Black Creators to Watch – Alumni Spotlight: Marsha Greene

Posted: Feb 2, 2023

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Marsha Greene is an accomplished executive producer and writer and a prolific and impactful figure in the screen industry. Since graduating from the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program in 2014, Marsha has received multiple recognitions and awards for her talent and work in the industry, including the WIFT-T Crystal Award for Creative Excellence and the Brian Linehan Award for Outstanding Artistic Promise. Marsha is driven to create and promote an inclusive environment for underrepresented voices within the screen industry and her commitment has landed her a well-deserved role as Council Vice President for the Writers Guild of Canada and Chair of its Diversity Committee.

Marsha’s resume is filled with award-winning projects, including her most recent role as showrunner of Emmy nominated Black-led TV series, The Porter. Inspired by real events and set in the roar of the 1920s, The Porter is a CBC and BET+ original series that follows the journeys of a group of railway workers who band together to form the world’s first Black union. This groundbreaking series, which streams on CBC Gem,  explores historical and modern personal experiences of Black Canadians, and tells stories of the contributions of Black Canadians that have long been denied chapters of history in our country. These stories are long overdue on our screens and we’re grateful to Marsha and the talented creators behind and in front of the screen for bringing them to life.

We recently caught up with Marsha to discuss her latest projects, how she’s changing the landscape in the screen industry, and a look at her upcoming projects. Read more in the spotlight below.

Let’s start from the beginning: when did you know that you wanted work in film and TV?

In my late 20s, I was doing a bunch of different things — I had a day-job in advertising, a side-hustle doing freelance journalism, and I was volunteering in event management. Though I liked aspects of each one, I knew none of them were the right fit. I always knew I wanted to be a writer, but in my mind, there were two problems: 1) I didn’t think I could make a living writing stories, and 2) I didn’t want to write novels.

So I took this course in Magazine Editing (again, still searching for the right fit!), and the instructor asked us to write down our favourite magazine — the one we read religiously, without fail. And I realized mine was the TV Guide. That was really the first spark of the idea of writing for television. So I started researching, and I realized all the skills I had gained from these other jobs, like brainstorming ideas, working with clients, and organizing and overseeing an event from start to finish — would be useful in becoming a showrunner. And of course, I would get to make up stories, which was all I ever really wanted to do.

You completed the Bell Media Prime Time TV Program at the CFC. Can you share if / how this program helped advance your career as a creator? What are some highlights from your time in the program?

It absolutely helped me advance my career. I was working in unscripted TV before I went to the CFC, so I had very few contacts in the scripted world. So just on a networking level, it was incredibly useful. But also I had only written a half-hour comedy before I went to the CFC. So I really learned how to write one-hour dramas from Michael MacLennan, our showrunner in residence, and Emily Andras, my mentor. I also signed with my agent, Jeff Alpern, when I was at the CFC and we’ve had a wonderful relationship over the last 8 years.

As for highlights, the first thing that came to mind was a day a bunch of us got together to day-drink and worry about our futures, haha. We were about a month away from the program ending and we were so nervous about what the future would hold for us. Another fond memory is the day I shot my TV teaser. I remember being taken to “video village” and given headphones and it was such a wild experience. I had worked for crew on TV shows for a few years, so being in the “creator” position, seeing something I wrote come to life, was really powerful.

You’re the showrunner on hit CBC / BET+ series The Porter. Can you explain to folks what the role of a showrunner is?

I think of a showrunner as the keeper of the vision of the show. No one else knows the show and the characters the way you do. It’s your job, at every stage, to impart that vision to allow other people to do their work — the writers, the directors, the designers, etc. You have to convey the tone of the show, and still leave room for people to bring themselves and their talent to the table to take your vision and elevate it even more. At the same time, what I’ve learned is that being a showrunner is not just about being a creative visionary. You are also an executive producer, which means you do have to think about the business side of making television as well. You want to be able to use your creativity to make practical business decisions that help the production but don’t sacrifice your creative vision.

Can you tell us about your experience working on this celebrated series and what it’s been like leading Canada’s first all-Black writer’s room? What’s it been like working alongside fellow CFC alum like Kaia Kater, Charles Officer, Priscilla White, Dev Singh?

