This blog was written by David K Sweet.

Know who David K Sweet it?

It’s me.  Ken.  David K Sweet is the pseudonym I just made up . . . when I realized that no one in the theater world really uses pseudonyms.

What do you think?  Like it?

In the novel and, especially, the mass-paperback world, pseudonyms are used all the time.  Stephen King (Richard Bachman), J.K. Rowling (Joanne Rowling – she wanted a gender neutral name so boys would read the Potter series), Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), and George Orwell (Eric Arthur Blair) are just a few of the famous ones.

But cloaked identities are sometimes used in the film world as well.  Woody Allen used Allen Stewart Konigsberg.  Steven Soderbergh has used a few, including Sam Lowry and Mary Ann Bernard.  And of course, the oft used Alan Smithee, the nom de plum used when directors were unhappy with the final studio product of their film.

Why pseudonyms?  A ton of reasons, of course.  But one of the most interesting was recently written about in this NY Times article about author Patricia O’Brien, who had her novel rejected 13 times before she change the name on the cover . . . and poof . . . book deal.  The article hypothesizes that the reason O’Brien’s book was rejected was because publishers had looked at the sales #s of her previous novels and used that to judge her potential, instead of using her actual work to judge her potential.

Oh, unimaginative paper pushers, I’m so disappointed in you. (But are any of us shocked?)

So why don’t we see more of them in the theater?  Remember when NY Times critic Charles Isherwood admitted that he just didn’t like any of Adam Rapp’s plays?  What if Adam wrote one as Hugh Strongman instead?  What about Frank Wildhorn?  Or what about when a very serious playwright wants to write something fluffy and fun purely for commercial purposes?

One of the many reasons it’s not done is probably practicality.  Could the fact that Hugh Strongman was really Adam Rapp ever be kept a secret from the Times?  Could Tony Kushner ever even think about writing a jukebox musical based on the music of Pat Benatar?  Another reason is ego.  We want people to know what we’ve done (sometimes for better or worse).

But, I’m going to say that the #1 reason is confidence.  Theater artists are stronger willed than others.  They’re more like, “F-it . . . this is me, and if you don’t like it, then I’ll do something else, and hopefully you’ll come around.”

All that said, I do think there are strategic reasons for some to use a little cover up on their plays and musicals.  What do you think?  Any of you writers out there ever use a name other than your own to get your work out in the world?

Here’s a test – send out 10 scripts as your own name, and send out 10 scripts under a pseudonym (thinking hard about what might sell the most) and see what happens.

And then report back here!

This is David K Sweet, signing off.

 

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Comments
  • My favorite is men writing as women and changing their lead character in a spy thriller to a woman, as women are buying more novels than men even in these categories. The big chains, okay, Barnes and Nobles’ looks at sales stats to decide how much they order, so if your first novel did badly, you’re screwed unless you change your name.

    I’m not sure it matters much in theater for those of us no one has heard of. In theater there’s the expectation that it takes time to develop. And you’re only competing with hundreds of plays, or dozens of plays on Broadway– or a handful of musicals.

    And change is encouraged.

    Maybe it would work for Frank Wildhorn– or with a particular critic, as in Adam Rapp’s case. (But they would have to write in a very different mode than they’d written in previously, as a critic who is predisposed to dislike the type of material that’s in their particular wheelhouse, will still dislike it no matter whose name is on it.)

    On the other hand, if Stephen Sondheim were to write a happy-shiny old-fashioned musical, he might want to do it under a pseudonym because audience and critical expectations would do him in from the overture on. (Hey, it could happen, he could be aging into a simple, amiable older man without an ironic bone in his body– it just didn’t happen until after Porgy and Bess arrived.)

  • PS (Maybe if that happens you could lend him your lovely, but saccharin name.)

  • Kristen says:

    I heard a story (or myth) ages ago that someone changed the title and character names on “Death of a Salesman” and circulated it among the Producers of Broadway and everybody passed….

  • Michael L. says:

    Would Jane Martin have had so much success with her feminist-sympathetic plays if her real male identity was known?

  • Nancy G. says:

    This is a personal gloat disguised as a comment, but why not? It’s still a true story.
    Years ago, Tom Stoppard (who was VERY well-known even at the time) sent out a silly “Carry On, Nurse” sort of sex comedy under the name Stan Tepper. It was rejected by producers everywhere. Many script readers lost their jobs. Did Mr. Stoppard consider that possible consequence when playing his joke? The show was eventually produced under Stoppard’s name — I forget the title, but it made little if any money. Interestingly, when Stoppard tells the story, this fact isn’t mentioned.
    As a lowly script reader myself back then, I kept my job with Joe Papp, in part because my report on the script said, “It’s too bad the author is wasting his time on this kind of subject matter, because when he wants to he can write just like Tom Stoppard.”

  • Sue says:

    When I publish someday, I will definitely use a pseudonym. Both my maiden and married names are “Jewish-sounding surnames” and since Mom was Catholic of French Canadian descent, I am not Jewish at all.
    I will also change my first name since it screams that I was born sometime in the middle of the last century.
    I may just change it tomorrow. I think even my resume is passed over because of my name.
    –Sue Goodman Cohen

  • Duncan says:

    It’s hard enough for established playwrights to get work done these days; I doubt “Hugh Strongman” would get produced anywhere, whereas Adam Rapp already has a entree.

  • David Merrick Jr says:

    Nancy G,

    I’m guessing the Stoppard comedy you’re referring to is DIRTY LINEN. It was hardly the failure you’re implying it was, enjoying critically-acclaimed runs in the West End and Broadway.

    So, frankly, you’re story is pointless.

    • Nancy G. says:

      Thanks for remembering the title, Mr. Merrick. But I believe your namesake would have been quick to agree that “critically-acclaimed” doesn’t necessarily mean “successful.” And, geez, at the time keeping my job seemed very much to the point to me.

  • Ren Lexander says:

    Actually, Allen Stewart Konigsberg is Woody Allen’s original name (and may still be his legal name).

  • Luke says:

    I definitely think that if anyone should try this it should be Frank Wildhorn. I love all of his shows but for some reason none of the critics do. I think that it’s a bias against him (at least in some respect). I’d be interested to see if he was any more successful under a different name.

  • A Contrarian says:

    Rupert Holmes… Tomas Strassler…

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