Women’s Futures Month

Welcome to the Future.

To say it’s been a busy ten weeks since I announced the launch of my SLAM spinoff project, The Future Is Female Festival, would be an understatement. So for anyone wondering why there’s been so much radio silence from me as a writer, a Tweeter, a friend, a human—here’s why:

On March 1st, the Future will arrive in the form of an amazing, more-than-I-ever-could’ve-dreamed-of, fierce, loud, unstoppable festival of new work by over 140 women that will reach 2,000 audience members. The momentum and the excitement is palpable. With twenty-seven festival outposts in eighteen cities from coast to coast and Canada, the future is looking pretty darn female indeed. (Even Hillary still says so.)

It’s so exciting that I want to say it all again and end every sentence with exclamation points, or put the little clapping emoji between each word.

But getting to the point where we’re ready for clapping emojis has not been easy, and here is the singular biggest lesson I have learned in the process: Be the Hot Dog Princess you want to see in the world.

No, really.

tfif-fest-map
The Future Is Female Festival Outposts Nationwide

In case you don’t remember it from last summer, the Hot Dog Princess was the viral photo of a young girl who dressed up for “Princess Day” at dance class as…you guessed it…a hot dog. Shedding all convention, while the other girls portrayed variations on Disney movies, one little girl did what her heart told her to do, and came as a hot dog.

Being the Hot Dog Princess you want to see in the world is more than just being the change you want to see in the world—it’s an extra level of bravery, boldness, and commitment. And in a world where women are 51 percent of the population but only make up about 20 percent of produced work in theatre and TV, and where even the most qualified and dedicated of women still cannot shatter glass ceilings, producing this festival has reinforced to me that indeed, the best way to create the type of change you want is to roll up your sleeves and make it happen. In life, you will be offered lots of princess outfits, but if you want the hot dog costume, you have to bring it yourself.


Being the Hot Dog Princess you want to see in the world is more than just being the change you want to see in the world—it’s an extra level of bravery, boldness, and commitment. In life, you will be offered lots of princess outfits, but if you want the hot dog costume, you have to bring it yourself.


In creating this festival, one of my goals was to do something that would reach beyond the echo chamber of my big liberal city’s theatre scene. I feared at the outset that we wouldn’t succeed, but I was pleased to find that I was quickly proven wrong. In fact, it was primarily small towns and “red states” that signed up first. My team and I ended up having to scout for participants in most of the major theatre enclaves, but the opposite was true for the more remote locations, who mostly signed up quickly and without hesitation, making up a full third of the total outposts. What’s more, many of the groups in smaller towns were artists who were coming together to make this their very first show or a part of an inaugural season, showing me it’s true that if you build it, they will come.

I also learned it’s true that if you build it, it will be hard and it will not make you like producing any more than you already do, which is to say, not very much. I produced a few short play showcases here in NYC with friends through a school club while we were undergrads. And that was hard, and taught me that I don’t love producing. And I’ve self-produced a handful of my own works within larger festivals, and that was hard too, and reaffirmed to me that I don’t love producing.

This project was each of those experiences times twenty-seven, and I knew full well going into it that I probably was not going to uncover a lost passion for being a producer. It helped a lot that behind this particular endeavor was a cause that meant a great deal to me, and I certainly could not have put together a festival of this scale on a volunteer basis for something I didn’t care about deeply. And despite the challenges and daunting To Do Lists, it definitely has brought me satisfaction and a needed sense of purpose in a time of fear and uncertainty, and ultimately I am grateful for it. You know how some people respond to a breakup by busying themselves with three days a week at spinning class and crocheting blankets for all their friends? I respond to a fascist, racist, sexist, xenophobic demagogue becoming president by busying myself with producing a nationwide theatre festival.


You know how some people respond to a breakup by busying themselves with three days a week at spinning class and crocheting blankets for all their friends? I respond to a fascist, racist, sexist, xenophobic demagogue becoming president by busying myself with producing a nationwide theatre festival.


For those who are still interested in getting involved, you can sign up at almost any time throughout March to host an informal “pop-up” outpost of the festival using a provided folder of submitted plays, to create a reading of any scale. Wanna invite over five friends, crack open a bottle of wine, and read some plays aloud about women’s futures? Congrats! You just amplified the message of this festival. (Quick shout out to my mom, who loves “girl power” and was the very first person to sign up. Heart explosion.)

