well-crafted, and realistically acted improvised performances, I have seen few exercises focused on teaching participants how to avoid treating women as sexual objects onstage, or addressing the multitude of micro-aggressions that occur toward women in much spontaneous play. Many women improvisors speak of feeling “on the defensive” when playing in a male-dominated group, which at times limits their active participation in the co-creation of a piece. Often the responsibility is placed on the female player to play harder, be bolder, and to speak up, rather than on the group to question how they can create more nuanced and balanced representations of women in their performances. Because of this burden, many female improvisors crave a safe space to engage with others who may be fighting similar battles, and this often means forming an all-female ensemble. I currently direct an all female improv ensemble, True Medusa. Diverse in age, race, sexual orientation, culture, occupation, and experience, we are a cast of female improvisational artists who are committed to truthful artistic play in long-form improvisation. By playing in a single gender cast, our artists are able to express their full range of characters, choices, and styles, which can sometimes be silenced in mixed gender groups.
Many of the cast members have spoken with one another about appreciating the freedom they feel to take their time in scenes, with less pressure to be quick, witty, and funny. True Medusa has become a safe place for us to see and be seen, hear and be heard, and to create some beautiful artistic work together. True Medusa will be featured alongside two other improv ensembles in a Leela-produced evening of improvisational theatre on December 15th @ 8pm at The Ninth Street Independent Film Center. True Medusa is Marcia Aguilar, Kathleen Dyer, Paula Pulizza, Radhika Rao, Maureen Reilly, and Jessica Yeh. Directed by Artistic Director of Leela, Jill Eickmann
Jill Eickmann has directed over 50 original productions with Leela and serves as a Producer/Board Member for the San Francisco Improv Festival. She has taught her signature style of improvisation to thousands of students. Her blog can be found at www.femprovisor.com