The Plot Thickens

Today, I’m ready to say something a lot of people have been asking me while simultaneously hoping-and-not-hoping I would say: Based on my experience in SLAM, I think it’s more advantageous to be a man.

That, of course, is my opinion, and it’s related solely to my undertaking of resubmitting my previously-rejected work under a male pseudonym. I consider this project to be not a science experiment, but an art project—a lens through which I am examining the world. And this conclusion, that there’s a male advantage, is one I’ve been reluctant to make, having waited to say it until I felt “sure.” But I’m saying it today because what I’m seeing through my lens tells me more and more that people are kinder and more encouraging to men, and more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt. As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.

reading

Until recently, I had only received one differing result to Max’s work, in which Max was named a finalist and sent a kind, encouraging letter, while I’d received a template rejection for the exact same submission a few years prior. Today, I add two similar responses to the list.

The first is an opportunity that has asked Max to advance to the next stage, with the winners still to be determined. When I originally applied, I was not invited to the next stage, which involves submitting some basic additional materials, so seemingly Max’s status is something quite different.

I say “seemingly” because with Max’s successes, it’s my instinct to weigh all the factors in an attempt to assess whether there has been bias or differing treatment. And certainly that scrutiny is a part of administering this project. But at the same time if I, as Mya, applied two years in a row to the same competition, and advanced to the next stage the second year but not the first, I wouldn’t doubt whether I accomplished something or make a What If list (What if the competition opened up its second stage to a larger number of people this year? What if there were different readers? What if zombies ate the brains of this organization’s staff?)—I’d just do a little happy dance, and be excited about making the cut. And so it’s after a year of seeing all these nuanced ways in which Max fares better than me that I’m ready to just say, I think there was some bias here.

The other factor in the Bias Column is that the plays for this particular opportunity all have to fit a certain theme, which is the same now as it was when I applied. But the play that Max and I each respectively sent is a play I’ve always thought was a bit of a stretch for the theme. So for Max to still be in the running seems slightly more significant in light of that, because there are all sorts of numbers about how women will only apply to jobs if they’re 100 percent qualified, while men will give it a shot even if they’re only 60 percent qualified. But maybe there’s a degree to which a man who meets 60 percent of the criteria is still considered quite qualified, while a woman is not extended that same courtesy unless she meets 100 percent of it. And if that were true, then maybe Max fared better because his submission can speak to a portion of the theme and still remain in the running, while mine cannot.


As a “man,” I have seen that my work and I come with an automatic level of authority and prowess, the type of credit that, as a woman, I have to fight to be given.



The other recent differing result that Max got is a rejection letter that was distinct in its niceness
. This newest letter was notable because it was even more distinctly encouraging than the other encouraging rejection I mentioned previously.

I have applied to this competition twice as Mya, and both years, I received template rejection letters nearly identical to each other, following the standard three-paragraph form of most rejection letters: (1) Thanks for applying! (2) Sorry, we can’t offer you a spot! (3) It was nifty getting to know your work, so keep in touch, follow us on Twitter, and don’t be mad that we’ve automatically added you to our mailing list!

Max’s letter, however, was different. I pulled up both of my past rejections to compare them to his, and even had a close friend send me the one she got from this organization on the same day Max got his.

Unlike both of my past letters and my friend’s from this year (all three of which were identical save a word or two), Max’s letter was sprinkled with special nuggets of encouragement. Where the usual letter said, “Thank you for submitting your play,” Max’s letter said, “Thank you so much for submitting your play.” Where the usual letter said, “We can’t offer you a spot,” Max’s said, “We can’t offer you a spot because our decisions were really super extra challenging and we had to reject more people than we wanted to.” (“It’s not you, it’s me.”) Where the usual letter said, “Stay in touch,” Max’s said, “Stay closely in touch and be sure to submit again!

But above and beyond those, Max got an entirely new added paragraph whose sole purpose was to let him know how great he was. The paragraph gushed about all the enthusiasm Max’s play had inspired and let him know earnestly about the passionate dialogue the play created among the readers. He had truly enlightened them and hit on something special with his meaningful work, and it was important to them—really important—to let him know it.


To finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude.



What’s further complicated about this situation is that the woman who runs this opportunity and heads the literary department of the organization is an acquaintance of mine. In fact, I know her because she once saw my work and reached out to tell me how much she’d like it. And that’s exactly why I’ve applied to her organization a few times. What’s also interesting is that this organizationa prominent organization that is certainly a household name among theatre artistsis a public supporter of gender parity and diversity in the arts. They’ve even tweeted their support of SLAM on several occasions. And their track record supports their position of encouraging diversity—they’ve had no lack of women and minorities among their writers and artists. So to me this suggests that even those who clearly and measurably support diversity can still be subject to bias.

I’d be lying if I claimed this didn’t hurt, perhaps more than the others. This particular play of mine has always felt like “the one that got away.” It’s had some interest here and there, but it’s never been produced, and I’ve always felt that was a shame; I think it has real substance while being funny and uniquely theatrical. I wrote it almost ten years ago so I’ve mostly given up on shopping it around, but I often think back to it fondly, wondering if maybe there was someone out there who would finally see in it what I saw in it. So to finally get some affirmation, after almost a decade, that I wasn’t totally wrong in feeling like I’d written something special was a real heartbreak. Because I only got that affirmation by being a dude. And further to that, this experience lives alongside a lifetime of sexism: being mansplained about how to stand on a subway platform; being disparagingly called “honey” at the hardware store; being passed over for dream jobs when the all-male hiring team went with the guy. It’s yet again being treated differently because of my gender. And even if all I’ve been denied was encouraging rejection letters, those are still encouraging, and in this business we can all use all the encouragement we can get. And it seems to me that men get more of it.