You can also, of course, go support one of the twenty-seven amazing shows. Check out the Festival Calendar and Festival Map to find one near you. Most benefit a charity, or offer free or pay-what-you-can tickets. A few even include or will feature the work of young women, teens, or college students; perhaps truly the most “future” of all.

Those in NYC can also join us for the festival kick off on Friday, March 3rd at our celebratory Flagship Outpost, featuring short work by incredible, award-winning women: Sara Cooper, Georgina Escobar, Amina Henry, Geraldine Inoa, Winter Miller, Riti Sachdeva, Caridad Svich, and myself, humbly offered alongside these awesome women.

Lastly, my profound thanks are owed to two truly indispensible women who have made this all possible by volunteering with me these last few months: My Co-Producer Lauren Orkus, and Social Media Manager Sarah Cosgrove. Their unwavering dedication to making this festival a huge success tells me that women undoubtedly are the key if you want to get shit done.

In this dark age we have entered into, in which facts can be “alternative,” and families are separated from each other at airports, and walls threaten to divide neighbors, I hope you will join us for this glimmer of hope. See a show in your area, host a pop-up outpost, spread the word, and hashtag with us on Facebook and Twitter: #TheFutureIsFemaleFestival #WomensFuturesMonth.

Onwards!

Originally published on HowlRound.

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Submitting Like the Future Is Female

In the weeks since the election, I’ve found myself struggling, like many of us, to go back to business as usual. In the face of the heightened number of hate crimes, the president-elect’s conflicts of interest and corruption (ahem, crookedness?), the bold resurgence of white supremacy, and so much else, how can I go back to tweeting about gender bias in the entertainment industry? I’m not saying it’s lost all importance, but it certainly feels like it’s lost its urgency.

At the same time, though, I also feel like fighting for equality for women, minorities, LGBT people, immigrants—these things are more important than ever, because the rights and sheer humanness of these groups is being questioned and threatened in a more profound and public way.

futureAnd that’s why today, I am launching a new project, a spinoff of the work I am doing with SLAM (which will continue onwards itself, too), in which I hope to further the voice and visibility of women from all backgrounds in a new way. Until now, Submitting Like A Man has been a project that aims to create change through awareness. It is, as I’ve said many times, a “lens” for examining an experience, and I have truly cherished the discussions it’s inspired and the support it’s received. Now, with the changed circumstances in the world around us, I feel that it’s time to have a branch of the project that is more actionable; something that doesn’t just “evaluate” women’s role in theatre, but which actually champions it, advancing our perception of women theatre artists and of women themselves.

Welcome to The Future Is Female Festival.

You may know the history of the saying “the future is female” (full disclosure, I had to look it up), which has recently resurfaced and evolved, with many women recontextualizing it and bringing to it their own modern interpretation. My personal one is that it’s a way of saying the future contains better opportunities for women. It was a saying that, for obvious reasons, took on significance during the election (on the day I volunteered at Hillary Clinton’s Brooklyn headquarters, at least three women were wearing the shirt). And among the many crushing things about the election results, the sentiment of this phrase—that the future holds greater, brighter, more equal opportunities for women of all backgrounds—felt like one of the things we had truly lost.


I am ready more than ever to envision a future that is female. And I want to see and hear how other women envision it too, and to amplify those messages. 


But that loss is one that I am not willing to accept, and I am ready more than ever to envision a future that is female. And I want to see and hear how other women envision it too, and to amplify those messages. So I am inviting individuals and theatre companies across the US to host productions or readings this March of ten-minute plays written by women of all backgrounds on the subject of “The Future Is Female.” What better way to ensure that the future is female than to ask women writers to create it? And in an industry dominated by men, what better way to help them achieve it than by giving them this experience, which will hopefully lead to new connections, new visibility, new audience members eager to see their work again?

The whole undertaking will fall under an umbrella that I’m spearheading, so that numerous theatres and theatre companies across the country can simultaneously participate in this one unified endeavor about the future of women. By all participating as individual groups within a joint venture, our voices are magnified, much like the amplify concept famously used by the women in the Obama administration to support and further each other.

In this case, we will amplify each other’s shows and the messages about our future contained within them. One of the struggles I’ve experienced following the unexpected results of this election is how to use creativity and art to create change. Art, of course, has always been a vehicle for change and progress. But sometimes, when you’re dealing with low-budget theatre that is only seen and heard by fellow artists in your deeply blue liberal city, it feels a little like screaming into an echo chamber. And so it’s my hope that by joining together in this project, we’ll have a larger impact. Strength in numbers—or, you might say, Stronger Together. Individually we may still end up echoing, but with enough participants reverberating the sound, the volume will be heard.


