I have always been interested in multiple things at the same time. As an adult woman with ADHD, I have ideas about new projects while still in the beginning phases of an existing one. Whether it’s a hobby, a career or a lifelong passion, I’m fascinated by the plate-spinners who have multiple projects going at once in different spheres. Jillian Leff is one of Chicago’s interdisciplinary wonders, cultivating a presence as an actor, playwright, fight choreographer and many other plates that pique her interest. Jillian sat down (virtually) and let me into her multiple domains.
How did you get into the arts? What prompted you to branch out?
I was in drama club in high school. I feel like that’s how most people started. I got into Ball State’s BFA Acting Program, but I was always interested in writing. I wanted to [write] but because it was such an intense program some of the professors [said], “If you could be happy doing anything else go do it.” Nineteen-year-old Jillian was like, “Oh, that also means writing or doing anything else in the arts.” Senior year, I said, “Fuck it, I want to do what I want to do.” I sat down one day after class, I wrote a ten-minute [play], and that’s been my most successful piece of writing.
As a performer, what do you look for in a project?
Whenever I see a show that says, “We need a woman who can fight,” I’m like, “Oh, hello.” But that’s it. I don’t know if I look for it. I am really drawn to female-led stories, which is why I’m an ensemble member with Babes With Blades. At Ball State, I had a professor who told me, “Here’s a list of Chicago companies you can look at.” When she said “Babes With Blades,” all my classmates looked at me. So I moved here thinking, “I want to work for them.” It took three or four years but it finally happened.
How does your creative process go from there?
It’s cliché to say that my process changes with every show, but it truly does. I try to adapt to each show and its style. I have a very specific line-learning process that I try to follow. It involves throwing a tennis ball against the wall. A lot. I try to go with the flow. I like to do physical and vocal warm-ups, but again, it depends on the show. I did “She Kills Monsters” a couple of years ago and most of that cast were comedians, improvisers and combat people. Fight calls were a fucking production. We had steady bits that we did every single day and it was just so playful.
How is choreographing a fight different from acting it out?
Acting is so much easier. I am totally still learning as a choreographer. I am still new to it. I’ve only choreographed a couple shows for a few different companies. I’m even trying to become a TA for this fight class I go to a lot because I think the only way to be a better choreographer is to be a better teacher. I’m still learning vocabulary. I’m still learning the best ways to teach, but I’m lucky that I have a lot of friends in my community that I can pay attention to. And I’m like, “Please teach me your ways!”
Most of your projects feature LGBTQ+ representation. Is that an intentional objective or is Chicago theater just opening up more to those roles?
I think it’s both because I am a queer woman. But in my writing I focus on queer stories and queer representation because I just don’t think there is enough.The next step in representation is seeing and working on more shows that aren’t “gay plays,” but humans living their lives who happen to be gay. The story is about more than the fact that they are queer. It’s not necessarily about Chicago theater opening up more to these roles. It’s more of an overall cultural shift in our country. Because Chicago in general has a big queer community, that flows naturally into the theater community.
As a playwright, how does a script come about for you?
Inspiration is weird for me, because sometimes it’s just a word or phrase that pops in my head. For my play “Missed Opportunities,” I was sitting on my couch and I saw, in my head, a woman walking into her apartment, slamming the door and telling her roommate, “So apparently I’m gay now.” Like wouldn’t that be funny? For a play that I’m working on, called “The Mark,” I was riding the bus one night and the poles’ shadow made this shape on my face. I thought, “Oh, that’s dope. That looks like a tribal tattoo.” And the rest of the bus ride home was me world-building in my head.
When you start in any kind of arts field you’re told if you’re going to be an actor you need to put everything into it, if you’re going to be a writer you need to put everything into it, and so on. What advice would you give to other creatives that want to participate in multiple disciplines?
I would say: if it interests you, just do it. Because you may try it and be like, “No.” I have a friend who said to me, “I’ve tried some things… I’m going to stick to acting.” And I said, “You do that, I’m proud of you.” You might like the thing you try and both are okay. But I always say, I truly think I’m a better actor because I write and I’m a better writer because I act. That’s my advice, just do it. You never know what you’ll learn.