A writers’ room is a place where you need to feel safe — safe to throw out your most off the wall ideas, or reveal some past heartache you think could relate to a character’s struggles. To get the best ideas and best work out of the team, it needs to be a place where everyone can be their most vulnerable, at least that’s the kind of environment Wynonna Earp writer Shelley Scarrow has seen produce her best work. Currently writing on Season 4 of Wynonna, she has also written on shows such as Lost Girl and Being Erica.
Scarrow shared her experience writing in different rooms across Canadian television as part of our Women Behind Canadian TVseries, and discusses how that ability to show vulnerability needs to extend from writing rooms into more female characters on screen. She talks about the challenge of writing for kids that she faced on shows like Ride, Degrassi: The Next Generation and Mysticons, and why it produces some of the best writing out there. As with the rest of our series, we asked Scarrow for her thoughts on diversity in the industry, and while there’s many improvements to be seen, there’s still more work to be done.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
The TV Junkies: Can you first just share a little bit about your background and how you got into television writing?
Shelley Scarrow: I have always been a words and stories person, but coming from a more blue-collar background, I didn’t consider writing as a “proper job” and so my career path was kind of curvy. I worked in theatre first, where I was a Development Assistant at a large-ish Broadway producer. That’s where I really saw and fell in love with the writing process for the first time. After that company crashed and burned, I found that there was more work in television and my development résumé led to a ‘D-Girl’ job with a producer. But I felt more and more like I wanted to be the person writing the thing instead of reading and giving notes on the thing. It was a nagging feeling that wouldn’t go away, so I went into my boss (Linda Schuyler) and tried to quit. She didn’t want to let me go and asked me what I wanted to do instead. Having just worked on the development of the Degrassi reboot, I blurted out that I wanted to write for it. So she gave me that first shot and I’ll always be grateful.
TTVJ: You’ve worked on many shows (Lost Girl, Degrassi, Being Erica) that were quite popular in Canadian TV and you’ve worked in many different genres. What’s been the general makeup of the writings rooms over the course of your career?
SS: It’s been mainly small rooms, because – Canada — and budgets. I think the biggest room I’ve worked in has been maybe eight people, and the smallest was three (for an 18-episode season of TV!) Looking back over the eighteen years I’ve been doing this, there have been increasingly larger ratios of women-to-men in the rooms. Early on, there was frequently just one or two female staffers. On my last few staff jobs it’s been half female or even three-quarters. Ethnic diversity has also been increasing incrementally, but it’s harder to make generalisations in that area; I feel it’s been moving more slowly. Unfortunately.
TTVJ: Have you ever felt like your gender played a role in opportunities you’ve had? Whether it be for good or bad?
SS: I guess it’s really been both. There is an eye-roll among female writers talking about going up for jobs – ‘They needed a girl in the room’ or ‘Oh, I was up for the girl job there too.’ That’s a double-edged sword, because at least they’re thinking about needing a female voice and it gets you the all-important meeting and maybe even an ear-marked job. But it can be frustrating when you actually go in for that job, because you might then be automatically expected to speak for all women. Or (worse,) you might only be asked to contribute when they want the ‘girl’ stamp of approval. You can get pigeonholed.
For example, I’ll probably be better at writing the low-key small-town dude than I am at writing the big-city Type-A career woman, but I won’t get heard on the story beats involving drama dude and simultaneously I’ll have to fake an intimate knowledge of every impulse the Type-A lady has. But writing comes from all of who we are, not just from our sex organs, y’know? If you feel like you’re there only because you possess ovaries, though, it’s harder to express your whole humanity in the work. I don’t think that’s particularly good for anybody. I do think we should be acknowledging that great writers have many voices they can write in.
TTVJ: What’s the biggest difference you’ve felt writing for a show like Wynonna Earp that has women featured predominantly in front of and behind the camera?
SS: I had to think about this question for a long time. I can only say that I feel much safer creatively. This sounds like an intangible and perhaps not a big deal, but it is. It’s a really, really big deal in terms of what ends up on screen. The best stuff I’ve ever seen come out of story rooms has come from a willingness/ability to feel vulnerable in the room and then within the script process. To reach that vulnerability requires feeling really, truly safe. Knowing that the showrunner and the other people in the room with you will listen to an intimate story or out-there pitch without laughing or disbelieving your truth matters. When you’re writing, you also do better work knowing that the script will be read and interpreted by cast, directors and everyone else with a willing, open spirit. That’s where I think the predominantly female sensibility at Wynonna ripples through the whole process.
TTVJ: Along with Wynonna Earp, some of your previous work featured multi-dimensional female characters at the forefront. How do you make sure you’re giving due to all the different facets and layers of those women?
SS: There’s been a fad in the last few years for the Strong Female Character. That’s been great, but the flip-side of it is that I feel there’s been a backlash against showing vulnerability in female characters. I think that’s a mistake and I think that, at base, it’s sexist, merely a different form of sexism. Tough girl is only one kind of girl, and maybe she’s easiest to respect because she’s closer to a lot of male characters that people already understand and love. I love that Emily [Andras] lets Wynonna cry — before she swears and deals a roundhouse.