By joining together, we’ll have a larger impact. Strength in numbers—or, you might say, Stronger Together. This March, instead of celebrating women’s history, we can celebrate women’s futures.


There are a lot of details still to be worked out, and some details I’ve already started working on. If you want to read more, check out TheFutureIsFemaleFestival.com, and if you want to get involved as either an individual or an organization, I’ve made a quick Google Form for you to sign up. One of my major goals is for the festival to have a presence in as many places as possible, so don’t be shy—I’m going to need help from everyone. As the creator of this project, I am also looking to produce a “flagship” production here in New York, so if your theatre company wants to partner or you want to be involved in that, fill out the Google Form. Lastly, I’m hoping this can function as part-fundraiser for causes related to women and equality, with each outpost of the festival donating a portion of their proceeds or asking audience members for small donations at the show.

As you can see, there is much work to be done, and I hope you will join me in giving visibility and voice to women from all backgrounds, so that this March, instead of celebrating women’s history, we can celebrate women’s futures.

Originally published on HowlRound.

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.

I Ain’t Afraid of No Female Protagonists

This summer marked the end of my first year of resubmitting previously-rejected scripts under my male pseudonym, “Max.” Don’t worry, I am not closing up shop; I am still waiting to hear back from about half the submissions, and just in the past week, as this installment was being finalized, got two new exciting-slash-depressing responses to Max’s resubmitted work. (More on that next time.) Given how much I feel is still going on, I am planning to go into Year Two by doing a SLAM spin-off/continuation, in which I submit new work as Max (more on that another time, too). For today, I want to focus on an aspect of what made me decide this project needed to continue; specifically some experiences from my summer which reinforced to me more than ever that we need to pay immediate attention to the dearth of women writers being given opportunity to succeed, and the total lack of women’s stories that we’re telling.

Anyone who follows me on social media knows I felt strongly about this summer’s release of the new Ghostbusters reboot. I know, that was so three months ago, and pop culture has already moved on to Pokemon Go and Stranger Things and Taco Trucks on Every Corner, but I haven’t. I am a huge fan of the original movies (yes, both), not as much from childhood as from college, when they became favorites to watch with friends and roommates. We were living in New York City, and there was a kinship to the local places, jokes, and culture of the movies. So if I had an attachment to the movies because they represented my city (a city which is featured in no lack of stories, at that), you can only imagine how excited I was to see a reboot that would represent my gender.


We desperately, direly need more stories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles. 


You might even have the same reflex as me (and, as I later learned, many others), which is to cry tears of happiness while watching the movie, particularly notable in my case because I have only cried one other time in a movie in my life, during the sad part of My Dog Skip. And I’m not saying this movie was perfect, but it let us watch women be smart and funny and significant—and that’s important.

the_warriors_husbandAnd if there’s one thing I’ve learned this summer, it’s that we desperately, direly need more stories like thisstories that show women as more than sex objects, more than romantic interests, more than airheads, more than nameless forgotten supporting roles. Women whose character could not simply be replaced by a sexy lamp.

This summer, I taught three classes in which students ages seven to fifteen were asked to create their own original stories and characters for a short play or short movie. I worked with about fifty total students, of whom roughly thirty-five were female and fifteen male. Between them they pitched about forty different story and/or character ideas. And of those forty pitches, only about five of them were pitched about female characters. Only about five.

Most pitches went like this:

STUDENT: “I have an idea for a story about a kid who travels through time using a magical backpack.”
ME: “Awesome! What happens?”
STUDENT: “He becomes best friends with a dinosaur.”

Do you see what happened there? The story went from being about “a time-traveling kid”a character who could be anyoneto being about “he.” Regardless of whether the student was a boy or a girl, the story would start out being about “a kid,” or “a doctor,” or “a famous music artist” and would inevitably end up being about “him.”

There is nothing wrong with having stories about male protagonists. But women are 51 percent of the population, and these classes were 70 percent female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12 percent of the story ideas would be about girls?


Women are 51% of the population, and these classes were 70% female. So doesn’t it seem odd that only about 12% of the story ideas would be about girls?


Even when a co-teacher or I would model back the story idea by saying “okay, so your idea is about a kid who time travels, and then she or he befriends a dinosaur,” the student would nearly always revert back to “he.”

In one class, quite literally nobody was designing female characters and I had to go around the room and make a deliberate point of reminding the students that their characters could be girls. “Oh, I didn’t think of that,” they’d say. Or, in a moment of true heartbreak, “But I want my character to be funny.”