What really stands out to me as I reflect on making The Porter was how much the subject matter sustained us during the hard times. We believed in the show so much, and wanted so badly for the audience to see the lives of this community, that when things were complicated or frustrating or seemed impossible we would gain strength from our desire to bring the show to fruition. And knowing that we were both telling and making history — with the writers’ room, and the entire team, and the story — made it feel like everything we went through would be worth it in the end.

In terms of the writers’ room, Annmarie Morais and I wanted to create the space to share the deepest parts of ourselves, to tell the vulnerable stories we might not have felt comfortable sharing in other rooms. We knew the show would go to dark places, and it was important that we all felt safe and understood as we grappled with these issues.

It was incredible working with the CFC Alums! I knew Priscilla and Charles before the show and had worked with both of them, so there was comfort and shorthand going into the process. I was absolutely blown away by Kaia’s music, her work is an excellent example of someone taking your vision and the spirit of the show and bringing it to new heights. I had never worked with Dev before, but after hours together in the edit suite, I can honestly say the episodes would not have been as strong without his incredible eye and talent.

Can you speak to the importance of authentic representation in storytelling, and the impact that it has on the stories, the industry, and audiences?

I can’t think of what is more important than authenticity in storytelling. I think the stories that resonate the most with us are ones that we feel reflect our experience in some way. I spent a lot of my life-consuming stories about people who didn’t look like me and still found value and commonality in them. But the power and the impact of a story about someone who looks like you and feels like you and deals with the things you do… those are the ones that really stuck with me and shaped me in many ways.

You have your pulse on the changes in the screen industry as an active creator and as the Council Vice President for the Writers Guild of Canada and Chair of its Diversity Committee. What are some changes you have seen in the industry in the last few years? What changes do you hope to see in the future? 

In terms of diversity, we’ve seen a lot of progress in terms of getting writers from underrepresented communities into writers’ rooms. When Annmarie and I were reading Black writers for The Porter, we knew many of them personally but had never worked with most of them (because we were so often the only POC in the writers’ room). I hope that has changed! I’d still love to see more BIPOC writers in senior-level positions and as showrunners, and I’d love to see the unions, producers, and networks all working together to accomplish that.

The most alarming and pressing change in the last few years is the effect of U.S. streamers on traditional broadcasting in Canada. For writers, what happens next with Bill C-11 (aka the Online Streaming Act) could make or break our careers in Canada. Historically, the American streamer model has been the creative that comes out of Hollywood but shoots in Canada. And while I recognize the wonderful opportunities it has created for directors, actors, and crew, writers have largely been left out of the equation. There are a lot of positive things that will come out of passing Bill C-11, but it won’t be a complete win for us unless screenwriters are unequivocally included in the policy directive to the CRTC. It needs to be clear that Canadian content is created by Canadians. Without that, the authenticity of our stories will be at risk.

What types of stories are you drawn to telling? What’s one story you’d love to work on in the future?

I am really drawn to female-led stories. I like to write a slightly heightened world, but keep the characters and the emotion really grounded. I love a smart criminal; I much prefer to write someone who outwits their opponents than someone who pulls out a gun. There isn’t really one story that I want to work on, but I’m very drawn to the kind of small, niche, character-driven stories that are being told in the half-hour dramedy space, so I’m trying to write something like that right now.

 What’s one this everyone should be watching, reading and listening to right now?

One thing is hard! The two shows that I often say are perfect seasons of television are I May Destroy You and season two of Fleabag.  Reading and listening are often one and the same to me right now, because I’m always listening to audiobooks. Most recently I read/listened to Remarkably Bright Creatures, which is about a widowed woman who befriends a giant Pacific octopus. An album I find myself listening to a lot is Ari Lennox’s age/sex/location, because it’s chill enough to play while I work, but has a few grooves that make you get up for a dance break.

What advice would you give to aspiring screen-based creators?

The strongest tool you have is your instinct. That’s what you want to know, hone, and refine as you go along. There will be things you are great at, and things you are not great at, but knowing what works for your story is not something that anyone can be better at than you.

Can you share any plans for future projects you have in the works?

My focus right now is development, so I am working on several different pitches — two on my own, and two with other writers.  The plan is for one of them to sell this year… fingers crossed!

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