I’ve gotten lots of judgy notes on various shows about how the women characters ‘should’ be – should she be this callous when talking about her kid/should she be so needy/shouldn’t she be more awesome somehow? I find you don’t get those notes about male characters. You might get ‘this doesn’t feel like this particular guy’ but the SHOULD isn’t in there. There isn’t only one way to be a woman, and NONE of us feels like the ‘cool girl’ all the time (thank you, Gillian Flynn). So f*#k the shoulds let’s write the reals. Which is a phrase that probably makes little sense but I’m going to go embroider it on a pillow (because even cool girls embroider.)
TTVJ: In addition to your dramatic series work, you’ve also written at shows aimed at younger audiences such as Ride, as well as animated series like Mysticons. Is there a big difference in working on those shows or is writing just writing no matter who your audience is?
SS: The best writing for kids doesn’t feel like writing for kids. I learned on Degrassi that if you write down to them, they’ll turn on you faster than anyone else. Their bullshit detectors are turned up high.
I think you have to keep reminding everyone working on TV for kids that condescension will kill your show faster than anything else, and you have to respect your audience exactly the same way the cable dramas try to respect theirs. Standards and practices give you more restrictions, but that doesn’t make it easier to write or mean you should ignore a child’s entire experience.
TTVJ: Who have been some of the biggest influences on your career?
SS: I’ve learned from every single writer I’ve worked with, whether they’re down or up the chain. The fact that it’s a collaborative medium is one of the things I love most about it. My first days in the trenches were with Aaron Martin, James Hurst and Sean Reycraft, so they’ll always have special footprints in my writer heart because they taught me when I had training wheels on. Emily Andras has taught me a ton about writing free and writing funny, and Alex Ganetakos has been one of my favourite co-conspirators because she’s also free and funny.
No surprises here, but I love tons of Jenji Kohan and Amy Sherman-Palladino’s writing, because they’re both hilarious but their characters are really raw beneath the wisecracking veneer. I love reading Ruth Rendell, Tana French and Kate Atkinson for the same reason. (And because I love thinking about murders, natch.)
TTVJ: Have you felt the shift to increase diversity in writing rooms across the industry? What do you still see as some of the biggest challenges?
SS: I have felt it, because we’re having those conversations more often, and I think we’ve been really successful on the feminist side of things. We still need more women on the upper echelons especially — showrunners, directors, producers etc. — but we’re chipping away at that. Unscientifically, and acknowledging that I’m no expert, I do feel like varied sexualities are being better represented. There’s always room for improvement, of course, in both these areas.
But I also feel (still unscientifically) that ethnic diversity is trailing behind and I wish I had a magic answer for that. There are invisible racial barriers in the outside world that carry through right into the workplace. I feel the industry is working hard at it, but I wonder if young people of colour need more encouragement to enter jobs in the industry. That’s why, to me, representation matters so much. Kids need to see their own faces and realities reflected back before they think of becoming the writers/directors/actors who put those worlds on our screens. Or on our stages. In some ways, it’s a signal of privilege to think about a creative career. Nobody’s out there ‘scouting’ in our high schools for talent the same way they do with athletes. Maybe they should be?
TTVJ: Shifting gears to the positive side, are there any initiatives or steps being taken with regards to diversity that excite you or that are creating change?
SS: ACTRA Toronto has a very active and exciting diversity committee, run by Lisa Michelle and Samora Smallwood. Last summer I went to advise at a table reading series they do, Working The Scene In Colour, in which diverse performers read scripts by up-and-coming writers with underrepresented voices. It was an exciting night, and I got to hear and meet all kinds of new performers as well as writers, and it got me invested in and thinking about diversity in a more direct way. I think every creative organization should be thinking about unique events like this that form connections and showcase talent. Where can we go as creatives that we haven’t been, to speak to those we haven’t had a chance to speak to? How can I help, directly, with my set of skills – even if I’m not able to offer someone a job at the moment? Because sometimes we think that’s the only thing we can do, and it’s often the impossible thing. There aren’t as many jobs to go around as any of us would like but we can still contribute to emerging talent.
TTVJ: Do you have any advice to share with other young writers or young women looking to break into behind the scenes positions?
SS: Work the hardest. That’s the only ‘secret’ I know. Be the first one there and the last one gone and don’t refuse any (genuine) work. I’ll still get coffee for people, happily. The good people will bring you one next time in return and that’s how you cement relationships.
For writers specifically, I would say listen to Every. Single. Note. You don’t have to take them all, but they are all coming from a valid place. Understand what the place is, and you might find a new lens on your work from an unexpected source. Take that gift. You’re still allowed to privately think they’re a pedant/idiot or that they don’t understand you, but what they’re offering you might be a new spark for your work.
Looking forward to the return of Wynonna Earp? Thoughts on Scarrow’s experience? Share them below!
Wynonna Earp returns for Season 4 to SYFY and Space later in 2019. Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV serieshere.
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.