Morwyn Brebner originally saw no plans to write for television as part of her career path. After graduating from theater school, she spent several years as a playwright before diving into the world of episodic television. After co-creating and writing for Rookie Blue on its first two seasons, she went on to co-create and be co-showrunner on Saving Hope during its first three seasons, and now has two different television projects in development.
She recently spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries and shared her thoughts on hiring practices and why the Rookie Blue and Saving Hope writers’ rooms may have been anomalies. Brebner also discusses her experience as a female showrunner and why she thinks women writers are necessary to make interesting television.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: You began your career as a playwright. Can you share a little bit about your background and how you switched over into writing for television?
Morwyn Brebner: I went to theater school twice, which seems redundant, and came here to be in what was called the Playwright’s Unit, a group of writers at the Tarragon Theater, and that’s how I ended up in Toronto. While I was there Ilana Frank [executive producer of Rookie Blue, Saving Hope] saw a play of mine and asked me if I would write a feature for her which didn’t end up working out, but through that my first writing job in television was co-writing an outside script on The Eleventh Hour with Semi Chellas. That was sort of the beginning of my television career. I was not very careerist at the beginning, like I remember my agent saying ‘Do you want to go interview for Degrassi?’ and I said ‘No, I have to write my play.’ I really switched over to TV gradually as the medium itself became exciting to me. But the good thing about starting in playwriting was by the time I was working in television I had a very assured sense of myself as a writer, before I ever got notes I was able to develop my voice.
TTVJ: We know about the lack of women behind the scenes in television, is that comparable to your experience with the theater world?
MB: I would say the theater world was still more male. It’s funny though because as a playwright you work so much by yourself that you don’t have as much of a sense of the collective. In television we work together so you always know exactly how many women are working in your writing room at all times. I would say for sure though that there’s sexism in every part of the world. There’s definite gender bias in theater as well.
TTVJ: You worked on both Rookie Blue and Saving Hope which are both a bit of an anomaly in that they were run by women and had a majority of women in the writers’ rooms. What was their secret and what can other shows learn from what you guys were doing there?
MB: On Saving Hope when I was hiring writers, it’s just that when you’re a woman your default position is to hire people like you, so it would never be a barrier for me to hire a woman right? So it never occurred to me not to hire a woman because I’m a woman. I am sure that was just the crux of it because as a woman you don’t think of not hiring women, so you hire women.
TTVJ: Well I was actually surprised when I started the series because a lot of my favorite Canadian shows are or had been run by women–Rookie Blue, Saving Hope, Killjoys–but the numbers are still bad across the board.
MB: I was incredibly surprised actually when I saw your breakdown that some of the numbers were so low because I feel like I clearly must’ve been living in some bubble as well. I’m surprised, but I’m not.
Again it goes back to who are people comfortable hiring. There’s a lot of money in television and with money people become conservative, they want to feel like their dollar is going somewhere safe, somewhere there’s a guarantee of confidence and strength. For a lot of people that means a man, although that’s absolutely not a true thing. I don’t think it’s a conscious bias, but I do think it’s a bias. The way to counter bias is to be conscious. Everyone wants to hire the best writer, but if the best writer is always a man maybe it’s time to look at why that is.
TTVJ: When you were showrunning Saving Hope, you were sharing that position with Adam Pettle. Did you ever notice any difference in the way he was treated versus how you were treated?
MB: He and I had a fantastic partnership and I loved working with him and I loved working with Aaron Martin before him. I would say not in the room or in terms of professionally, but I feel like in the end what is more apparent the longer you work is the small moments where you’re seen as “other.” You’ll be in a meeting with a lot of men and there will be a moment of ironic sexism, that actually isn’t ironic, that reminds you that you’re a lady.
There were a couple of moments where I met men and thought: ‘You don’t like working for a woman.’ I could feel it. I was certainly aware at times that I was a woman. Some study said when women experience misogyny–and not every moment of sexism is pure misogyny–but when you experience misogyny it causes your cortisol to rise and it’s like a physical assault. I feel like men don’t understand that casual sexism is still sexism. I would say it was more that kind of thing. I was treated with a great deal of respect and I got the respect I was due, but I was conscious of those things for sure.
I think when people don’t talk about experiencing sexism it’s because you work really hard to get to a position of “power,” and then when you get there it gives away power to say ‘Actually, I don’t feel powerful all the time and I’m aware there’s an ambivalence here.’ So to talk about it I think makes you think you’re weakening yourself. We’re all guardians of our mythology and when we’re doing well we’re invested in our own exceptionalism. You want to be the one who transcends all the regular obstacles and is just there, succeeding. You don’t want to admit there are moments when you’re like ‘Oh right? Even at this level still…’
TTVJ: What are some changes that can be made then to start breaking these barriers down? Is it just about staying conscious when hiring or what are some other changes that could made?
MB: It takes a lot of ferocity and a lot of tenacity to last in this business for anybody. I know in terms of other diversity there are some programs that are strong. So I feel like consciousness is the first step. Individual change is an awesome change, but the system changing is usually a better thing and a more holistic way to go about things. Is there some kind of systematic change we can enact? Change doesn’t happen by accident. If you keep doing things the same way then things stay the same. What can we do differently?
TTVJ: What changes do you currently see being made or programs out there that give you hope for the future?
MB: I’m very hopeful for the future because I think the future is about the fact that the world is diverse. In order to represent the world we have to be the world in the writers’ room. We need different points of view. If you don’t have women in the room then you don’t have a woman’s point of view on your show, even if you have a female character. My optimism comes from believing that if we want to make interesting television, we have to have women writing it.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice for young women looking to break into writing for television?
MB: My advice would be for any writer, the thing you have to do–if you have that fire in you that makes you write–hold onto that fire while you really learn your craft. For women it’s especially important for you to believe that your point of view is valid because your point of view will be assailed more than a man’s point of view. You have to actually weirdly believe in yourself even more, but belief isn’t enough so I think also speaking up if you think something is unjust. If you feel like your point of view is not being represented, speak up about it.
Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! 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.