By Jessica Del Llano
I was so excited to be able to chat with a former Chelmsford High classmate of mine who is the Writer and Story Editor for a new show premiering on PBS Kids on Monday!
10 QUESTIONS WITH BECKY FRIEDMAN, STORY EDITOR AND WRITER OF THE NEW SHOW “DANIEL TIGER’S NEIGHBORHOOD” ON PBS.
1. Was children’s television writing something you’ve always been interested in pursuing? What was your path from growing up in Chelmsford to writing the shows that Chelmsford (and other Merrimack Valley) kids are watching?
I’ve always known that my life and career would involve educating and entertaining children, but I couldn’t necessarily have predicted that the medium would be television! Growing up in Chelmsford, I did a lot of babysitting…and when I got to Chelmsford High, I was really into theater, and loved the “children’s show” we did every winter. In high school, I also co-founded a children’s theater program for kids in 4th – 8th grade that combined weekly sessions of improvisational games, with rehearsals and a final performance at the end. Working with kids just came naturally to me…and I loved the creative aspect of writing and acting… When I went to college (Tufts), I joined a children’s theater troupe where we wrote and directed our own plays, and performed them for the local schools, hospitals and day cares. I was also teaching Hebrew school on the side. It’s so funny, as I look back, it all seems so obvious, OF COURSE this would be the career for me…but life never feels that way in the moment! After I graduated, I got a job teaching at a private, progressive full-inclusion preschool in San Francisco. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to re-envision and run their “transitional kindergarten” program which was (surprise, surprise) arts based. We took the kids on the most amazing field trips: to the MOMA, the symphony, the ballet, the theater. We had a big art show of the kids work, they put on a little dance performance, and our ‘graduation’ was the kids performing a class play. Five and Six year olds! They were amazing. I was in heaven. I was teaching kids through the lens of the arts and creative expression. After a few years, I decided to move to New York City, and see if I could find an outlet for my passion outside of the classroom. What I found was Out of the Blue – this production company co-founded by Angela Santomero, who created the breakthrough interactive preschool series, “Blues Clues.” It was complete luck…or kismet – whatever you want to call it – but when I started the job of “writing assistant” at Out of the Blue, I had no idea that I was about to embark on this amazing journey of career, personal and creative growth – nurture my life’s work, and find the most amazing mentor, in Angela, along the way.
2. This must be a great time to be writing for children’s TV, at least in terms of abundance of opportunity. When we were kids, I remember PBS and Nickelodeon having children’s educational programming during the week, but not 24/7 like today with Sprout, Disney Junior, and Nick Jr, just to name a few. What shows have you worked on, and in what capacity?
It IS a great time for children’s television! I think the abundance of shows forces creators and creatives to think outside of the box, to figure out what distinguishes their show, and what’s missing in the children’s media landscape. It forces you to work harder! When I started at Out of the Blue, we were working on a new show called “Super Why” – a literacy based show which currently airs on PBS. I started as a “writing assistant” which is basically the ‘foot in the door’ position. I was doing general assistant stuff – answering phones and ordering lunch…but I was also doing the admin work for the writing department, which was the best part. I was sitting in on writing meetings and taking notes, gathering notes on each draft of the script from producers and researchers and the network. And along the way, I learned so much about preschool writing, that when the opportunity came up for me to pitch myself as a writer – I went for it – and dived into writing my very first television script. One script lead to another, and soon I had written a handful of scripts for Super Why Season 1. For Season 2 of Super Why I was promoted to “Junior Story Editor” which means I was responsible for editing the scripts and making sure they’re in the best condition possible in terms of flow, and being in the ‘voice of the show.’ My boss and I recently co-wrote the script for the live theatrical version of Super Why called “Super Why Live: You’ve Got the Power” – which is currently on tour, and will be touring even more cities after the New Year. That was my first time writing a full scale stage production, so that was pretty exciting.
When this new series, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood came along, I became staff writer and story editor – which means I’m responsible for coming up with the ideas for every episode with my boss, and I write many of the scripts for the series. I also story edit every script at every draft. It’s a lot of work, but I really love it. I’ve also written interstitial spots for PBS Kids, and as a freelancer, outside of Out of the Blue, I write mystery birthday party kits for kids, for a company called “Dramatic Fanatic.” I’m also a trained yoga teacher, and so I did a few articles and a yoga slideshow for kidshealth.com about how yoga can help kids manage stress. I love the balance of the different types of media outlets, and audiences.
3. What’s the best part of your job? What’s the hardest part (please please please tell me you’ve dealt with diva child voice actors, LOL)?
