Don’t be afraid to speak up, even when it’s hard or when you’re afraid. That is a major lesson Canadian television writer Marsha Greene has learned in her career. It’s a career that has seen Greene, even though she’s just getting started, work in multiple genres and hold a variety of positions. However, all along the way one thing has remained consistent, with such a glaring need for diverse voices and perspectives, one should never be afraid of speaking up and sharing their ideas.
Like many other women in our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, Greene is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s Bell Media Prime Time TV Program. Currently working on Tassie Cameron’s latest project Ten Days in the Valley, Greene previously wrote on the new Global drama Mary Kills People and the summer hit Private Eyes. She has also worked in production on reality shows such as Big Brother Canada and Don’t Drive Here.
Greene recently shared her thoughts on diversity in the industry with The TV Junkies and what it’s been like for her as she forges a career as a young woman of colour. She also gave some insight on how working in reality television helped prepare her for other aspects of her career, and what she’s learned from mentors such as Cameron and Wynonna Earp showrunner Emily Andras.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you first just share a little bit about your background and whether you always wanted to write for television?
Marsha Greene: It took me an incredibly long time to realize I wanted to write for television, despite all the signs being there–I loved watching television, I was always analyzing the stories on my favorite shows, and my favorite magazine was the TV Guide. I think part of it was growing up in London, Ontario; there wasn’t really a TV/film industry there, so I didn’t realize it was an option. But I knew I wanted to be a writer, so I tried advertising, marketing, and freelance journalism. When I finally found my way to television, I knew it was perfect because it combined the best of all the jobs I had–I love working with people, I think better with other brains around me, and it’s really amazing to come up with an idea and then see it brought to life visually.
TTVJ: You have worked on a wide variety of shows, from reality to YA dramas to now hour-long dramas. What did you learn from the experiences on shows like Big Brother Canada or other reality shows that you’ve been able to take with you in your writing career?
MG: In terms of Big Brother Canada, the nature of that show is the cameras run 24 hours a day and we have to find and follow the stories within that framework. So watching the monitors every day becomes a story editing exercise–What is going to be the story of that episode? Who are the people involved? Can we find a small runner that is light or funny or shows character?
The last unscripted show I worked on was Hello Goodbye for CBC, and it taught me two important things: first, how to listen and type and think at the same time; and second, I got to talk to people of all different backgrounds and hear their universal stories, which later helped me build characters.
My other experiences also taught me a lot about working with people–from the crew, to the chefs on Top Chef Canada, to the civilians on the street I chased down for releases. There is a social element to being a TV writer, in the room and in the industry, so those jobs were beneficial for me learning to get along and work with all different kinds of personalities.
TTVJ: Both Private Eyes and Mary Kills People have female showrunners. What’s been the biggest difference you’ve noticed of working on shows run by women?
MG: It’s hard for me to pinpoint a difference–I worked for one male showrunner as his assistant, and another as a very green story editor. So most of my actual writing experience has been on female-run shows. But I do see the importance of women having showrunner power. The female showrunners I’ve worked with are treated with a lot of respect in the room. They don’t have to demand to have their ideas heard or valued, because it comes with the job. Having said that, I imagine those are all things they dealt with en route to getting that job. So I think I’ve gotten to reap the benefits of their hard work, because my experiences have been working for women who are generous, encouraging and supportive of other female writers.
TTVJ: Since you are a young POC, have you found yourself being the token woman in the room or the token minority? If so, what’s your strategy for dealing with those situations?
MG: I’ve never been the only woman in a room, but I have been the only person of colour in a room. When a race issue arises–I say when, because I’ve found it’s inevitable–I try to be honest about how I feel. It can feel like walking a tightrope–if I don’t say anything, then I’ll feel guilty for not standing up for myself or other people of colour. But if I do, then I run the risk of being called too sensitive, or alienating myself in the room.
At the end of the day, I think people have to do what feels right and safe for them. I spent a lot of my life being the only person of colour at school and at work, so learning to speak up has been a process. And personally, I feel like it’s important to encourage a dialogue, to listen as well as talk, and to try to be patient with people who have not had to deal with race their entire lives in the way that people of colour have.
TTVJ: Do you feel as though there were any opportunities you missed out on because of the fact you’re a young female POC?
MG: I feel like it’s impossible to know if I’ve missed out on opportunities because of it, and conversely if it’s the reason I’ve gotten other opportunities. What I do know is it can be a dangerous spiral trying to figure it out. So I like to believe that the reason I didn’t get on certain shows is simply because I wasn’t the right writer for the job. Or on a very good day, I’d like to believe that if people don’t want to hire me because I’m a woman of colour, they’re the ones missing out.
