Submitting Like a Man

My Year Resubmitting Scripts as a Dude

This is the first installment of the blog series Submitting Like A Man (SLAM), created by writer Mya Kagan. The project examines what happens when Mya resubmits scripts to previously rejected opportunities, this time using a man’s name. For more on SLAM, check out submittinglikeaman.com or follow @theSLAMblog or @Mya_Mya.

author working at a window
Mya writes in the window at Drama Book Shop as part of Theaterspeak's "Write Out Front." Photo by Brian Griffin.

Strap on your balls and grow some chest hair: for the next year, I will be submitting like a man: resubmitting every script I have written, but under a man’s name.

Let me explain.

From the day I graduated NYU nine years ago with a shiny new BFA in Dramatic Writing, I started submitting plays. There are many ways one can build a resume as a playwright, and submitting to calls for scripts was the one I chose. A few months in, I started keeping a list of all the submissions I was doing. Part organization, part paranoia—I wanted to have a record of where I’d sent my stuff.

Fast forward to today, and that list is 117 entries long. The majority is submissions to theatres, theatre companies, and festivals. A handful (especially recently) is submissions to TV networks' writing programs. All of them are submissions sent in response to open calls for scripts; none of them are works I sent unsolicited, and it doesn’t count anything sent to someone I know or a friend-of-a-friend who was looking for plays.

Here are the results: About 10 percent of the listed plays have been acceptances, 5 percent have been semi-finalists or “almosts,” and 85 percent were rejections. That may sound grim, but this business is a numbers game.

Or so I’ve always assumed.

Over the past few years, I have been increasingly disheartened by the statistics on women in theatre and TV. The exact number varies from study to study, but they all come in around 20 percent. That’s right—51 percent of the population in the US is women, but only about 20 percent of our writers in theatre and TV are female. Wanna see the data for yourself? Read The Count from the Dramatists Guild, or American Theatre’s article that aptly likens statistics on women writers to the old “Really?!?” bit from SNL’s Weekend Update. And if those aren’t enough to convince you, Women in Arts & Media Coalition has a whole list of depressing studies, as does WomenArts.

With all these numbers reminding me that my industry sees and treats me as inferior to my male counterpart, I started wondering what my career would be like if I had an indiscernible name. What if I was a Jordan or a Morgan? Or what if I was an unfamiliar foreign name, like Sizwe or Hideyoshi? Would I have been more successful if my gender was uncertain? Or better yet—would I have been more successful if people straight-up thought I was a dude?

Enter “Submitting Like a Man”—one year in which I take all the rejected scripts on my list, and resubmit them using a man’s name.

For convenience sake, we’ll call my new male self Max Kines. That’s not the name I’m actually using (the real name, of course, will have to be kept secret), but it’s in the same vein as the name of choice, by which I mean, the name keeps me in the same demographic as my real self (white and Jewish) with the exception, of course, of gender.

Everything else about Max is the same as me. Max is thirty-one years old, and a New Yorker of thirteen years. Like mine, Max’s work is presented with adjectives like smart, lively, and deliciously absurd. Max went to NYU, has a professional website akin to my own, has a Twitter handle, and has the same resume as me. For the sake of tricking Google, the titles of each script have been changed, but the content of each script—the actual words on the page—remain the same. Oh, and Max loves summer, hates grapefruit, and is definitely a Democrat.

There is more to all of this—rules and guidelines I’ve set up for how it will work—which I’ll elaborate on at greater length in a forthcoming post. Of course, despite all the structure I have given to this project, I do acknowledge this experiment is far from scientific. Although I am submitting the scripts to the same places, I can’t control for pretty much anything else at all: I will be amongst a different applicant pool, at a time when any given organization will be looking for different things than before, and in all likelihood will be evaluated by a different set of readers. There is nothing in this that will “prove” anything, it’s just a project that I am conducting out of curiosity.

I know there are many more questions that I’ve not yet addressed. What do I hope to gain? What will I do if Max is accepted? What’s in a name, anyway? Stay with me, and I promise they’ll be answered.

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The project examines what happens when a woman resubmits scripts to previously rejected opportunities, this time using a man’s name.

Submitting Like a Man

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I am likewise intrigued, but I wonder if the sample might be a bit tainted. As in "I remember reading this submission from another playwright; something shady must be going on."

One thought: I like the idea of the experiment, but I question your decision to resubmit to the same opps as before with the same script.

I assume you're not going to submit again to the 13 opportunities where you won or was selected. So you're only submitting to the 104 opportunities that passed on you.

By random chance alone, your script will do better at some of those places.

