Marsha Greene recently paid Toronto Film School students a virtual visit to discuss her experience helping lead Canada’s first all-Black writer’s room – and the personal journey that earned her that history-making role.
The Canadian Screen Award-nominated writer and producer sat down with Toronto Film School Online’s Steven Hoffner for an hourlong Zoom conversation that covered everything from the screenwriting education she credits with landing her jobs on a string of hit TV series, to her current gig as one of the showrunners of CBC and BET+’s hotly anticipated new drama series, The Porter.
“Education was really important for me. I took out all the famous books on screenwriting, but that only took me to a point,” said Greene, whose writing and producing resume also includes Global’s Mary Kills People, Private Eyes and Departure, ABC’s Ten Days in the Valley and CBC’s Coroner.
“The thing I learned in school that was really important, was the process of having an idea, what an idea pitch is, how to write a beat sheet, how to write an outline, how to write a script. You know, how to really do it.”
All those lessons are coming in handy, especially in Greene’s new job as a showrunner on The Porter – an eight-episode period drama inspired by the true stories of Canadian railway porters in the 1920s who joined together with their American peers to give birth to the world’s first Black union.
Set primarily in the Black community of St. Antoine, Montreal – known, at the time, as the “Harlem of the North” – the series will follow the journeys of four “ambitious souls who hustle, dream, cross borders and confront barriers in the fight for liberation” after the First World War.
More than 10 years in the making, The Porter was originally created by Arnold Pinnock and Bruce Ramsay, but it’s the foursome of Greene, Annmarie Morais, Charles Officer and R.T. Thorne who have since taken on the roles as its creative leads.
“I remember the four of us sitting there and just feeling so right, like, ‘This is it. This is the team.’ It just felt right…bringing our four sensibilities to this project,” Greene said of the show, which is currently filming in Winnipeg.
“As Charles said, it just holds such a personal place for us, that we’re going to pour ourselves into it and give it literally everything we have – which is what you have to do when you’re trying to make a period show in Canada.”
Greene also offered unique insights into the film and television industry’s shift toward not only more diverse storytelling, but also more BIPOC representation both in front of and behind the camera – namely the CBC’s recent announcement that they’re now requiring 30 per cent of their key creative positions in both scripted and unscripted series be filled by BIPOC and people with disabilities.
“It’s an amazing place to start, because the truth is, so much of the industry is about who you know,” she said, noting that this type of hiring practice has resulted in a certain amount of homogeneity in writers’ rooms and beyond.
But, Greene added, her hope is that those doing the hiring will do a better job of seeking out talent from communities outside their own.
“I feel like that action will create new positions for people in various communities and then, in many cases, those people will then hire other people from their communities,” she said. “So it will have a ripple effect and bring even more diverse voices in – or at least, that’s what I hope.”