Names are important. As a performer, our stage name is a vital element in being recognised for any audition or casting together with our headshot.
Would Norma Jean have been as successful as she was, as glamorous as she was, as desirable as she was, if she hadn’t changed her stage name to Marilyn Monro?
Or what about:
- Tina Fey (Real name: Elizabeth Stamatina Fey)?
- Whoopi Goldberg (Real name: Caryn Elaine Johnson)?
- Woody Allen (Real Name: Allan Stewart Konigsberg)?
- Reese Witherspoon (Real name: Laura Jeanne Reese Witherspoon)?
- Helen Mirren (Real name: Ilyena Lydia Vasilievna Mironov)?
- Luke Perry (Real name: Coy Luther Perry III)?
- Demi Moore (Real name: Demetria Gene Guynes)?
- Natalie Portman (Real name: Natalie Herschlag)?
- Michael Keaton (Real name: Michael Douglas – guess why he changed this!)?
- Sigourney Weaver (Real name: Susan Alexandra Weaver)?
- Ashton Kutcher (Real name: Christopher Ashton Kutcher)?
Ultimately, as you break in to the performing arts business, your name is going to become synonymous with your work. Your stage name will not only represent you; it will be you.
Producers who seek to use known names in their productions do so because the name will potentially sell the production. Regardless of the production itself, people will come to see THAT name…
You Gotta Get a Gimmick
“You can uh, you can uh, you can uh, uh, uh…” (Erm… Thank you Gypsy!)
Or not, as the case may be. Landing key roles and getting yourself known can sometimes feel like you need to find that secret “something extra” in order to stand out from the crowd.
The fact is, we shouldn’t be thinking about gimmicks at all. That might make us stand out for a brief period of time, but it won’t last.
Becoming your own unique brand, however, does last. All performers are brands in their own right. Yes, this is business speak. But, if you get this right, and your stage name right, you will be well on your way to achieving your ambition.
The performing industries is a business. As performers, you are not the “product” of the performing business, but rather a specialist vendor selling your skills to the business venture that you are capable of supporting. You (and your name/brand) are your biggest marketing tool to get you the work in the first place. How do you put your name out there, and will the people that matter want to “buy” your services?
With this in mind, the business aspect of performing suddenly becomes very real. But it should be real. We can get so swept up in the art and artistry of what we do that we sometimes lose sight of the fact that we are one tiny cog in the great industry of performing arts.
Personal Brand as a Performer
Think of any multi-million dollar/pound company, and you will instantly start recalling their name and logo. Golden Arches = McDonalds. Swirling white script on a red background = Coca-Cola. These are not just company names; they are the brand of the company. They are instantly recognisable. They are instantly present in the mind.
Of course, the name alone does not a success make – a quality product (in this sense I refer to quality as something people will WANT to buy. I’m acutely aware that fast food is not necessarily a “quality” product) needs to sit firmly behind the brand name.
Before you even begin considering your stage name (or brand name) as a performer, you need to be absolutely certain of the product you are selling yourself as.
This requires you to search deeply into what you have to offer. Your personal traits here are every bit as important as the acting/dance/singing/whatever-it-is-performance-skills you have been working hard to master and hone. THIS is the reality behind your brand. Your name is the least significant aspect.
So Why Do Some Performers Change Their Name?
The truth is, it is entirely personal – and it may be required if you are joining a union and there is already someone with your taken name. However, even if this is the case, you do not need to make an extreme change: if your name is Edward Thompson but there’s already an Edward Thompson on the union books, you could consider Ed / Ted / Eddie Thompson / Tomson / Thomson / Tomsan etc or even just insert a middle name initial: Edward G. Thompson.
Whichever way, your name is not changing in a way that your mum will be asking you to remind her of what she should call you.
In the past (and I’m talking early 1900s really), some performers felt it vital to change their name if it sounded too culturally connected. For instance: “Bernie Schwartz” became Tony Curtis and “Nathan Birnbaum” became George Burns. The Jewish connections to their names meant they felt there were people in parts of the country who wouldn’t pay to see a “Jew” on the screen or stage. However ludicrous this may seem today, this association was a very real hurdle they needed to alter.
These days, cultural heritage and identifying with who you are by birth are considered a major element of your brand. It is WHO you are. It is IMPORTANT.
So Should I Change My Name for the Stage?
In honesty, I would urge against this if it is possible. Of course, if you really dislike your personal given name then you already know you want to change it.
What is most important is that your name reflects who you are, and they are the powerful few words that people will eventually recognise and know is a trustworthy brand to employ. Build your brand. Hone your skills. Let your name help you to sell that!
Are you considering changing your name for the stage? Let us know below!
Also published on Medium.