But that doesn't prove anything, because if you did submit to those 13 wins again, you wouldn't win all of them a second time. There would most likely be some rejections there too, even with a man's name.

I like the experiment, but I think the methodology is flawed by resubmitting the same scripts.

I'm a guy who would love to have 10% acceptance rate. You're doing great, Mya! But I wouldn't be surprised if you do even better with a gender switch. Best of luck out there.

I don't think the Fine Arts should ever become a numbers game where you are keeping a count. I focus on creating meaningful work. For example, it is fairly easy to get published online nowadays and you could post an endless amount of content on the Internet which nobody would read. My goal is not to spit out as many plays as I can and submit hundreds of scripts. My goal is to write a great play and get it produced where it will reach a wide audience. The theater offers neither fame nor fortune to the playwright. The only incentive is to write something you can be proud of and which communicates something important. I reject a lot of my own ideas because the concept just isn't worthy of anyone's time. True ambition is to create a great work of art that endures, not a mess of toss offs that are soon forgotten. It would be different if you could make a lot of money and become famous by being productive. But all you can shoot for is personal satisfaction so it has be meaningful.

I'm not too concerned about anything being recognized. There are no guarantees, but it’s unlikely; most
theatres and organizations change readers from year to year. Most also
have multiple readers, so there is not a huge likelihood that my scripts
end up back in the hands of the same reader AND that the reader
remembers my script from however many years ago.

Unless you change the title they might just see through it. Most theaters have databases of submissions and the title (unless a vaguely generic one) will likely come up when logging the script in for tracking purposes. If you are going to re-submit plays to theaters, I would recommend changing the title and your mailing address. Both will likely get flagged and may lead to a distorted result. Good luck! Curious how this will turn out.

Good idea. I'll bet you'll have more luck. Now, I'm tempted to do this...I'm female and 9 of my 10 scripts are women's stories. If I change the titles and loglines and my name...hmmm...interesting concept.

It's arguable that it could be better. It works out to a little more than one per month, which considering how involved some of them are (artistic statement, answers to essay ques, etc.) is a number I've been comfortable with. What I think puts me in a unique situation is that I have them in a list, so I can track what I sent and to whom, and conduct this project of resubmitting them.

Thanks for sharing this. I'm very curious to see how your results work out. As others have said, 10% acceptance rate is pretty good. (I just posted a blog post with my stats for last year, plus links to other folks who track such things.) If you ever get interested in submitting more, I highly recommend joining the Playwrights Submission Binge Yahoo group, that focuses on marketing for playwrights. We take up the challenge (Binge) twice a year of sending out a script a day, every day, for 30 days. Good way to get in the habit, and it's a very supportive community.

Good idea for a project...I'm curious to see what results it yields.

Overall, as a liberal white male, I admittedly have some consternation over this issue of representation.

I definitely support the idea of having theatre be more inclusive and representative...to better reflect society, etc. And I agree that theatre has been too male-dominated for too long.

That said, I feel that I hear conflicting messages about what the role of the white male should be:

- On one hand, I hear the message "theaters should produce more plays by women and people of color" (something I agree with)

- But on the other hand, if I as a white male choose to direct a show by a female writer or a writer of color, there are some who would accuse me of "appropriation" or of producing the show with a "white male gaze".

So the question becomes, for white men in positions of leadership, do we select "what we know" as white men.... or do we select for inclusion?

I realize that this also means having more women and people of color in key artistic roles too....but the larger question remains: How can white males who believe in inclusion do so without being "patronizing" or without being accused of appropriation?

You ask some great questions! In my opinion, I don't think there is one definitive answer to the role of the white male, but I think among the many things that are important are being supportive, being an ally, making inclusive choices, and being a good listener. I have collaborated successfully with many white male directors, and I think what makes it work is being constructive, open to change, and maintaining a conversation.

Will you be entering selection processes that request blind entries as well?

I would be curious to see how numbers will skew with that factor.

I know a great deal of venues that call for submissions ask for a "blind" approach.

I've debated resubmitting to opportunities which asked for blind submissions. I love blind submissions (there will be a forthcoming post on that subject!), but since changing my name would not have any effect on something being submitted blindly, I haven't yet decided how that fits into the project. Of the 117 on the list, there were only a few (maybe 3-4) that had asked for blind submissions, so it hasn't come up yet.