When over 70 percent of the programming you see portrays male characters as the leads, showing them as the important ones, the ones with authority and humor and brains and stories worthwhile of being made, why wouldn’t you want your character to be the same?


Our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority.


So we need to keep going. Because our youngsters, our storytellers of tomorrow, are not learning that women’s stories deserve equal attention and time and praise and worthiness and authority. It’s not reflected by the stories in their books and on their TVs, and as such, we are positioning yet another generation to overlook countless amazing stories inside them, about “a goofy detective” or “a brilliant scientist” or “a catfish astronaut” who is female. And that’s why I’m continuing this project, spinning it off into another phase, so we can keep the conversation going and hope that every little bit counts.

Originally published on HowlRound.

Happy Manniversary to Me

Max, like me, is on the cusp of turning 32–but this month, he’ll also celebrate turning one. That’s because it was a year ago, in July 2015, that I first “invented” him. If you’re looking for an excuse to eat a cupcake this week, Max’s first birthday is more than valid.

In my year as a “fake man,” there are many things I’ve observed, experienced, and been asked. So far no jock itch, but maybe that’s still to come. As I’ve said many times before, I feel it’s an important part of this project that Max and I be as identical as possible, except for gender. But what I’ve learned is that despite any of it, being him—actually interacting with others online and by email as a seeming man—is most certainly a different experience than being me.

sb10062916m-001

The short of it is that I’ve found being Max to be wonderfully freeing. There is a part of it that I think has nothing to do with gender; there’s something inherently freeing about simply being someone that nobody actually knows. But above and beyond the sense of anonymity, I’ve found life as Max to be freeing because as him, I feel like I have more permission to fail—not because of being a faceless pseudonym, but because as a man, my feeling is that Max already has one foot in the door on pretty much everything he does.

At this point, I am going to make an aside to say that I am not criticizing men for having advantages; what I am criticizing is the system and history and bias that has allowed it to stay that way. And I know that not all men experience advantages across the board—there are many cases in which white women (such as myself) have more of the metaphorical foot in the door over men of color, such as equal pay. And even among just white men or straight white men, it’s not like there is a universal rule of advantage; every person is unique in their makeup and experiences. But from resumes to pen names, it’s no secret that we live in a world where there are frequently advantages to being among Max’s demographic, and that’s precisely what this project is here to examine and the very reason for the invention of Max.


I’ve found life as Max to be freeing because as him, I feel like I have more permission to fail…as a man, my feeling is that Max already has one foot in the door on pretty much everything he does.


The reality of how it felt to have these new advantages did not hit me until April, when I did an interview about SLAM and was asked if I felt that Max had taken on a life of his own in any way. And as I thought over all the ways in which I was making sure Max and I were perfectly identical, it occurred to me that the one way in which we’ve become different is that I don’t worry if he shows natural flaws, which is something I try very hard not to do when it comes to myself.

I am very detail-oriented about my own professional writing endeavors, and when I prepare a script submission for myself, I usually check my spelling twice, make sure my handwriting looks nice on the envelope, and am very cautious and aware of the way it’s presented. The same goes for my website and social media presence—I’m exceedingly careful about coming across super-professional, avoiding anything that could be misunderstood or misconstrued, and having good online etiquette. It can be difficult because, as someone who primarily writes comedy, I want my style and tone to come across in everything I submit—not just scripts but also artistic statements and other such documents, but I often find myself censoring the humor for fear of not being taken seriously or looking like I don’t care.

With Max, I feel much more free, and don’t feel the need to do most (or sometimes even any) of the self-censoring or cautious checking. And it didn’t dawn on me until the April interview that the reason for that difference was my feeling and perception that people are harder on women than on menthat as a woman, I am going to be put under a microscope and judged and critiqued (conciously or otherwise) for every little “i” that’s not dotted or hashtag that isn’t hilarious. As a man, I feel less like I have to worry about these things. Again, this isn’t something measurable. I can’t “prove” that I have reason to feel this way, but when I look back at my year as Max, it’s a feeling I can’t deny. And this idea that women are more heavily judged and scrutinized and criticized than men is not something true across the board for all men and all women, but when you look at how we treat women in the public eye, it’s hard to feel otherwise.


At every corner, life as Max is easier and less intimidating than the equivalent interactions I have as myself.


