Yeah, I said Femprovisor!

Feminist appears to be a dirty word in society at large, and I’ve noticed this dirty word invoke a hideous cringing facial response in many improv circles.  Alternatively, I recently joined a group called “Yeah I Said Feminist!”  These women are a collection of theatre artists in the Bay Area.  It was so thrilling to hear the word feminist claimed by incredibly talented and well-respected directors, actors, playwrights, and choreographers.  No one was cringing when the word “feminist” was said!!!!  Actually, everyone was applauding!!!  So, I’ve decided to see what came into my world as I said the word feminism aloud  to myself and others this week, and write a bit about my experience and rambling thoughts.

At the beginning of the week, I was talking to a fellow improv friend of mine.  A male improvisor, who I respect immensely as a performer.  During our conversation about my femprovisor blog, he asked me why I was so passionate about the the topic of feminism in improv.  I paused for what felt like 1/2 a day!  No one has ever asked me that question! EVER!

During the 1/2 day pause, I flashed back to all the improv moments fighting for stage time in predominantly male improv jams, scurrying to avoid being pulled on to the stage to be used as a sex object in someone’s “great idea” scene.  The choice I made to lower my voice and change my directing style to earn respect from my male peers.  That horrible punch in the gut as I heard that dreaded line, “women aren’t funny”  from whom I thought was my best friend and champion.  “Woman” is a role I wear every time I step on a stage, and often a role I have to protect.  After the 1/2 day pause and a flood of emotions, one word came to the surface. Survival.

Despite the multitude of character choices I attempt, the classes I teach to male and female improvisors about playing to the top of one’s intelligence, and the rise of successful female improv artists, we still live in a world that treats women unequally, and often as a sexual object.  The fear that defensive actions may have to kick in while improvising limits many women’s creativity.

After claiming the word femprovisor in a discussion with a fellow improvisor after a jam on Wednesday, I have decided never to play in a jam again where alcohol is being consumed on stage.  It’s just too painful for me to witness what too often occurs as a result of inebriated play.  This decision makes me very sad.  Because I absolutely love improv jams, but the majority of improv jams in my town involve alcohol- lots of alcohol.  100% of the jams (15+ years in improv) I have attended, where alcohol is being consumed by players, has resulted in a woman being used or named (without her permission) as a sexual object at least once.  I have no doubt this experience happens in countless improv circles.  Let’s start noticing, counting, and reporting.

It’s important to further define “feminism” by pointing out the difference between another much more respected phrase “gender equality.” Many people confuse these two concepts.  I think most folks think that when I say the word femprovisor, I’m saying women are better then men, or that we should hate all male improvisors for their slimy behaviors.  No- I love most male improvisors and respect many immensely. And many of these well-respected, intelligent male improvisors do slimy things.  Being a good improvisor by definition does not excuse you from saying sexist remarks.  There are many improvisors who believe that as long as you are yes anding, playing by the “rules” of improv, and serving the improv scene, this excuses sexist actions on stage.  And sadly, I have witnessed many times, when a woman states something occurred on stage that felt sexist, the never-ending cycle of Mansplaining begins.  On the flip side, I have also witnessed apology.  Thank YOU!

I would like to propose something different then the norm.  These particular improvisors are also players in a society that does not treat men and women equally, thus this slimy behavior is an outgrowth of our society.  Let me also say, women are players in creating an unequal society, as well- by perhaps allowing the behaviors to continue, or not posessing the power to change the behavior of others in any real sense- given the unequal power dynamics.  I want to be clear though.  The victim should not be blamed, but there should be support from the larger society to help stop the disempowerment of women.  It is a collective problem, a systemic problem, a cultural problem. is not a male bashing blog.  What I am attempting to say in my blog posts is that the current improv society often does not treat women equally, and by agreeing with this statement- this by definition makes you a feminist. Or as I am coining now, a femprovisor.

Many feminists point out female role models to level the playing field per say, hoping this will inspire other women to also level up.   Other tactics of feminism are pointing out stories, research, and statistics where inequality occurs between the genders.  Sometimes, writers point out the specific strengths women posses, further illustrating that women should be acknowledged and celebrated for these unique strengths.  This says that women add something incredibly valuable to our society, and that certain something may not be celebrated in a patriarchal society.   And why not?

One of my dear male friends told me once that the name of my improv theatre company, Leela, sounded too feminine, and that I should change it in order to capture more business.  And why is a feminine sounding name something negative?  Hmmmm…..  Perhaps I should change it to Go Improv, Action, Power, Full Throttle?!!! No thank you, I prefer Leela.  It captures me, my style of play, and my femininity.

I love feminism.  When I found feminism, I found power.  Power in making a difference for myself and others.  I was inspired to take action instead of just sitting by waiting for a shift in the society.  Feminism gives me a voice and a collection of like-minded people to stand beside in the pain of gender inequality.

My goal with is to point out how sometimes our improv society does not treat female improvisors equally.  There is much research to back up sexism in the greater society, and perhaps we need to start doing this research as improvisors too.  There is a great blog BayAreaActor – the blogger is simply counting.  Counting the number of male and female roles in local equity theater shows, and tracking who is getting paid for these roles.  The results are quite disproportionately male.  Something many local female actors have been shouting from the rooftops for a very long time!  But now, maybe the numbers will finally provide the proof. The numbers do not lie.

I’m not advocating for greater victimization of women, I’m advocating for acknowledgement.  For awareness of the problem is the first step in changing the problem.  If we as a culture, can’t even admit there’s a problem, there will be no change.

So, improvisors, stand together with me.  Be brave, admit there’s a problem in our improv culture and call yourself a Femprovisor, regardless of your gender.  Stand with me for change.  There’s nothing wrong with wanting equality for all, right?  Help me fight the good fight.  If you dare to stand with me, post “I Am A Femprovisor”  in the comments below.  Perhaps even take it a bit further and tweet it or post on your facebook wall.     Take acknowledgment of the fact that there is more to do for true gender equality to occur.  I also encourage you to share with others your experience after saying the “F” Word out loud and proud. It’s been a pretty educational week for me.

Yeah I Said FEMPROVISOR!  I hope you will too.

Thank you Fontana Butterfield Guzman, Valerie Weak, and the rest of the “Yeah I Said Feminist” women.  Couldn’t do this without your support!

About Femprovisor
Femprovisor = Jill Eickmann, the founder and Artistic Director of Leela, San Francisco's premier long-form improvisational theatre company and training center. She also serves as an Associate Producer for the San Francisco Improv Festival.