TTVJ: Canadian TV still has a ways to go when it comes to diversity. What do you see as some of the biggest challenges that still need to be overcome?
MG: I think a lot of writers still write what they know. In theory, diverse writers will write diverse stories and then we’ll have diverse television. Except that I know very few diverse writers who are at showrunner level. So if the majority of writers at showrunner level are not diverse, and writers still tend to write what they know, then we will have an overwhelmingly high number of shows lead by straight, able-bodied white men and women (which we do). And that’s not even getting into how hard it is for anyone to get a show greenlit. So in my opinion, that’s the biggest challenge: how do we get more diverse writers into the industry? How do we get them trained and mentored and hired in rooms so they can reach showrunner level?
Also, the people who greenlight shows are not overwhelming diverse either. So I think the question there is, are executives only responding to what they know, or what they see themselves reflected in? How can they be challenged to take more risks in creating diverse television?
TTVJ: Conversely then, do you see any positive changes being made with regards to diversity in the industry?
MG: One of the most positive changes I’ve seen is in relation to casting, and I see it at all levels–in the room, at the studio and at the network. People have become very aware of having non-diverse casts, and they’re looking for diversity particularly in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. I’ve found people are challenging the casting agents more to look for diversity when suggesting actors. It’s not always successful, and it often is for supporting roles or guest stars, but I still think it’s a positive change.
Personally, I have tried to familiarize myself with more actors of colour. One of the many benefits of being in a room is participating in casting, so it’s great to be able to suggest actors of colour for roles that might not have been written as such. And I hope that by having more diverse casts, it might encourage more diversity in the room to help write more specific or nuanced storylines for those characters.
TTVJ: Having worked with or been mentored by some of Canadian TV’s most prominent female showrunners (Emily Andras, Tassie Cameron, Shelley Erickson, etc), how important is it for young female writers to find someone to serve in that mentorship role?
MG: I highly recommend finding at least one mentor who is a seasoned writer in the industry. Emily was my mentor at the CFC, and she had a wonderful way of guiding me while also helping me find my voice. I met Tassie at a conference and later asked her to be my mentor. So even before we worked together, I had one of the best showrunners in Canada giving me advice. And working with Tassie is a dream; not only is she brilliant, but she’s one of the kindest and most generous people I know. Shelley, who is just so smart and razor-sharp, could not have been more encouraging or supportive of me in the Private Eyes room. I went from script coordinator to story editor in that first season, and it wouldn’t have happened without Shelley (and Alan McCullough, the co-showrunner) championing me to the studio and the network. But beyond all of the learning and opportunities a mentor can provide, just having someone you admire see something special in you can be the lifeline you need to keep going when it gets hard–because as we all know, it gets very hard.
TTVJ: What piece of advice do you wish someone had told you when you were a young writer starting out?
MG: I’m not sure if this is advice, but I wish I had spoken up more when I was starting out. Too often people, especially women and POC, are culturally or socially engrained to not draw attention to themselves, or to be grateful for what they have and not expect or demand more. And of course, there’s that crippling insecurity thing writers tend to have. So my advice to young writers is, if you get an opportunity to be in a room and you have ideas, share them–even the bad ones, because that’s how you’ll learn how to come up with good ones.
If you are treated badly by your boss, don’t accept “that’s just how creative geniuses are,” because you are treated the way you allow yourself to be treated. And as a fellow POC recently reminded me, if you are a woman and a person of colour and you have a script you can submit for an award, do it. Because the act of speaking up–saying I’ve worked hard to be here and I’m proud of the work I’ve done–might inspire others to do the same.
TTVJ: Mary Kills People will soon be debuting its first season, but are you working any other projects we should know about?
MG: I am beyond thrilled to be working with Tassie again on her new show for ABC called Ten Days in the Valley. It’s also given me the opportunity to work with Sherry White, who just astonishes and inspires me every day. And we also have some super-talented “Men Behind Canadian TV” in the room, Aubrey Nealon and Chris Roberts.
Thoughts or comments? Please share them below!
Mary Kills People premieres Wednesday, January 25 at 9 p.m. on Global. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.
Editor in Chief Bridget Liszewski comes from a long line of TV Junkies who fostered her love of television from a very young age. She's channeled that passion into covering both US and Canadian television shows, and is thankful everyday for the invention of the DVR. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she loves college football and is a fan of sports in general. Bridget is always up for talking TV and you can follow her on twitter at @BridgetOnTV.