So it’s interesting now, on Max’s one year “manniversary,” to realize that a huge part of this project has been living life as someone who by default gets the benefit of the doubt on almost everything. When I started SLAM, I was interested in examining how a male name might allow otherwise-rejected work to be considered in a different light. But it turns out SLAM has also been about the experience of living in a man’s shoes, even more so than I knew.

And let me tell you: It’s freeing. Not because of some trite joke about how women’s shoes are so uncomfortable, haha high heels suck, LOL emoji. But because as Max, I don’t have to worry—at least not as much—that his leadership skills will be labeled “bossiness,” or his humor will be dismissed as “silly,” or his edgy Tweet or blog post (#meta) will be met with responses that he should be bludgeoned and left in a ditch. At every corner, life as Max is easier and less intimidating than the equivalent interactions I have as myself. So for Max’s anniversirthday wish, I hope that everyone can have this kind of freedom. And not just for a day or a week or a year, or as part of a pseudonym identity, but forever and as themselves. It really shouldn’t be too much to ask.

Originally published on HowlRound.

Submitting Like A Woman

Regular readers of Submitting Like A Man (lookin’ at you, mom!) will know my oft-quoted statistic: that 51% of the population in the US is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female. It’s a statistic that’s been shown by numerous data collecting initiatives (such as here, here, and here) and as something that’s fairly straightforward to calculate, the number itself is not something most people I’ve encountered are highly contesting; in fact, if anything, it’s something far too many of us accept as believable/normal.

It’s the sort of discrepancy that’s so entrenched in the workings of our industry, the story of our history, and the behaviors of our society that it can’t be pinned on one singular cause. Discrimination of any kind is a multifaceted problem, which is why it’s so damn hard to stop or change. SLAM is a project I created to examine the part of the discrepancy stemming from unintentional bias. And there are all kinds of other factors that are almost certainly weaving together and causing the discrepancy too—producers who don’t believe women’s stories will sell, awards shows that are rewarding the same white male old-guard over and over again, and so on.  

boxing-women

But recently it was brought to my attention that there’s another factor in the mix when it comes to the under-representation of women writers in the entertainment industry: It seems that in some cases, fewer women writers are submitting work, with some instances showing as few as 25% of submissions from women.

It’s the sort of problem that at first glance seems to imply we, lady playwrights, are somehow at fault for this large, looming problem. And if the numbers are correct, I definitely think we could stand to do better; it certainly would not hurt to be half the submission pool. But the problem we’re facing started before anyone reading this would have even been born, and it’s so complicated and layered that there’s no way we can wag a finger at lady playwrights and call off the investigation. There are many reasons why we would be remiss to say that women making up half the applicants would solve the problem, not the least of which is because submissions and open calls for work are just one of many ways new writers and new scripts are discovered, developed, and produced. But as someone administering a gender bias project that utilizes the submission process, I can’t help but wonder what’s going on.

Female playwrights, and our plays, most certainly exist (I swear I’m not a hologram). So why are we seemingly submitting so much less? It’s one of these things that’s impossible to “know” (again: if we could, it would be easy to solve) and that other women and organizations have pondered before me—which, in fact, is how I came to be aware of it. And since launching this project, I’ve had many people tell me that they don’t think I’m submitting enough. I’ve publicly stated that in the last nine years, I’ve sent out 117 submissions. To me, the number is a Goldilocks-esque “just right,” but others have suggested that perhaps I am “submitting like a woman” by simply not submitting enough. (What’s tricky about that idea is that I’ve had many of those same people remark that my success rate—about 10% of submitted work has been accepted—is higher than most. I can’t say if that’s true or not because most writers I know will guesstimate their success rate but actually don’t keep track closely enough to calculate a specific number.)


My hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.


What I ultimately can’t help but wonder is if it even makes any difference for women to submit in smaller numbers than men. And if it is true that women are submitting less, is it still “fair” for us to expect to be half the resulting productions? Let’s say a play festival is producing ten pieces. In a perfectly “equal” world, there would be five plays written by women, and five by men. So let’s say their applicant pool is all comparable quality work, and breaks down to 30% women and 70% men. Does that mean they choose three female winners and seven male? Or are they still obligated to choose five and five? My personal answer is five and five, but I can certainly see how others may argue that’s unfair or nonsensical.

