Scriptwriter Mya Kagan’s ‘Submitting Like a Man’ Project: A Progress Report

Mya Kagan at work

Women writers have often used male pseudonyms. There are the Bronte sisters of course; and more recently the writer known as James Chartrand, of the Men With Pens website. But as far as I know, Mya Kagan’s the first scriptwriter to submit her work under a man’s name (which of course she hasn’t revealed, referring to him only as ‘Max’). Her project is also different from other uses of pen names. She doesn’t simply send out her work under a pseudonym; she uses the new pen name to re-submit previously rejected work, to see if there will be any different response. She documents the experience in Submitting Like a Man (SLAM). This is activism that resonates for scriptwriters in film and television as much as for playwrights.

Mya’s based in Brooklyn New York and her description of herself charms me and reminds me a little of another New York woman, film and webseries maker, Anne Flournoy–

[Her] work is known for being a spiky blend of smart, lively, deliciously absurd, and wildly entertaining.
Mya’s main specialties and experience are playwriting, TV-writing, comedy, and webisodes. Additional experience includes screenwriting, radio, writing for kids & teens, musical theatre (book/lyrics), animation, puppets, short stories, blogging, news coverage, food writing, and educational content. She’s even been hired to write online dating profiles. Really.
Mya is also half South African, a freckly person, and a summertime enthusiast. Strawberries are her spirit animal.

And Mya’s a hard worker. Since she graduated nine years ago she’s sent out 117 scripts to open calls for submissions. About 10% were accepted, 5% have been semi-finalists or ‘almosts’ and the rest were rejected.

Mya launched SLAM on January 10 and will resubmit her rejected scripts under Max’s name for a year. She emphasises that it’s an unscientific project. But I don’t think that makes it any less interesting and valuable, so I’ve asked her some questions.

Was there an inciting incident for this project?

More so than one single incident, I’d say there were a series of events, mostly the number of articles I started reading about the statistics on women writers — that in the US, 51% of the population is women, but only about 20% of our writers in theatre and TV are female. I started following the subject, and as time went on, it wasn’t getting better.

And it got me thinking about what things might be like if nobody could figure out my gender. Like, what if my name was Jordan? Or if it was something foreign and unfamiliar? I started considering that maybe I should begin using an ambiguous pen name or my initials. And then I thought: Why stop there? What if I actually use a man’s name? I was in a unique position because I’ve kept a pretty organized list of everything I’ve applied to, and the idea clicked — not only could I use a man’s name, but I could use it on all these rejections to see if it would make any difference.

What open calls do you respond to? Are they only for plays? Are any of them ‘blind read’?

The majority of my list 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.

I have submitted to blind calls for submissions as Mya, but so far have mostly skipped reapplying to them as Max, since it’s a lot of effort to do each submission, and the blind evaluation means the original submission was already assessed without regard to gender. Blind submissions are unfortunately not common in the United States, although I personally think they need to be the standard.

Are you concerned that someone will recognise the resubmitted scripts as scripts that were already submitted under another name?

There are no guarantees it won’t be recognized, but it’s unlikely. I’ve done my best to cover all my bases and prevent it from happening. Every script has been renamed with a new title, so if someone were to search it in a database of past submissions, it wouldn’t come up again. Most theatres and organizations also change readers from year to year, and have multiple readers, so there is not a huge likelihood that my scripts ends up back in the hands of the same reader, AND that the reader remembers my script from however many years ago. So hopefully I’ve dodged any sort of problem that might otherwise reveal the secret!

How’s it going? What kinds of responses does Max get? Any different than your own?

So far I’ve only received a small handful of responses, maybe about five, and as of now they’re all the same as my own (rejections). I am still awaiting a large number of them and constantly applying to more opportunities as new deadlines come up on the calendar. It’s an unusual situation, because on the one hand, I want Max to succeed more than me because it will make a [non-scientific] point, yet I also do not want him to be more successful than me because it would be depressing. So I’m never really sure what I’m actually rooting for.

You decided that Max would have all your demographics except for gender. Any second thoughts about this? Over time has Max taken on a life of his own that is a little different than you planned?

It’s important for me that Max and I be exactly the same in every way aside from gender. In a project like this, there are already so many other factors that can’t be controlled, and the experience stands to be as close as possible to an apples-to-apples comparison if Max is identical to me in every way but gender.

For the most part, Max has not taken on a life of his own, except in one interesting, unexpected way: I don’t mind if he shows natural flaws, which is something I try very hard not to when it comes to myself. I am a very detail-oriented person, and when I prepare a 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 very careful about coming across super-professional, avoiding anything that could be misunderstood or misconstrued, and having good online etiquette.

With Max, I don’t feel the need to do any of that. I think it comes down to my own feeling and perception that people are harder on women than on men — that as a woman, I am going to be put under a microscope and judged and critiqued 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 is my perception, but when you look at how we treat women in the public eye, it’s hard to feel otherwise.

Lots of North Americans have agents. Do you? Can you imagine Max having one?

I do not currently have an agent. A few years ago I made a brief attempt to look for one, but ultimately decided it wasn’t the best use of my time (as opposed to using my time for more writing and building the sort of reputation that might lead an agent to approach me). It’s certainly something I hope I will have in my future, and if an agent were to contact me, I would be quite happy to talk with her or him about representation.

I don’t think it’s likely that Max would be approached by an agent, though it would be very interesting if it happened. Right now he’s only submitting to open calls for submissions, which are mostly read by volunteers or interns at theatre companies. For one of his scripts to make its way to an agent would be a big leap! It’s never happened to me or, for that matter, anyone I know (female or male).

How’s your own work going as you sustain two personas?

The truth is that my own work has virtually halted as a result of this project. I more or less expected that to happen going into the project, because I know my own time constraints. Basically what’s happened is that most of the time I used to spend submitting scripts is now time spent submitting Max’s scripts, and most of the time I used to spend writing plays is now time writing blog posts or doing social media for SLAM. So at the end of the day it’s not that I feel like I have less time to be creative, but I am being creative in new and different ways.

The biggest way that Max has changed me is that he’s helped me to decide that once this project is over, I am going to pick a gender-ambiguous pen name to use instead of my own. It makes me sad, because I am very proud of and attached to my name, but the more immersed I am in this project, the more I feel that using a gender-neutral pseudonym is not a concession, but an empowering way to stop bias in its tracks.

Would you advise others to try a similar project?

More so than try a similar project, what I’d advise others (women) to do is to use a gender-ambiguous pseudonym or initials on their work. It’s so bogus that we’re being discriminated against right and left. Getting rid of the source of the discrimination is important, but as we know all too well, it’s not going to happen overnight. So in the meantime, let’s just take away the thing that’s allowing people to discriminate. I think if we all banded together and removed any sign of our genders from our applications, we’d have parity before we know it.

Mya’s twitter

SLAM twitter

Since this was published, there have been ‘developments’! Check them out here, on Mya’s We Have a Winner.


Originally published at wellywoodwoman.blogspot.co.nz on April 18, 2016.