Life and Work with Jil Ross

May 31, 2019

Original article by Voyage Chicago:

Today we’d like to introduce you to Jil Ross.

Author and Filmmaker in a leap of faith, resigned from her job and pursued her passion.

A series of children’s books, a solid vision and lots of passion were instrumental in Jil walking into her employer’s HR department and resigning with the intentional purpose of changing the landscape of what diverse television content for youth and tweens look like. Jil desires to expand viewership by appealing to often ignored audiences. “I was having a good work day when spiritually, something came over me and said, “today is the day.” With that, nudge, I submitted my two-week notice. Soon thereafter, ” Jil began coursework at the Harold Ramis Film School of Comedy at the Second City – Chicago, January 2017. “I didn’t know that I had the wherewithal to complete the rigorous film program,” Jil explained. Instead of being intimidated by all she didn’t know, she welcomed the challenge of learning something new and committed herself to be a great storyteller and screenwriter.

Ironically, it took the voice of a child to kick-start her writing career. The previous 30+ year airline industry veteran and mother of two was first inspired to pen children’s books back in 2000, writing about her son and daughter’s shenanigans in a tween book series filled with laughter and fun, while grounded with moral lessons.

“I was trying to motivate my children, who had watched me work on a writing project as I struggled to complete it,” Jil recalled. “Finally, in 2003, my son who was 11- years-old said: ‘If you’re not going to do anything with the stories, just throw them away.”

Luckily, for children everywhere, Jil stepped up to her son’s challenge and began publishing The Shenanigans Series® which expanded to stage plays and now screenplays. Although the series protagonists are precocious and get into heaps of trouble, there’s lots of laughter and love along the way.

To continue building upon her writing skills, Jil joined the BPI writing initiative at The Black Ensemble Theater and began developing stage plays, where three of her works have been produced for their various festivals. Jil began working on her first musical for the main-stage while simultaneously, attending film school. “There are so many stories inside my head that speak to different genres, age groups, and themes, and I want to get them all out,” she explained with great enthusiasm.

As 2007 rolled around Jil became concerned with the growing amount of violence so she proposed Literacy Live! The Chicago Read-In to WVON radio and together they partnered to bring an artistic jamboree to urban children and families. Introducing visual art to underserved communities. There were authors, dancers, storytellers, tap, opera, live jazz, break dancers, American Indian ritual and ceremonial dance and spoken word.

In 2015, she wanted to challenge herself more and enrolled in a screenwriting class at The Second City, desiring to rewrite her children’s book series into scripts for television, although she was unsure about what she’d ultimately do with them. On the last day of her class, the instructor announced that Erica Ramis, the widow of Director and Second City Alum, Harold Ramis was working with Second City to start a film school in Harold’s name. Harold Ramis died of complications from autoimmune inflammatory vasculitis In 2014. To her dismay, she wasn’t accepted into the school/program. Instead of retreating to defeat, she took the gutsy move and called the school’s program director inquiring why she wasn’t selected. Jil learned that although she scored satisfactorily, the review team was unable to determine her comedic voice because of the video she’d submitted. This time, she was accepted.

Jil explains, “In January 2017, I was able to apply my vacation time, personal days and trades to accommodate the ability to attend full-time classes at Harold Ramis Film School, three days per week but it came down to me wanting to totally commit.” Although Ross holds an MA in Educational Philosophy and a Type 04, Illinois teaching certification, film studies were foreign to her. “Many of my classmates had either studied film in undergrad or had worked in the field prior. Unfortunately, I’d done neither.” Jil admits that although editing and scriptwriting software was initially challenging, she’s become comfortable with both.

Jil’s final film project, Hairsterical, a dramady that takes a look at a group of women who’re unable to sustain employment due to hair related issues. In the end, it’s obvious that the problem was about what’s going on underneath the hair. This story is complicated one and first appeared on stage at the Black Ensemble Theater as a 40 paged stage play, that she wrote. Jil adapted it for film, which is a very different style of writing. “The biggest challenge was making a play cinematic, cutting the number of scripted pages and doing so without losing the story,” she explained with a sigh of relief. I think my choices worked because the audience reacted accordingly, which is always a good sign.

Life and Work with Jil Ross

Jil grew up on Chicago’s south-side in the Pullman neighborhood. She attended St. Clotilde grammar school and attended both Immaculata and Mother McAculey high school. She has received degrees from Olive Harvey JR. College, Chicago State University and University of Illinois at Chicago, where she also obtained her Type 04 teaching certificate. Jil currently serves as the Virtus instructor at her parish.

What comes next for Jil? In June of this year, Jil began filming a web-series she wrote, inspired by her Shenanigans Series® of tween chapter books. A family show that is funny and teaches moral lessons.

Jil says her fascination with storytelling was inspired by both her paternal and maternal grandparents in addition to my fascination with irony, interest in contemporary issues and intrigue with both individual differences and different abilities. Having a father who stutters, a cousin who’s deaf, neighbors who were albino, autistic and/or who lived with dwarfism, parents who were foster parents, it goes on and on… You name it and I witnessed it. As a result, I have witnessed diversity in a way that not many have and I deep interest in wanting to write television and film content that addresses understanding people with different needs in a way that is not currently being explored on television or in a film. These examples and so many more are gifts that were given to me. I’m grateful that I’m able to use my writing skills as a tool to teach and tell stories of understanding, about people with different abilities. Distinctions that children
are often oblivious to and rarely cast judgment upon. What a gift!

