Female writers using male pseudonyms is viewed as common practise, the so-called Brontë effect. But could the trend now be swinging the other way? In this piece, Editor Jennifer Richards looks at why some male playwrights have been adopting female pen names when entering competitions.
There is a notable historical tradition of women writing under men’s names, or adopting gender neutral pseudonyms like J.K. Rowling or Harper Lee. Why? Because they couldn’t get their work published, produced, read or otherwise taken seriously. It seems like an accepted route for female writers who want to be heard, but in the past few years, something strange has been happening – men are submitting as women.
Let’s look at some stats…
Of the 2015 top ten and winners of the Bruntwood Prize, all the male playwrights listed used either a female or gender neutral pseudonym.
In 2017, the winner of the Bruntwood Prize, Timothy X Attack used ‘Asdfgh J’ as his name – you couldn’t assign a gender to this, but it’s also not exactly a ‘name’.
A similar trend of male playwrights not using male names was also seen in 2016’s radio thriller competition by Sussex Playwrights; almost half of the 31 male playwrights submitted under a female or gender neutral name.
As theatres are facing pressure to be more diverse, perhaps this has led male writers to believe that they will be in with a better chance if they submit under a female name, which could explain the use of female pseudonyms.
So… Do male playwrights believe in the ‘diversity card’?
When I posed this to Chris Campbell, Literary Manger of Royal Court, he responded: “Unquestionably there is the view out there that men think they would be looked on more favourably if they were female.”
He did add that it in his experience, it was a small number of men who use female pseudonyms, and “of those men, there are ones who may just feel more comfortable for writing from what they think is from a female perspective, which I kind of understand. But out of that small number there are also those who do believe we are trying to fill out some kind of quota.”
“I have had people genuinely say to me: ‘I suppose if I was a 20-year-old girl, it would be very different.”
The fact that the men selected as winners of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize were all using female names might support that view. But Chris points out that: “The importance of the name on the cover is widely exaggerated, perhaps unconsciously, by writers.”
Chris continued, voicing his frustration that white male writers could think they would be looked on less favourably: “I do think if you are a writer and a piece of work is not being taken up, you’ll look for any conceivable reason other than the obvious one [that your work isn’t good enough.] For a long time, white men did not have another reason and now they do, and they can find that comforting.”
This must mean female playwrights are doing well then?
The fact that some men believe they are at a disadvantage seems ironic considering the 2017 review of playwriting by arts and culture blogger Victoria Sadler.
Sadler found that of the six leading theatres in London, five had less than half of their plays written by solo female playwrights. Which is exactly the same as she found the year before – so two thumbs up for progress then…
For 2017, her findings included The Old Vic with a female to male playwright ratio of 0:5 and The National Theatre with just 1:3, and Salomé was the only work by a female playwright to be performed on the Olivier stage. Just last year, the Hampstead Theatre came under fire for their failure to programme a single woman writer in their mainstage season. (An imbalance which it seems they are working to correct in their upcoming programming.)
So it would definitely seem unusual to think you are more likely to succeed if you go under a female name. Maybe there’s more to it than just wanting to play the ‘diversity card’.
The value of pseudonyms – a new identity?
Philippa Hammond, Chair of Sussex Playwrights (who ran the radio thriller competition mentioned above), thinks men could be using female pseudonyms for a different reason.
“Rather than ‘pretending to be female’, the male writers are asking the judges to look at the writing not the writer.”
“Sussex Playwrights need playwrights to use pseudonyms because some of the entries to the competition are members or otherwise known to the committee. This way only I know entirely who wrote what and the committee aren’t swayed by friendships/prejudices/preconceptions etc.”
This idea of taking the writer’s identity out of the play by using a pseudonym (male or female) is shared by James Fitz, who was one of the 2015 Bruntwood Prize winners for his play Parliament Square – with his entry going under the female (and funny) pseudonym ‘Penelope Pitstop’.
“It’s very rare to be able to strip your play of you. I get quite obsessed of trying to take myself out of the play. Being able to choose your pseudonym and mask yourself was great.”
When I questioned why he had picked a female pseudonym rather than a male one, he said: “I chose it because I thought it was funny and I guess it was a bit unconscious in choosing a different gender, and just choosing something that felt very different to my normal identity.”
The pseudonym problem
Chris Campbell describes Bruntwood as a “wonderful thing”, but criticises the use of pseudonyms. As Literary Manger of the Royal Court, he wouldn’t see value in playwrights submitting to him under pseudonyms.
“Bruntwood fetishes this anonymity thing and I don’t think that’s right – they probably already know who it’s by or can find out immediately by googling it.”
“I really don’t think in the end it’s much of a help.”
It’s quality that shines
The Royal Court was the only theatre in Sadler’s review that had a higher ratio of female to male playwrights. When I mentioned that a lot of excuses are given for not programming female playwrights, Campbell dismissed this, saying it’s simple: “How do you programme more female playwrights? Get more female playwrights on – full stop.”
“People will then learn from example. If we get to the point where the idea of a playwright doesn’t conjure up a guy name Dave, and instead perhaps someone called Polly, then maybe we’re doing the right thing.”
Perhaps some men, on hearing statements like this, incorrectly interpret that as meaning they are at a disadvantage, and turn to using female identities to try and help. But all the people involved in this piece pointed out how quality was much more important than whatever name was on the paper, which doesn’t actually bear any weight.
Do pseudonyms even have a place in playwriting?
So though some playwrights like James Fritz may crave the freedom that taking on a new identity enables, pseudonyms seem to be fairly redundant. If a theatre or theatre company require a script to be anonymous, then perhaps it is better to use a playwright’s initials or simply just call them all ‘anonymous’.
With pseudonyms, the issue isn’t with the idea that you may want to take on a new identity. But if you’re adopting one, it’s worth asking yourself why you’re taking on that particular identity, and is it for the right reasons?
There may be a call for more diversity in theatre, but Sadler’s review certainly paints a bleak picture about little, or in fact no, progress being made in helping to put the work of female playwrights on stage.
Perhaps, the Papatango Prize and the (soon to close) Theatre503 award have got it right in asking applicants to submit scripts without any name on them, rather than under a pseudonym.
It shouldn’t be the name on the script the mater, but the story you’re telling. And that raises an entirely different question of what we define as an important story, or ‘quality’ storytelling, but that a conversation for another post…
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