In essence, it’s a philosophical question. Do we choose and present work representative of the applicant pool’s demographics? Do we choose work that doesn’t necessarily reflect the demographics of those who have submitted but does represent the demographics of our society? Or since this is art, do we have an obligation to put aside the composition of the applicant pool and make a deliberate effort to choose work that promotes voices that have historically been under-represented, oppressed, and/or denied opportunity? The only answer I have is that, as with so many issues we face as a society, what we need is an all around awareness, cooperation, and a commitment to figuring it out together. And my hunch is that if we work together to give more women the opportunity to succeed, more women will come forward to put their hats in the ring.

Originally published on HowlRound.

We Have A Winner

Ladies and gentleman, we have a winner. This is not a “royal we”; we refers to Max and I. We got our first notification that Max’s resubmission fared better with his dude name than my original application did with its lady label.

Before you get too excited (or too depressed), I will clarify that Max did not get a full acceptance—he was named a finalist. But when I applied to this same competition, I was flat-out rejected. So I consider him being a finalist to be a distinctly different outcome from my own same experience with this competition, especially because of some details I’ll get into shortly.

Man Woman Side Eye 1

But first and foremost, a refresher on my stance about “interpreting” this project: SLAM is art, not science. Many factors in each submission cannot be controlled—presumably different readers, perhaps different needs or wants on the part of the organization, and certainly different fellow applicants in the pool. As such, I stand by my opinion that a singular disparity between Max and I is not enough to make a statement about gender bias on the whole, and anything I say about this competition and its differing results is not something I am glomming onto gender bias at large or our industry in general.

That being said, the disparity is not as cut and dry as “Max was a finalist when Mya was not,” and I do think there’s a possibility that in this particular case, there may have been gender bias at play—subconscious or otherwise. Obviously, it’s impossible to “know” in any sort of empirical way, but I couldn’t help ponder it, and I finally figured out my feelings about it while writing and rewriting this blog post (I know, so meta).

Here’s the nitty-gritty:

For starters, it seems like at least one reader may have been the same for both evaluations; the organization is small, and the Artistic Director, who I’ll call Kathy, appears to be a reader every year. I can’t be certain if every reader evaluates each script or if they’re divvied up, but it’s feasible Kathy would have read my scripts both times. And I agree it seems unlikely that Kathy, a woman, would have been biased against another woman’s script, and/or may have favored a man’s script. But it’s been shown, to the surprise and dismay of many, that in some cases female Artistic Directors have been less likely to select work by female writers, and that’s the sneaky thing about bias—we’re all unintentionally susceptible to it.


Anecdotal or not, this experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world in which 51% of the population is women but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and television are female.


Another thing that was not the same was the notification. I knew that in my original submission, I’d gotten a form email saying I was not selected. So it gave me pause when Max got a personal email written specifically to him. Not only was it a personal message, but the body of the email sang praises of both scripts Max submitted, particularly the one which was placed as a finalist, and talks about how Kathy and the other judges “loved” the play.

I searched my email to double check the notification I’d gotten when I applied and compare the two. I wondered if they had also loved my scripts and waxed poetically about them? It seems like something I would’ve remembered. And my hunch was correct: It was indeed a form email. It did not praise my scripts; it did not even mention the plays (or me) by name. Whereas Max’s email was warm and encouraging, filled with affection for the plays and (by extension) Max as their author, my email was strictly pragmatic.

Of course, there are a variety of things that could account for this discrepancy. Maybe only finalists and winners get personal notes, or perhaps the theatre changed their notification process and now all applicants get personalized emails. Or perhaps when I applied, my scripts were likewise loved, but everyone was scrapped for time and nobody shared it with me. But I can’t help suspect at least little bit of bias, mostly because I’ve heard it beforethat men are more likely to be kindly encouraged or even simply responded to at alleven when they’re being rejected. Take, for example, Catherine Nichols, who sent out query letters for her novel using a man’s name she refers to as “George.” She says of the experience, “Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me.” It’s true in classrooms too, where it’s been shown that male students are more likely to be praised and encouraged.


I do think that even if being a woman did not necessarily hurt, being a man helped.


However, to make matters more confusing in this debate of Bias vs. No Bias, there’s an important element on the side of No Bias: The very same notification email that praised Max also listed all the winners of the competition. The second and third places were each awarded to men, but the first place winner waswait for ita woman.