Happy to stay with you and follow - I wish you much acceptance! I wonder though if you are submitting "as a man" only by changing your name -- it is my feeling, as a female playwright who is also white and Jewish but no longer in my 30s, that the idea of submitting like a man is much more than having a male name -- I think that men submit more often than women and more aggressively. I have even been known to be asked to submit and talk myself out of submitting! So while I am now up to almost a hundred submissions per year, every year. it is still far less than many manage to do, and I wonder if your numbers aren't particularly low in terms of submitting because your female self doesn't aggressively pursue submitting enough (!) as this has been and still often is my problem, so I am projecting, but I think it's relevant given the nature of the topic. I try to submit to something every day now, but it turns out to be much less than that! And I try to look for opportunities where they are not explicit. But I don't think submitting is half the ballgame -- I think there are connections that have to be made on the ground. I think there are collaborations, and there are opportunities to be a part of communities that are part of the submission story too. It will be interesting to see how it goes!

Thanks for your support and your feedback, Emma. I agree that I think men probably have different submission styles than women. As part of my project, I am doing my best to make the assumed gender of the name the only thing that's different about the submissions -- so when something asks for an artistic statement, my male pseudonym will send a copy of the same one that I had previously sent as myself even though, as you said, a man may send one that has different qualities about it. For me, it's about seeing what happens when the perceived gender is the only thing that changes.

As for quantity of submissions -- great job that you're up to 100 per year! I find that I simply don't have time for that many, between work, writing time, and my other obligations. I will say that out of the 117 on my list, the number I did per year was higher when I was younger. When I was first starting out, I submitted to ANYTHING. But as I got older and had more experience under my belt, I started to become more particular about what I was willing to spend time submitting to. At that point I also had more connections and was able to do more sharing of my work without "submitting" -- the list of 117 doesn't count anything I've sent to someone I know. So of course, the project is not scientific, it's just an interesting lens to examine what (if anything) happens! Hope you will continue to follow and enjoy the journey.

"With all these numbers reminding me that my industry sees and treats me as inferior to my male counterpart..."

Wow, that's quite a leap. One which, alas, it has become all-too-clear over the last year that many women WANT to believe it true, even if the truth lies elsewhere. As the fact that the majority of the artistic directors, literary managers, and audiences are female would lead one to believe.

And yet, despite this, the spin women playwrights almost always put on it -- rather than blame their fellow women -- is that it is somehow men's fault that they aren't produced as much.

I suspect that if a comprehensive study were done that corrected for the "celebrity factor" (that is, discount all plays by Shakespeare or other famous playwrights) that the split amongst male and female playwrights would be much closer to 50/50.

Admittedly some of the worst playwrights are males, but they keep getting produced NOT because they are male but because were first (and often remain) actors. (Or for some other reason have a famous name.) Theater is a business, and those who run it know that people (especially women) would rather pay money to go see a play written by a famous person than a play written by someone who isn't. That's a hard truth, but I think any woman who is being honest with herself knows that for most of her kind it is, alas, all too true.

(It's before my time, but I'm reminded of how reportedly in the 50's and 60's male movie stars would have "public appearances" in cities across the country where women could gawk at them... without having to bother to actually sit through a movie or play!)

Whereas a man in the audience is much more likely to care if there are any attractive women on stage (no matter how unfamous), not the fame of the playwright. And theater managers, knowing this, are thus going to lean toward producing plays that have attractive young women in them. And I suspect that such plays are more likely to have been written by men than women.

I've just scratched the surface here (after all this is supposed to be a comment, not an article), but I hope it is clear that there are all sorts of reasons for the disparity between the number of plays produced by women versus men -- and none of them have to do with anyone being biased against a play because the playwright is a woman.

As the author said, the true source of the lack of "parity" must be understood before it can be dealth with. Endless whining won't lead to enlightenment, nor will this this extremely unscientific (as the author and others point out) experiment. All it, and the promotion of it, does is send the signal that it is okay for women to commit fraud.

Speaking of which, is it now okay if I now submit to contests or other opportunities that specifically state they are for women only?

Thanks for your remarks. I think there was a bit of misunderstanding, and I apologize if this wasn't clear in my post. I do not, by any means, think "it is somehow men's fault" that there is a lack of female plays being produced. In fact, one study found (to the surprise of many female playwrights) that it's the female artistic directors who are the most guilty of not selecting women's work. So we don't know the reason that only 20% of plays being produced are written by women, but what's clear is that there is a discrepancy happening somewhere along the way; this project is one way of examining that discrepancy. It's not a science project, it's an art project -- a lens through which I am examining something that I find interesting.

As for fraud -- I am not committing fraud. I am using a pen name, which is a well-established way that a writer can identify. There are lots of writers who do this, including women who famously use male pen names (George Eliot comes to mind right away). I'd also like to point out that my male pseudonym is not using it as an opportunity to become eligible for anything that I was not already eligible for as a woman. "He" is only applying to things that I would be able to apply to as my regular self. Aside from the perceived gender that will be implied by the name, the submissions will not assume any new demographics different than my own to become an eligible for initiatives meant for minorities or specific groups; I'm not taking away submission opportunities meant for others, I am merely using a different name to submit as myself.