Life and Work with Jil Ross

Great, so let’s dig a little deeper into the story – has it been an easy path overall and if not, what were the challenges you’ve had to overcome?
Although I made up my mind to resign from my job I was still fearful. I genuinely enjoyed my work but I knew in my gut that it was time. I second guessed my decision after about two weeks, but two weeks after that I was better. It was humbling being the oldest person to graduate from the school to date, and the only Black person in my cohort among students who were my children’s age. There was another student who was older than me and she dropped out of the program within the first two months, saying it was too rigorous. That really made me doubt myself. I had a complete meltdown. I thought if she couldn’t do this what the hell was I thinking? That’s when I decided to fully commit. My playlist was constantly blasting the likes of Hamilton’s “One Shot,” “Eminem’s “Lose Yourself” and Kelly Price’s, “My Time.” One of my teachers advised us to be relentless, and I bought into that advice, unapologetically. No looking back, no regrets. There were SO many struggles along the way. I had zero knowledge of Final Draft and Adobe Premier software and had to learn it to complete projects. I leaned on classmates and worked through my lunch breaks a lot and I looked at tutorials on YouTube. I was so unskilled that I was opened to all for bettering my understanding of this new world.

Advice? I just needed to do me. Period. I had been to a number of funerals of co-workers, classmates, childhood friends and family members who’d died of a host of long-term, short-term, and unexpected illness. I just wanted to live. I was hospitalized in July 2016, in Korea, from a ‘complicated migraine’ that took on stroke-like symptoms and again in November 2016 for heart palpitations, which was diagnosed as anxiety. I have low blood pressure, low blood sugar and the longevity gene runs in my family and I got to a place I simply wanted to live. I had the years with United but not the age to benefit from the retirement pay, so I walked away with no expectation of getting money. I do believe that God takes care of everything, and about six months later after my savings was beginning to dry up, I ran into an ex-coworker who asked me if the money I received was enough. I had no idea that I qualified for the union pension that I was entitled to after 25 years of service. It was truly a blessing finding out that I was entitled to the small amount that I do receive. Such a blessing.

My advice to young people is if you have to work, work hard early so that you can play hard later, but still young enough to enjoy it. If you’re already working in a field you like, that you enjoy going hard in it. Be relentless. After all, this is not the dress rehearsal, this is the show, so perform.

Life and Work with Jil Ross

Please tell us about Minor Major Entertainment.
I write for tweens, those precocious ones between the ages of 8-11 years old, I write about the things that youth do that the parents are quite upset about when they happen, but when they look back on it, they laugh about it.

I have written a comedy web series based on my Shenanigans book series. In keeping with the theme of the books, the web series will tell the stories of precocious siblings, Foster and Marie and their friends, classmates, and neighbors, who are all coming of age in their diverse community. The beautiful thing about this family comedy is that we not only see how the children and their friends are different but also how they are alike in spite of those difference. In the series, we see diversity beyond the traditional scope. We see children who live with vitiligo, alopecia, albinism, who stutter, who have lisp, who are awkward, who have parents who use sign language to communicate. The list is endless. What I do is celebrate differences and perfect imperfection in children. I want to normalize differences and make children feel secure about their differences by creating a show where real children can see themselves reflected on television. This will boost self-esteem and help eradicate fear, stigmas, and stereotypes. I’m really proud about that. The show is centered on family values but still funny and entertaining to children.

Life and Work with Jil Ross
Life and Work with Jil Ross
Life and Work with Jil Ross

Do you think there are structural or other barriers impeding the emergence of more female leaders?
I would have to say that in this industry, it’s hard to get people to really “get” my concept of the show that I write – or anyone who is creating outside of the box of genre’s and stories that we’ve already seen. I do not focus on lots of nifty technology, I don’t use animation, I tell good solid funny stories. I don’t use profanity and I really am focused on kids being allowed to be kids and the innocence and precocious that comes with that. Because of that, I’ve had a hard time finding investors for my series. It’s cool though and because I didn’t want to compromise my premise, I ended up producing my own series. I’m not a strong pitcher, as I don’t really understand the concept but I can have a passionate conversation about what do and what I write and know that it will benefit youth who fill ostracized and disconnected. I think women are still expected to compromise to fit in. Even with all the exposure of the discourse in Hollywood, it’s all good talking points but the action to change has been slow, in my opinion.

Sadly, I think that society has a very narrow view of what diversity is, which is often limited to black/white straight/gay, that we (society) don’t realize that there are so many other struggles and self-esteem issues that kids have, and if not addressed it could damage them and impact what kind of adults they become. I want to do what I can to address some of these differences and lots of people just don’t get that. I am hopeful that the film industry is becoming more open that there are lots of stories that need to be told and they are lending one good ear to hear those stories, but rather than wait for the industry to catch up with me, I just want to feed a need that I see and have identified.

I would advise women to learn as much as they can about their field of interest, and be humble in their approach. I wanted to help develop my writing skills and have been an active and contributing member to Stage 18 (film) and The Black Ensemble Theater (BPI Member), I took screenwriting classes at the Second City, and continue to write and publish books for my reading series. I love to tell funny yet meaningful stories and immerse myself in writing styles and formats to be able to be versatile in my choices for my craft.

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