With all these factors on both sides of the Gender Bias Equation, you can probably see why I was initially so perplexed on how to feel. And it could be argued that I’m over-scrutinizing items that are small, anecdotal, or speculative. But here’s the thing: Anecdotal or not, this experience doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It exists in a world in which this “equation” is reinforced by a much larger one that makes even less sense, where 51% of the population is women but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and television are female. For me, even as an optimist, that reality is what tips the scale of this experience towards the side of bias. It’s a tough call to make, because I don’t want to seem like I’m looking for every possible opportunity to cry discrimination. And the organization picked a woman as their first place winner, so it’s clear they don’t have any kind of complete and absolute, balls-to-the-wall bias. (Pun intended.) But I do think that even if being a woman did not necessarily hurt, being a man helped. That doesn’t mean I’m asserting this outcome was definitive partiality, but as a part of the larger experience of my life as a writer and a woman and (now) a “fake man,” I can’t say it feels like coincidence.

Originally published on HowlRound.

Exposing My Male Self

People who first learn about Submitting Like A Man love to ask what I’ll do if (or when??) “Max” is accepted by one of the opportunities he applies to. I think this is such a popular question because it invokes images of me showing up to rehearsal donning one of those cheesy mustache and glasses disguises. I hate to disappoint you, but I won’t be pulling a Yentl.

Max
An artistic rendering of Max.

The point of this project is not to “trick” anyone into believing I’m a man. Max is a pen name, and the reason for his existence has always been to investigate whether there would be a discrepancy in acceptances of scripts when they’re submitted under his name instead of mine. “His” work is still my work, and as such, his opportunities are still my opportunities. So the answer to what I’ll do if he’s accepted is that I’ll participate.

The next question is whether or not I’ll reveal my gender. In this age of digital communication, it’s entirely possible I could remain a Banksy-esque anonymity for the entire opportunity. However, the longer I administer this project, the more I’ve come to feel strongly that it’s my duty and my responsibility to SLAM to reveal my true gender to anyone who does accept one of Max’s scripts. To see what happens, and what kind of difference it makes (if any), needs to go hand-in-hand with the other goals of this project, and the experiences it allows me to have and to share.

The part that’s complicated is when to reveal my true gender. In lots of cases, I don’t think I’d have the option to wait very long. Many of the opportunities on my list are fellowships or mentor programs, most of which involve an interview. Since I’m not gonna do the Yentl thing, do I reveal the truth before showing up for the interview, or do I just arrive and sign in as Max? My assumption is that I’d do the latter—I’d hate for my situation to be misunderstood and my opportunity to be revoked before I can even so much as get in the door.


I’ve come to feel strongly that it’s my duty and my responsibility to SLAM to reveal my true gender to anyone who does accept one of Max’s scripts.


And this begs the question: Would I give out my real name and explain myself? Even after my gender is revealed, I could still pretend Maximilian is just the name given to me at birth. Or I could tell the opportunity about this project, which they may or may not find cool. And that raises the next issue: Even if I simply explain that Max is a pen name and my legal name is Mya, the administrators of the opportunity might know this project or otherwise Google and link it to me. I am very proud of this project, but I wouldn’t want anyone to worry that I’m out to humiliate them for picking Max when they previously didn’t pick me. (I’m not.)

This is where the “what if”-possibilities start to sound like a British farce. If I reveal my actual name is Mya, and the organization knows this projects or finds it, then the biggest problem is perhaps that the cat is out of the bag on Max’s real identity (“Max” is not the actual name I’m using to submit). I’d have to hope anyone involved in the opportunity would stay sworn to secrecy. Otherwise, I’d have to recreate my alternate male self all over again and begin submitting as Max II. 


The fact that I am a woman doesn’t change anything about the quality of the work, which was liked and selected, and it doesn’t make me any less worthy of the opportunity.


Last but not least is the technicality of legal names that are sometimes needed for legal reasons. From the get-go, my dad (hi dad!), who is not in the arts, has had one main concern about my undertaking of this project: What if someone likes Max’s work and makes out “the check” to the wrong name? How will I cash it and get all my riches? It would be nice if that were actually a concern; so few of the submission opportunities actually offer money that this is the one area where I consider the pseudonym vs. real name debate to be a non-issue.

In the end, the answer is that I’m going to have to play it by ear, weighing all these factors and figuring it out as I go. I see it as a combination of the “anticipate the other person’s move”-skills of chess (which I hate) and the “yes, and…”-skills of improv (which I love). At any given moment, what it comes down to is: am I at a “risk” of spoiling SLAM or of losing an opportunity by revealing my gender and/or real name? The former is the more difficult one to figure out, requiring strategy-slash-ad libbing. The latter is the one where my hope is that the answer will be a clear, solid no; the fact that I am a woman doesn’t change anything about the quality of the work, which was liked and selected, and it doesn’t make me any less worthy of the opportunity. And any organization that felt otherwise is probably not one I want to be involved in anyway. Booyah.