The final notable thing is that between the three different results Max has received, something that stands out to me is that each of these scenarios involved a different play. So it’s not this one same play that I’ve yearned to see succeed being treated differently over and over, it’s three different plays from my body of work. Meaning it’s not that I have one single script that really shines but has been held back by Big Bad Bias; it shows me that, in fact, a variety of my work is given better consideration when someone thinks it’s been written by a man. It brings me back to a conclusion I’ve made before: It doesn’t necessarily hurt to be a woman, but it does help to be a man.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email? (And Other Problems With Submissions)

Anyone who’s spent time doing script submissions will tell you that it’s not uncommon to never hear back from the opportunities to which you’ve submitted. The notification window comes and goes, and at some point you assume the lack of a response signals your rejection. My term for this is “Default Response,” although I should probably call it the “You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email?” Response; I think notifications are a courtesy writers are owed. Plus, an email costs nothing but a little bit of [an intern’s] time.

In the last few weeks, Max has received a couple of these non-responses, as I’ve realized a few notification periods are overdue. Personally, I am not surprised that Max is getting more rejections. This business is tough and competitive, even for a writer like Max who has been engineered to fit the current prevailing demographic. And since I’ve already spoken about Max’s first rejection and what it “means,” what I actually want to discuss is what we could do to make the submission process a more fair system that promotes diversity. While obnoxious, “Default/You Couldn’t Even Send Me An Email” Responses are more an issue of courtesy than parity. It’s other ailments that are entangling a system that’s supposed to be an equitable open door, intended even for those without agents or fancy MFA degrees or an Off-Broadway production.

Take, for example, submission fees. I recently posed a question to my readers on this subject because I have a moral and practical opposition to submission fees, but a competition to which I’d previously submitted now had a $10 fee, and if Max was going to reapply, I’d have to pay it. (The consensus was “different gender, same principle” and an interesting alternate solution was proposed.) And while I did talk about the ethical issues with asking writers to pay a fee, I did not highlight the other huge issue, which is that submission fees set apart the writers with disposable income from the writers without spare funds.


In the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population. 


Because here’s the thing: For those fortunate enough to have sizable savings, or who earn six figures at a hedge fund by day and write plays by night, a few hundred dollars per year in submission fees might not significantly impact quality of life. You might just pay it, even if you understood the moral issue with the fees. And your scripts certainly deserve just as much of a chance as those of the playwright who makes $15,000 per year as a birthday party mascot, but the result is that the submission opportunities become an open door for the financially secure writer while they are turned into a non-option for the scraping-by writer. And sure, there are countless ways in life that those who have more money are afforded more opportunity, and if you have or earn a good living, it’s your right to enjoy the fruits of those labors. You might even like paying the fees because you feel as if you’re using your fortunate position to support the organizations receiving them. But the problem is that the very existence of the fee creates a division between those who can afford it and those who can’t, and in the arts, we’re supposed to be seeking out a diverse array of voices, not creating “opportunities” that drive away a part of the population.

The other improvement that would help tremendously in leveling the playing field is making blind submissions a standard practice. When I first started out, I hated blind submissions. I was networking a lot, having successful productions, and building a reputation I was proud of. Blind submissions felt like they threw away all that hard work.

Today, I’ve had a complete reversal on how I feel about the subject. With added experience, both as a playwright and an individual, I’ve come to see how much bias is all around us. Blind submissions let the work speak for itself, and they’ve been shown to work wonders for diversity in other industries; as I’ve previously mentioned, orchestra musicians is a great example. Non-blind submissions allow readers to bring their preexisting judgments to the table instead of making the decision truly about the merits of the work. (If you want to read more on the subject, I recommend Karla Jenning’s HowlRound article, In Praise of Being a Blind Reader.)


A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done. 


So how could we accomplish all of this? I believe that the Dramatists Guild should create industry-wide guidelines for submissions. Establishing no fees and a blind reading policy could do so much to increase fairness. There could even be industry-wide standards for what materials are requested for the evaluation. As it stands now, every group creates their own requirements, and while I understand that an organization funding a program is entitled to ask for the materials they want, it’s unfair to ask writers to jump through hoops—especially because the next submission wants you to jump through an entirely different set of hoops. (These can become so absurd that McSweeney’s has a brilliant parody article: “Playwrights should meet at least two of the following criteria: current resident of Colorado or Delaware; direct descendant of pirates; Capricorn.”) Much like the “Default Responses,” this is not even as issue of equality. Rather, if we streamlined the options, think of how much more playwriting our collective minds could accomplish when we didn’t have to constantly stop to translate the artistic statements we wrote last week into Tolkien Elvish.

All this is to say: We can do better. A few simple fixes would allow this to be a more fair process for everyone. In turn, our industry would stand to be a leader of diversity and progressiveness, which is really not a radical idea—it’s what the arts has always done.

Originally published on Howlround.