Monday, August 1, 2016

Ember Flynne: "The Business of Stage Names"

I have another guest writer on Throwing Stones this week, who is a supremely talented fire spinner, aerial acrobat, and business person whom I've worked with quite a lot. Although I've touched on the importance of stage names a while back, I didn't really flesh out the issues of safety and accessibility that are part and parcel with this practice.

So I invited Ember Flynne to share those with me.

Ember Flynne - Fire Goddess

My name is Ember—well, not really, but we’ll get to that in a second—and I’m a traveling circus performer based in Boston.

Some years ago, I found out that my entire family was cyberstalking me.

“Google, you know, the search engine,” my mother explained, “I just type in your name and…”

“Mom I know what it is.  But WHY are you Googling me?”

“Just to see what you’re up to,” she said, matter-of-factly.

My parents and I have never been that close, but this was a new low.  Google is for checking that your blind date isn’t an axe murderer, not sating your curiosity about what your twenty-something daughter is doing in her spare time.  It felt weirdly invasive.  Why not just pick up the phone and—gasp—call me?

“Oh don’t get all bent out of shape,” my mom said when I told her as much, “Everybody does it.  Richard Googles his kids all the time.  Your grandmother Googles you; it’s completely normal.”

I’ve always been aware that information about my life could be broadcast to the entire planet without my permission (excepting, perhaps, China), but I still find it unnatural that anyone I know would feel compelled to search for it.  That my sprawling Midwestern family also thinks it’s appropriate to dissect their discoveries with random friends and co-workers is boggling.  It’s one thing to be searchable.  It’s another to know that my actual grandma looks me up out of sheer boredom, forms opinions that she never intends to contextualize in person, and spreads them to everyone she knows. That my objections are continually framed as MY problem is just the icing on an exceedingly un-fun cake.

When I settled on a stage name, it was to escape a certain nebulous scrutiny that kept me from feeling free to experiment, fail, perform acts of a subversive or sexual nature, and build my reputation on my own terms.  There are lots of other reasons a performer might choose to use a stage name, but what’s important is that there are ALWAYS reasons, and it’s crucial to respect them.

A stage name is a second name used in performance settings, whether in person or in print, that may or may not be associated with a separate stage persona.  While some performers are pretty loose with their expectations, it never hurts to assume a strict separation between a performer’s stage life and the life attached to their legal name.  Treat them like they belong to two different people.

Confusing?  Sometimes, but rest assured, we don’t do this just to frustrate you.

For many performers, stage names are actually an important personal safety measure.  Anyone who appears in front of an audience commands a great deal of attention from a great many people. Combine that with the fact that it’s a performer’s job to look great and create a connection with their fans, and you have a situation that frequently results in unwanted advances from creepy people with nothing better to do. Usually they’re audience members or photographers, but sometimes they’re even clients or unfamiliar booking agents.

"Hey, gimme your name so I can harass you."

My legal name happens to be unique, so Google isn’t going to make it difficult if some stalker with half a brain wants to find out where I live.  Deflecting unwanted attention onto a pseudonym is a decent way to keep my personal information private from all but the most determined of creeps.
If a performer is working under a stage name, always assume that they are trying to keep themselves safe.  Using their legal name in connection with their stage name (especially online) could put them in danger by dismantling a layer of protection that they have worked hard to establish.

A similar concern is job security.  Not everyone can work the stage full-time, so many entertainers maintain other sources of income.  For some, it’s a way to stay afloat when they’re first starting out. For others, it’s a way to support themselves and their families during the off season, acquire health insurance, or maintain a safety net.  Still others have day jobs just because they like them.

Performers who are otherwise proud of what they do may not want to tell their co-workers that they’re a drag queen, or that they routinely light stuff on fire and swing it around.  Some bosses would be cool with that.  Others, not so much.

Even in a city as open-minded as Boston, certain industries remain warped bastions of conservatism. Sexualized performance of any kind is essentially grounds for dismissal from most childcare, teaching, and law enforcement positions, and anyone discovered dancing around in pasties on the Internet can hardly hope to be taken seriously as a doctor, lawyer, or scientist (though let it be said that I’ve seen all of the above on the Oberon stage).

"Yes, we are a full-time Batman and Commissioner, but also
part-time strippers. Keep that last part quiet."

Sometimes it’s not even an employer, but an employee or landlord that’s the problem.  It doesn’t matter.  In all cases, stage names offer a significant shield from casual Google searches and help to maintain a performer’s reputation in relation to others with influence over their lives.

There’s also sheer politeness to consider.  Some folks simply don’t prefer to see a parade of half-naked people prancing all over their Facebook feed, so prudent performers may set up separate names and social media accounts with which to participate in different social groups.  It’s a solution that makes it easy to keep in touch with a five-year-old niece AND maintain contacts in the burlesque or fetish scenes without fear of cross-over.

Finally, there’s a whole host of personal reasons that can affect a performer’s decision to go by another name.  Perhaps they feel that their legal name is inconsistent with their chosen gender or lifestyle, or they wish to use performance as an outlet for forms of expression that would not be acceptable in other parts of their life.

Stage names also help performers to build a brand based on whatever qualities they think are important to their art.

When I first started out, I performed a bit and attended industry events under my legal name.  I met a lot of people that way, but once I became Ember I completely shifted to that identity for work.

A few years later, after Ember Flynne had become somewhat more established (and more interesting on the Internet) I started to notice something disturbing.  People I’d met once or twice were walking up to me in performance settings and pointedly addressing me by my legal name, particularly if I was engaged in conversation.  They always spoke as loudly as possible and hugged for an inappropriately long time.

I struggled to understand what was going on.  It’s not that they didn’t know my stage name or couldn’t remember it—in fact, the majority of these people were far more familiar with Ember (albeit via Facebook) than they ever were with my legal name.  They followed Ember online, liked my photos, and commented as if we were the best of friends, when in reality we had barely crossed paths.*  My real friends all know to call me by Ember when I’m working, and while they’ll occasionally slip up, those occasions are incredibly few and far between.

And then one day, it hit me.  The randos were showing off.

To address me by my real name in front of a group of people was to assert that they knew something about me that those other people did not—that they knew the “real” me, which implies, by extension, a closer relationship and perhaps even a degree of influence.

I immediately called up my 3-in-1 manager / emergency contact / ex-lover and ranted about it.  Who the hell did these people think they were, walking around and showing off at my expense?  And what’s more, who did they think I was?  Should I be flattered or enraged?

Editor's note; I know which one I would gravitate towards.

“Dude,” I remember saying, “I’m legit not famous enough to have these problems.”

These days, I respond to exactly that scenario my adopting a look of bewilderment and saying, “um…who’s that?  I think you’re confusing me with someone else?”  Sure, it’s passive-aggressive, but I’ve found that the best way to keep people from using me to try to boost their own social status is to show them it will backfire.

I actually say the same thing to friends who slip up, but I do it with a smile.  After all, people aren’t perfect.

For the record, if you’re not sure what a performer is going by in a particular setting, you can just ask them.  “How should I introduce you?” is always a polite question, and encompasses not only a name but the performer’s preferred gender and any other details they see fit to give.

Stage names are a small thing, but they have big implications for performers’ well-being.  If you use one, we’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments!

*Let it be said that many fans and followers do form real, meaningful relationships with performers online.  That’s completely legit, and I’m not referring to those people.