Thank you again for sharing your thoughts, and I hope you will continue to follow and enjoy the project.

TWM - Submissions are for new work and of course TV and film is contemporary - Maya is not up against Shakespeare or Shaw or famous playwrights (who will be commissioned and a season will be built around that play). We're talking new work and emerging writers, largely. This is absolutely about gender just as the lack of diversity is absolutely about race. Is it about sexism and racism? I don't think blatantly so. I think it is about the familiar. White men still run the majority of theatres across NA, Britain, England, Australia and NZ. Absolutely the top of the TV and film food chain is astonishingly dominated by white men. Scripts are chosen for many reasons, but for sure they are chosen because the reader connects to them, they are moved, they resonate, they speak to the reader. White men are choosing white men because they are familiar. "He is telling my story" Are women guilty for this? Sure. We make up 50% of the audience, not just 50% of the artists. Are we making a concentrated effort to support diversity? What are we watching? For my part, I have decided to stop watching all plays written by white American men for a while. Not because they aren't terrific, not because I can't learn something from them. But because I only have so much time and so many dollars. If I take out the big kahuna, I have room and $ to support female writers and diverse writers. I think what Mya is doing will result in a better response and that makes me a bit depressed. I hope, once she gets accepted, she will reveal her gender.

This is just what I was waiting for, a man to come along and not only explain to me that sexism isn't real, but to then claim to be oppressed himself and wants to know if he can submit to contests specifically geared towards women (because the theater landscape is littered with preferential treatment for women, apparently). He even goes so far as to accuse the author of fraud for using the time-honored and entirely legal practice of using a pen name.

It's so predictable, it's as if they are all working from the same script.

I wonder if you're not reading a bit more into TWM's comment than is really there.

Yes, many Men's Rights Activists love to claim that they are the oppressed ones, but I don't see TWM actually making any such claim here. He talks about what he sees (rightly or wrongly) as structural factors that lean against the selection of scripts by women.

And his question about submitting to contests for women only is obviously rhetorical. But the point is one to consider.

When we retell the stories of female writers using male pseudonyms in order to get published (George Eliot, George Sand, lots of others) - or even an ambiguous pseudonym (J.K. Rowling) - we tend to treat them as heroines who triumphed over an unjust system and revealed the injustice. And lots of us are rooting for Mya to pull off the same thing.

But when the same gambit runs in the other direction - Michael Derrick Hudson sees his poem rejected by the journal Prairie Schooner, resubmits the same piece under an Asian and possibly female name (Yi-Fen Chou), it's accepted and winds up in The Best American Poetry 2015 - the outrage resounds through the literary mediaverse.

I'd bet that you, KM, if you knew about it, were pretty steamed about that. That's likely true of many of us here. But what Michael Derrick Hudson did is basically the same thing that Mya Kagan is doing now, and most of us here are cheering her on.

If we want to think of ourselves as egalitarian, fair-minded people, we need at least to acknowledge that discrepancy.

- - - - -

Speaking of things we need to acknowledge -

Pseudonyms are indeed time-honored. They are legal. They are widely considered defensible. They probably do little damage and sometimes do a lot of good. But they are deliberate, knowing misrepresentations, so they do, in the strictest sense, constitute fraud.

No, I am sorry. They do not meet the test for fraud.

As for the outrage expressed when white men use what you call this "gambit" there's a reason for that. White men have privilege. They already have the advantage, so for them to assume the identity of a minority or less privileged group to gain an even greater advantage, well, that's rightfully seen as fundamentally unjust. It's no different than people who have comfortable incomes who inherit low income housing and then rent it out for their own profit. Is that technically legal? Yes. But it's unethical, because it's not following the spirit of the law- it's taking advantage of a situation. Do you go to the communal plate and take all the cookies because technically you can or do you share because that plate was intended for everyone, including those less fortunate that you.

The reason I came down on TWM is because the only people I see initiating that argument are the types who will hotly tell you that THEY aren't privileged, they worked hard so why should they make room for women or minorities. They don't understand that they started on third base. They don't understand that privilege isn't a guarantee of success or a free ride, but it is a significant advantage, so no, it's not cool to step on the people below you and say you deserve it because you can take it.

Your second paragraph is a good, effective statement of the argument against Michael Derrick Hudson-as-Yi-Fen Chou.

I understand just what you're saying in your third paragraph, but it's a reaction to things that TWM may or may not think but didn't actually write in his comment.