Would you believe me if I say that everything is the best? Seriously, I love what I do, and I feel so lucky to be doing it. It inspires me to be working in an office where everyone feels truly engaged in the mission of creating quality content for kids. And believe me, while there are a wealth of kids shows on TV…not all of them are quality. I also love that on any given day, my meeting discussion topics may include subjects like (but not limited to): Which kind of fruit is the funniest? Is dancing in glitter or sliding on rainbows a more fun fantasy for kids? And more seriously…what are the things we think kids need to know to be successful people in the world, and how can we teach them through the work that we do?
4. What were your favorite shows when you were a kid?
It’s probably no surprise that I loved TV as a kid – and I watched a lot of PBS. Sesame Street, of course! I also loved the Electric Company, Square One, Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and this show that nobody seems to remember, but me, called “Bread and Butterflies.” I bring it up constantly, and nobody has any idea what I’m talking about. I also watched ‘Pinwheel’ and “Today’s Special’ on Nickelodeon. And The Muppet Show was a favorite too. Also, this isn’t children’s television, but “Free to be You and Me” had a big impact on me as a kid. I just wrote an essay about Marlo Thomas and how her work, specifically on Free to be You and Me, influenced my work as a children’s media creator. The anthology hits the shelves in November, so I’m pretty excited about that.
5. What are your favorite children’s shows right now (that you haven’t been involved with)?
Word Girl on PBS is definitely at the top of my list. The writing is so sharp and funny. I’m also a big fan of Charlie and Lola on Disney. The relationship between those siblings is so sweet, and never sarcastic. Sarcasm for children drives me crazy. I don’t have to name the shows that have it; I’m guessing you already know what they are. And yes, I STILL love Sesame Street. Who doesn’t?
6. If you could give yourself a job writing for any established children’s show, which one would you choose? I would think Sesame Street is considered the “Big Dance” of children’s educational television writing.
You nailed it on Sesame Street! They can do no wrong! They know how to hit that perfect balance between educational, educational, FUNNY…and doesn’t want to make parents rip their eyes out of their head.
7. If you could give yourself a job writing ANYTHING, what would it be?
In the world of children’s media these days, the name of the game is ‘transmedia’ – meaning, you create a show idea or ‘property’ and the content extends to all areas of media: television, digital, publishing etc. And in that regard, my goal is creating the best possible content for kids – regardless of the delivery method. So, my dream would be to create the kind of characters and stories that are engaging enough to live in this ‘transmedia’ world…in the long term. I could tell you the specific ideas I have cooking up right now…but you’ll have to wait and watch for when I make my dreams come true!
8. Your new show is called “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood.” I think a lot of us will recognize that name. Is this a Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood spin-off?
Yes! Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is a new show based on the legacy of Fred Rogers. The show takes place entirely in the ‘Neighborhood of Make-Believe’ which has been updated and animated (no puppets) for today’s preschoolers. The designers and animators have created a beautiful rich and textured world for the characters to play in. The characters represent the ‘next-generation’ of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Which is to say, that all of the original characters that parents remember (Daniel Tiger, O the Owl, Lady Elaine, Henrietta Pussycat, King Friday) grew up and had children of their own: and those children are the stars of the series.
9. What age range is Daniel Tiger targeted to, and what can we look forward to our kids learning from him?
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood is targeted at 2-5 year olds. The curriculum is based on the work and philosophies of Fred Rogers. Each episode features a social-emotional theme such as: friendship, disappointment, curiosity, jealousy, sad feelings, mad feelings, love, and each theme is linked to a simple, repeatable ‘strategy,’ set to music, that we hope kids and parents will use in their daily lives. Part of what I love about the series, is that all of the social-emotional lessons are woven into compelling and familiar situations for preschoolers: being on a playdate with a friend, in the block corner at school, or out at a restaurant with mom and dad. Placing this new information inside of relatable stories, helps kids comprehend and retain the lessons we’re teaching.
10. And I have to ask because I have yet to meet a parent who didn’t despise him – be honest – I have to know what you think of Caillou.
I think it has something to do with the way he’s drawn. He has kind of a mean face, don’t you think? That quote from Jessica Rabbit, in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” comes to mind: “I’m not bad…I’m just drawn that way”
For Merrimack Valley parents, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood” will air at 11AM weekdays on WGBH/Boston beginning Monday, September 3. Set your DVR!
Connect with this new show and with Becky:
Facebook page: http://www.facebook.com/danieltigertv
Becky’s twitter (focusing more on her work as a children’s media writer, and anything going on in the world of children’s media): @that_girl_becky