As an ongoing series in The Marbury Project, we interview women working across the country in theater today.
Eileen Tull is a storyteller, performance artist, poet, comedian and one-woman-show person. Her work investigates feminism, body image, addiction (to technology, to substances, and to ourselves), and, above all, seeking joy. Her work has been seen all over Chicago in theaters, bookstores, art galleries, bars and other non-traditional spaces, as well as performed throughout the country, from San Francisco to New York City. Eileen co-curates Sappho’s Salon, a monthly performance series for female-identifying artists exploring gender, sexuality, and feminism, held at the Women and Children First bookstore.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently writing and workshoping a new one woman show about addiction and recovery. I’m in a sketch writing and performance group that’s creating a handful of new shows over the next few months. I’ll be presenting a Chicago encore of my 2015 one woman show about life, love, and Harrison Ford movies called Bad Dates, Or What Killed That Monkey In Indiana Jones Only Makes Me Stronger before I take it to the Dallas Solo Festival. And on top of that, co-running two monthly shows, Sappho’s Salon and Do Not Submit: Lincoln Park.
What made you choose to put feminism so directly in your work?
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Art is how I process my life[/pullquote]It’s not so much a choice, as it’s just how I live my life. My point of view as a human is that of a fierce feminist who likes movies, my family and art museums, so those things are going to bleed into my creative works. Art is how I process things in my life, so when I experience events that are related to my femaleness, such as street harassment or body image issues, I distill the experience into a creative product. Only in the past year or so, have I started organizing and participating in more events and shows that are feminist-driven, mostly out of comfort and thematic interest. Spaces and shows run only by cis white men tend to be less open to outside points of view, in my experience.
How does feminism inform your work about addiction and body image?
Again, it has a lot to do with my point of view just from being a woman. When it comes to addiction, I have a lot of complex feelings about the different experiences of male and female addicts. We gender addicts in treatment, in perception and even in death. Providing the perspective of a female addict in recovery is a vital tenet of my work.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Joy is the only way through darkness.[/pullquote]Body image tends to be a much more feminist issue, as women’s bodies are policed more viciously than men’s, with queer and trans bodies facing even harsher scrutiny. Both of these areas can carry a lot of shame, and the reason I speak so openly about my experiences is to unburden myself in hopes to give others permission to do the same. If we keep our shame silent, it becomes our daily weight. It’s a terrible way to live. And the fact is, so many people are dealing with these issues. We can be stronger together.
Why is seeking joy such a critical element of your work?
Joy is the only way through darkness. Life is only bearable with a little humor and happiness. And since my work explores potentially intense subject matter, I have to keep the focal point as joy. Otherwise there is too much to get bogged down in. And while I want to explore difficult subjects, I want to go further than just pointing at hard truth. The joy is the solution. Ultimately, it’s been the only way I’ve survived.
Why is it important for women to share themselves and their stories onstage?
I’ve been using the line that in this day and age, a woman merely standing in front of people and sharing her truth is an inherently feminist act. And it’s well-tread territory that women’s stories are not being written on a large scale. There are so many female experiences that we’ve been trained to minimize, so it’s vital that we speak out and tell our stories. Speaking loudly and unashamedly is an exhilarating and emboldening experience.
Have you noticed any ways that gender influences how your work is received?
I’m not sure if there are big differences. I notice that when I talk about love or dating, I occasionally will have men approach me afterwards, eager to help me “solve my problems.” I dabbled a little in stand-up comedy, so I got heckled about my body parts and booed when I used the word ‘feminist.’ Which is, upsettingly, par for the course. In that particular scene, people of all genders would often approach me with surprise that they enjoyed my performance. “I usually don’t like female comedians,” they would compliment(?) me. I think a lot of audiences are ready for women to fail, so we have to work six times as hard to be likable, but not desperate for attention; cutting edge, but not crass; intelligent, but not academic; pleasurable to look at but not too hot to be stupid; etc. etc.
What are some of your observations about how gender impacts Chicago’s theater and performance arts communities?
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Diversity in perspective is vital to compelling work.[/pullquote]For me personally, stories that are only about cisgender men are boring. In Chicago in 2016, there’s no reason to be presenting an artistic experience represented by only that particular gender subset. Diversity in perspective is vital, not only to serve the community, but to produce compelling work.
Chicago is making tremendous strides on a storefront and independent level. Larger institutions are getting there, but it’s about leveling out the gatekeepers. If the higher ups of every artistic institution have the same identity of privilege, progress will be slow. There are amazing people doing great work, and we have to keep moving forward.
Who are some other women in Chicago’s theater and performance art scene who are doing interesting solo and/or interdisciplinary work?
Oh my gosh, there are hundreds. Lily Be (The Stoop) and Roberta Miles (Loose Chicks) are both captivating storytellers and producers, and both are real as hell. The Beast Women (Jill Erickson and Michelle Power) bring together inspiring lineups of multi-talented women every few months. Jane Beachy and the folks at Salonathon curate an insanely good showcase every single week. Sonia Denis and Tien Tran are two of my favorite comedians. Arlene Malinowski is the life-changing queen of solo performance. Laura Scruggs is a talented and wonderful champion of solo performers. Danielle Pinnock-Wallace is a body image warrior and solo force to be reckoned with. Bea Cordelia hits it out of the park each time with such gorgeous poetry. Knife and Fork creates so many opportunities for conversation and expression. And there’s so many people: Amy Sumpter, Mary Zee, Lynne Roberts, Kate Healy, Puja Mohindra, Fawzia Mirza, so many amazing people.
What do you hope your work offers to women and girls in Chicago’s theater and performance arts communities?
I hope my work offers empowerment, in the sense that they can recognize themselves in my stories. I hope they feel inspired to tell their own stories. And I hope people are moved to try to improve their lives and live with more joy.
Write right now. Your story is not trivial, no one has the benefit of seeing the world exactly like you do.