Pseudonyms definitely don't meet the legal definition of fraud. But they certainly can fall under the dictionary definition of fraud: "deliberate deception, trickery, or cheating intended to gain an advantage". (The advantage being acceptance of one's manuscript for production or publication.)

Pseudonyms are, for better and worse, deliberate misrepresentation of one's identity. But you and I agree that they're legal, long-established, often morally defensible, and rarely harmful.

- - - - -

PS - It's straight white men who really have the privilege. Gay white men certainly have more privilege now than we did 40 or even 30 years ago, but it's not as much privilege as straight men have, and ours is still more precarious.

This is pretty rad. I'm very interested in how this will turn out. Love that you took a creative initiative to do something about it. I will stay with you!

I wish you luck, Mya. I'm curious to see how your experiment turns out. However, I wish you were submitting scripts that you'd not submitted before. I think it will be interesting to see how many of the theatres/organizations you submit to will catch that it was a script already submitted by someone else. I once thought of doing the opposite: submitting scripts under a gender-neutral psuedonym to outfits that would only accept scripts from women, or LGBT writers, or writers of color--as if the writer's gender, sexual orientation or race had anything to do with the quality of the play. I do think we need more plays that focus on women or under-represented sectors of society. There is an extreme imbalance, in my view, in the history of theatre. However, I don't think that there is necessarily a correlation between playwright gender and whether the play gets produced. I'd like to think that the quality of the writing determines whether or not a theatre will invest their resources into developing/producing your play.

I am considering also doing scripts that have not been previously submitted -- haven't decided about it yet (it's the subject of a forthcoming post). I'm not too concerned about anything being recognized, though. There are no guarantees, but it’s unlikely; most
theatres and organizations change readers from year to year. Most also
have multiple readers, so there is not a huge likelihood that my scripts
end up back in the hands of the same reader AND that the reader
remembers my script from however many years ago.

As for correlation between gender and being produced, all the statistics and studies about the gender of who is being produced show that there is a definite imbalance -- roughly 80% men and 20% women. Whether that imbalance is actually due to gender or due to something else is something we don't know, but as someone on the 20% side, I have to say it's hard to feel like it's NOT about gender. Whatever the cause, what we do need to do is fix it. Unfortunately the many initiatives to change it have not generated significant improvement yet. So we'll see what happens with this project! Thanks for your support and stay tuned.

I was thinking of using Mike L Hess as my name, by the way it is. It is short for Michale (pronounce like Michael, a boy's name). If you read it fast, you will be saying my name. Yes, I am a female. It is a long story how I got my name.

Excited to hear the results! FWIW, ten percent seems pretty standard, even for the men I know. But will be watching closely...

Cool idea! Thanks for doing this and sharing your process. I've often wondered if I would have different results had I been working all these years under a male pseudonym. For what it's worth, a 10% return on a marketing effort is pretty great. When I was a recruiter, we had to make 20 calls a day, and the expectation was that we would get one lead out of it. Not a deal, just a lead.

Yes, I agree that 10% is not bad, although when you're looking at 10% of 117, it works out to about 11 or 12 acceptances in the course of 9 years -- a little more than 1 per year. Again, I'm not complaining, I am happy to have had those experiences, just helping put them into the larger perspective. Thank you for your support!

...when you're looking at 10% of 117, it works out to about 11 or 12 acceptances in the course of 9 years -- a little more than 1 per year.

Leaving aside the point that many people have already made that a 10% success rate is actually unusually high (based both on my own experience and the anecdotal reports of other playwrights I know) -- most of the playwrights (male and female) with whom I regularly talk shop generally aim to make one-hundred submissions each year at minimum -- not an average of thirteen each year.

It makes it hard to really compare data since literary departments at many theater companies may have changed over in that time period -- not just in terms of personnel, but in submission process (blind submission or not?), and even awareness of both conscious and unconscious gender bias.

I would love to 100 submissions per year, and I admire the people who do that many. For me, it's not practical. I work as a freelance writer, and so even when I am not writing and submitting plays, I am still producing content in other ways that are meaningful to me. In the 9 years that I submitted 117 plays, I wrote over 850 published articles unrelated to my pursuits in theatre/TV. I also do improv has another part of my creative/comedy life. So yes, there are certainly people who do more submitting than I do, and I am by no means asserting that I am The Greatest Play Submitter of All Time. What I'm here to do in this project is see what happens when I resubmit in the way and the quantity that suits me, but changing my name.

And yes, you are correct that the data is not comparable, I mention that in my post here on Howlround. This isn't a science experiment, it's an art project -- a lens that I am holding up to my experience. I hope you'll follow and enjoy it.