Originally published on Howlround.

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.

What’s In A Name, Anyway?

In May 2010, when Elena Kagan was nominated to the Supreme Court, it became clear to me that names really matter. Justice Kagan and I are not, to my knowledge, related. But with her name plastered all over the media, I quickly found out how advantageous it can be to have a “famous” name. I was moving at the time, and as every New Yorker knows, there is nothing more treacherous and dog-eat-dog than apartment hunting…unless your surname is trending on Twitter. For a short, bizarre window, I got excited return calls from landlords who wanted to rent to me thinking they’d get bragging rights that the newest Supreme Court Justice’s cousin lives in 2A.

Once the frenzy of Justice Kagan’s appointment died down, life as a Kagan went back to normal. But in the years since, I have often reflected back on that experience and wondered if I would find continued benefits to my [coincidental] last name if I were a lawyer or aspiring judge. Or, perhaps better yet, what would it be like if I shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? For example, what if I happened to have the name Mya Kushner? What about Mya Pinter or Mya Vogel? If you were reading play submissions, and you came across one with the name Mya Albee, you have to admit it would at least catch your attention, and it may consciously or otherwise influence your feelings about the script just a little bit.


What would it be like if I coincidentally shared a last name with someone who was famous in my field? 


What I’m saying is: names matter. I’m not saying that’s my preference, but as much as we can try to avoid bias, there are countless studies documenting that it often happens anyway. Take, for example, the well-known study “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”, in which companies in Boston and Chicago were found to treat job applicants with common African American names differently than applicants with common white names. In the study, even the Equal Opportunity Employers—companies who were making a concerted effort to hire minorities—demonstrated a bias against resumes with the names Lakisha Washington and Jamal Jones.

dreamstime_xl_52741126 creditsIn the field of writing, there are countless examples of pen names chosen for these very sorts of reasons; I am by no means the inventor of the concept of “submitting like a man.” George Eliot (aka Mary Ann Evans) is an example that comes to mind immediately. J.K. Rowling famously uses initials, evidently so boys would not be deterred from reading her books. And the list goes on: P.L. Travers (Pamela Lyndon Travers), George Sand (Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin), E.L. James (Erika Leonard). In a way, writers are lucky because in other fields, the choice to take on a different identity is more involved. For example, Dr. James Barry, a British medical school graduate who was as a distinguished physician in South Africa in the early 1800’s, was found after his death to have been a woman, Margaret Ann Bulkley, who had been living in disguise for over forty years.

I have been asked by a lot of people if I am going to submit my new work as Max or return to using my real name, and I feel torn about it. I am very proud of and attached to my name. But the reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.

Sometimes I think about the idea that all women writers could take on ambiguous or male names, and we could be done with this discrimination once and for all. But a big part of me hates this idea. Women shouldn’t be the ones who have to changethe people with bias should be the ones to change. For women to change names feels like a concession or a workaround; it doesn’t treat the problem at its root, and it feels wrong on principle. Yes, many groups seeking assimilation have historically turned to names as a way of achieving integration. But why should we have to deny our identities or heritage? It feels like a slippery slope to the end of diversity, where everyone is named off a repetitive list of five bland monikers.


The reality is we have a long way to go until we truly stop judging a book by its cover, or perhaps I should say, an author by her name.


Yet at the same time, women forming a movement and changing names together sounds really empowering. I see it as a brilliant coup to the discriminators, some sort of modern-day Lysistrata that swaps out withholding sex from men for withholding identity from the industry, where the women come together and take a stand. Huzzah!

Ultimately, a change of my own name is what I’m currently planning to do. Not a full-on male name, but initials or a gender-ambiguous pen name. I am tired and frustrated and ready to be treated equally now, and even if it’s a shortcut, I might not be here by the time things finally change.

Also, just because I pick the workaround and use a different name doesn’t mean I can’t simultaneously work to treat the problem at its root. Maybe some day men will want to “submit like a woman” so they can be taken more seriously, and we’ll have Buzzfeed lists for “Ten Male Writers Who Got Published by Using Female Names.” Fear not, I’d never actually propose to counter discrimination of one group with discrimination of another. What I really want to see is a list called “Ten Writers Who Got Published Without Having to Change Their Name to Disguise Gender or Demographics.” It would make terrible clickbait, but it would make me so happy.

Hey, a girl can dream.

Originally published on Howlround.