This is a response to Erik Voss at Vossprov (LA based Writer and Improv Actor.).
Make sure to check out his blog post entitled: While we’re at it, let’s stop misogyny in the improv community too. His blog is very well-written, and has some great tips for improvisors also wishing to be allies.
Listen Up! Let’s Stop Misogyny in the Improv Community (Response to Vossprov)
In addition to working as an improv teacher, producer, and director, I am also a psychotherapist and drama therapist and have worked for many years as a therapist for women and children. As someone who dances between the therapy and improv worlds- I have observed that the number one crossover in both teaching/performing improv and providing therapy is building trust.
I worked for many years as a social worker and therapist in the foster care system, counseling possibly the most vulnerable people in America- children in foster care. These children come from such horrific abuse- the stories I could tell you would make your blood boil. Many of these children are also children of color and come from impoverished backgrounds. Their innocence of childhood was ripped away from them for no reason. They have no reason to trust. Why would they? Their parents, the people in charge of caring for them, failed them. The people who took care of them when their parents couldn’t often don’t meet their needs either- social workers with massive caseloads and foster parents with limited resources, an overloaded court system full of bureaucracy and red tape and monetization. These kids are vulnerable beings put into a world of disarray with no ground to stand upon.
So when I, a friendly, smiling, privileged white woman walks into the room, do you think this child will trust me with her pain? Heck no! It takes time and commitment and trust, and still after that there will be many things I’m sure this vulnerable child will not tell me in order to protect herself from harm. To do my job as a therapist, I must listen, non-judgmentally, without an agenda, and believe her story- trust her experience is real, and mirror the very real emotions she is experiencing. This is how trust is built.
So what does a therapy session with a traumatized child have to do with teaching improv? For many- improv is the ultimate act of trust. Public speaking is a top 10 fear for many, as is making a fool of oneself, a fear of intimacy, a fear of commitment, a fear of rejection, oh and fear of the dark! All these fears make up IMPROV! Terrifying improv!!! On top of that,- we are asking folks to trust 110% in their fellow players. It’s essentially the trapeze of theatre- acting, writing, sometimes literally flying without a net (another fear), with only your fellow players to catch you. So if a female player says that she felt victimized or demeaned on stage, listen to her and believe her. This will allow her to trust and free fall into the beauty of the improvised art form.
#yesallwomen have been the victim of some form of gender inequality and/or sexual harassment.
Misogynist comments and insensitivity towards women is an outgrowth of our society and is accepted as a norm. Women should not be expected to sit back and tolerate folks that engage in misogynistic behavior. Women have to turn the other cheek and be polite to those who marginalize them ALL THE TIME- because they are not in a place of power or privilege, and usually speaking up causes more harm to ensue- very real scary life-threatening harm in many cases. (I’m potentially opening up a flood gate now as I write this- and feel very real fear as well due to past experiences of speaking up) As an improv teacher, and producer with power in the SF improv community, it is my response-ability to give the hard notes to individuals who display sexist behavior on and off stage.
I am not immune to saying insensitive things, and have done these oopsie behaviors as well.(Again, I am also an individual living in a racist, sexist, insert multiple “isms’ society). I hope others will give me the hard note in those moments, as I do not want to be someone who role models this behavior. When I get a note from a director/teacher or fellow performer, I say thank you. Even if it is hard to swallow, even if I feel defensive or uncomfortable in the moment. I listen because I have empathy with someone I hurt. Hurt people are angry, sad, betrayed and those feelings may be uncomfortable to be with- but it is crucial to listen if any healing is to be done.
Many women need time to trust their improv classmates and team-mates given their past experiences. Simply listening compassionately and non-judgmentally to someone who has been hurt is more powerful than trust falls. Listening says: “I believe you, I empathize with you, and I value you.”
If I had one piece of advise for the improv community to help stop misogyny, it is to LISTEN. Listen with all of your senses. Listen with your eyes, ears, and emotions. Listen to more than just the words, listen to the body language, and the emotional tone, and listen with compassion. In my opinion, the best improvisors are the best listeners… so look at that- your improv skills will improve while you support your female classmates. Double WIN!
So no Erik Voss- you may not get laid for that blog post. But I know by your words that when I step on the improv stage with you- that you will listen to me- and for that, you have my trust.
Jill Eickmann, MA, MFT is an actor and improv teacher/director in the SF Bay Area. She is the Artistic Director and Co-Founder of Leela, a San Francisco based holistic improvisational theatre company and training center. She also produces for The San Francisco Improv Festival, and SF’s first all women’s improv festival, Femprov Fest. She blogs at Femprovisor.com.