TACTICS: Interview with Jill Eickmann

Welcome to the TACTICS (Theater Artists’ Collected Thoughts Insights Challenges & Strategies for Gender Parity Advocacy) interview series curated by Amy Clare Tasker

Women are underrepresented on and off stage. The problem is clear. The causes are thorny, complex, and controversial; the solutions equally so. Many women and men have worked toward change for decades, and more are now asking, “What can we do?” The TACTICS interview series investigates what our community is already doing, what we’ve tried, and what we can do next to advocate for equal and better representation of women in theater.

Jill Eickmann

Artistic Director, Leela and Producer, The San Francisco Improv Festival

ACT: Who are you? Can you give me some background on how you came to be an advocate for gender parity in theater?

I have studied, performed, taught, and directed improvisational theater for over 15 years. I founded my SF based theater company, Leela, 10 yrs ago with my husband, Christopher, after studying improv in New York and Chicago.  I also produce for The San Francisco Improv Festival.  Females have been a historically underrepresented and marginalized community in the national improvisation industry/scene.  Although there have been great successes, with the rise and media attention of inspiring improv artists, such as Tina Fey, Amy Pohler, and Stephnie Weir, there is still much advocacy needed for women in this community.  I am also a psychotherapist, social worker, and play therapist, and have been increasingly interested in the micro-agressions and power plays which frequently occur in improvised theater/comedy. I am passionate about creating a safe and supportive space for people of all walks of life to play.   Sadly, many women end up leaving the art form very early in their education, given the hostile environment and unequal power dynamics. 

ACT: What do you think are the most urgent or significant challenges women theater artists face right now?

In the improv community, there is often little space created for dialogue around free associated play.  Given this art form is considered sacred creativity, built on the cornerstones of “yes and,” “support your partner,” and”there are no mistakes,” it is incredibly challenging to engage in dialogue around micro-agressions, sexual harassment, and unequal power dynamics in play.  Many women are told to “buck up,” and play stronger, and that it is futile to change the system of oppression.  Similar to rape culture, the victim is taught to assume a defensive mode (ignore, silence, carry on), rather than the perpetrator to discontinue/apologize for the abuse.  Women’s offensive reactions to abuse are often not encouraged given the sacredness of this free associative art form.

ACT: What tactics have you used (or seen used) to advocate for gender parity in theater?

I have purposely cast ensembles with gender parity.  I also direct an all-female improv ensemble, in order to create a safe space for women to learn and grow and talk with one another about challenges in mixed-gender improvised play.  I continue to advocate for panel discussions around the issue of gender parity and women in improvisation.  I also continue to advocate for more female headliners and female local performers to perform at our annual Fest.  We are 50% of the population, and we should be reflecting this on our improv stages.  I write a blog which addresses feminism in improv called femprovisor.com

ACT: What tactics have been most effective or least effective? Why do you think those tactics worked or did not work? 

Most effective: Casting improv ensembles with gender parity and all-female improv ensembles.  My blog, femprovisor.com.  These are all actions I can control, and serve as a role model to others.  I can be the change I wish to see in the world.

Least effective: Advocating to get the national improv community at large to change, and point out their inadequacies in gender parity.  This often gets negative reactions, and thus little movement.

ACT: How do you measure the effectiveness of your advocacy actions?

Number of women at my drop-in classes.  When people speak up in class, and feel safe to bring up the topic of gender/power dynamics in their play and class discussions.

ACT: What is one action someone could take today that would make a difference? 

If you are a man and have said something to a woman on stage in an improvisation that potentially crossed the line, teetered on micro-agression, sexual harassment or was demeaning: acknowledge it, apologize, and learn from it.  If you witnessed this happening: call it out, and help create space for conversation.  It will be uncomfortable, but it is necessary in order to keep the woman’s voice alive and thriving in improvisational theater.

Amy Clare Tasker author icon

Amy Clare Tasker is a San Francisco theater director and a member of “Yeah, I Said Feminist: a theater salon.” She is online at www.amyclaretasker.com and @AmyClareTasker.  Tune into our national Howlround conversation on advocacy best practices, moderated by Marisela Treviño Orta and Amy Clare Tasker. Thursday, May 2 at 11AM PDT/2PM EDT on Twitter at #newplay.

4 responses to “TACTICS: Interview with Jill Eickmann

  1. Yes! We talk about playing to the highest and avoiding low brow humor all the time when we work on more truthful improv shows. Racist comments are not acceptable, potty mouths are frowned upon, why should women improvisors take the heat? Play to the highest intellect and make your partners, all your partners look good. The world is not a safe place for women. There is a war against women around the globe and in our own government. Artists, all artists, must choose to lead humanity with vigilance. Plus you’ll look better and have more woman loving you….which is nice.

  2. Under Megan Grey’s leadership, even before becoming the first female Artistic Director of an NYC long-form house (The Magnet), she started offering a mixed-level, all-female elective class called Lady Party, where both students and experienced improvisors regularly performing in house groups could get together in a safe & supportive space to play, and explore playing characters & taking on roles within the ensemble in ways they often hadn’t before. For example, some players who felt stuck in relational characters (mother, daughter, sister, wife, love-interest, etc.) discovered that they sometimes gave themselves those endowments even without male players present, while others became more comfortable with initiating, or having their initiations/endowments heard & respected. A monthly Funny Lady Brunch was established by community members volunteering, to connect women in improv/sketch on a more personal & social level. Eventually, this led to a monthly, mixed-level, all-female show with the ironically problematic title of We Might Just Kiss.

    Despite having seen all-female groups perform before, at BATS and elsewhere, one thing I noted was that the dialog was significantly more naturalistic, due to differences in linguistic behavior among women, where over-lapping, cross-talking, and affirmational vocalizations are more common. When Megan became AD, an organizational ban on teachers dating their current students was introduced, as is standard in business & education, which surprised me by not already being in place. That particular issue thankfully does not seem very common here in SF, at least apparently.

    While some men in The Magnet community did not understand why they could not attend the class or brunch, there was very little opposition to these initiatives. There was chatter in the online fora of the Improv Resource Center, but in the typical adversarial fashion of semi-anonymous online discussion groups. The Magnet’s model was followed again in starting a monthly queer show, promoting queer solidarity within the NYC improv community, and all 3 major houses now offer (ethnic) diversity scholarships. While I by no means think that sex & gender issues have been extirpated from the national improv community, as situationally they can arise at any time, there are models that engineer the best conditions for equitable play to occur, and to prevent/deal with issues productively (as implemented by The Magnet, or with Leela’s True Medusa PIE, for example).

    Without ever declaring dialog on any identity group’s experience within the community or on-stage “over” or “fixed”, it seems appropriate for the national improv community to take some of these best practices, and apply them not only to being inclusive of women, minorities, and LGBT/queer performers, but also to addressing issues of access & inclusion for mature, in/visibly dis/abled, working-class, low-income, and intersectional (potential) improvisors. Class privilege, ageism, ableism, and neuronormativism impose significant barriers to participation, both structurally & socially, for a medium that requires extensive, expensive training, is largely unpaid (except for teachers & trainers), and is often dominated by a majority of healthy performers in their 20’s & 30’s from professional-managerial (and higher) class backgrounds and/or levels of educational & income attainment.

  3. Pingback: TACTICS: recap and relaunch | Works by Women San Francisco·

  4. Pingback: Meetup: Femprov Fest ’14 | Works by Women San Francisco·

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s