Friday, October 12, 2012

Meet Becky Friedman, Story Editor of “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood”

Interview by Jack Silbert
On Labor Day weekend, my sister sent me an email alerting me to the debut of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, belated spinoff of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. I immediately did what any childless 43-year-old would do: I set the DVR.

The iconic sweater move by
Fred Rogers and Daniel Tiger
Fred Rogers played a huge role in my formative years, and had a “second act” in my life as well. I attended college in Pittsburgh, where Mister Rogers was produced by WQED. There were rumors that the man himself lived in a high-rise apartment building just off campus, but we never had a sighting. (His photo was prominently on display in the Pittsburgh airport, though, welcoming us back from college breaks.)

Around the same time, I started tuning in to the show again. There was something calming and reassuring about it, as my life—and the world—seemed to be getting more complicated.

I was excited that the show would now somehow live on for a new generation. And I was hopeful that they wouldn’t, you know, ruin it. I had nothing to fear. When I fired up the DVR for those first few episodes, I was totally charmed. So it was a genuine pleasure to chat with Becky Friedman, Daniel Tiger’s story editor, about the making of the show and the messages behind it.

Becky Friedman in the treehouse.
Media Darlings: What is your professional background, and how did you get involved in Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood?
Becky Friedman: Before I worked for Out of the Blue [one of the production companies behind the show], I was a preschool teacher at a progressive preschool in San Francisco. But I had been working with kids in some capacity for my whole life. When I then moved from California to New York, I decided to see if there were other outlets for my passion for working with kids, besides the preschool classroom. Children’s media was really appealing to me, and I just kept searching for a way in, until I finally struck gold with Out of the Blue! I still think of myself as a teacher, in a way, just with a much larger classroom.

MD: Could you explain your role as story editor?
BK: My role as the story editor is, essentially, to be the guardian of the ‘voice’ of the show. So for every stage of every script, I do an editing pass to make sure that the characters sound like our characters, that the story feels authentic, and most of all, that the scripts are… you know… good! I try to balance keeping the individual color and flavor of each script with the overall voice and vision of the series.

MD: What sorts of key lessons can viewers expect to see on the show? In writing episodes [which Becky does as well], which comes first: The life lesson, or the plot idea? I.e., is there a set list of lessons you planned to hit during the season?
BK: If I had to sum up the key lessons our audience will be learning from the show, it would go a little something like this: “How to be a person in the world”—which is exactly what I hoped my preschoolers were learning back when I was teaching. So... how to be a good friend, how to deal with mad feelings, how to express love, how to share (yes, adults need to learn this too). And my personal favorite: How to stop what you’re doing, even if it’s really exciting, so you can go to the bathroom and not wet your pants. That’s right, the all-important potty lesson. Coming up on season 2: why you should never play favorites.

Our show is based on the curriculum that Fred Rogers created for the original Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and we are so lucky to have it as our foundation. A couple of times a year, our office heads to Pittsburgh for a brainstorm with the wonderful folks at the Fred Rogers Company (FRC). Many of them worked with Fred for years, and are child development experts. Together, we identify a handful of social-emotional themes that we want to tackle. FRC gives us their perspective: There are 8 million ways to approach “mad feelings”—but how would Fred approach it? Armed with this information, we head back to our little writers’ cave and come up with the story devices that will allow us to teach those lessons.

MD: Were you a big fan of Mister Rogers when you were a kid?
BK: I was a huge fan of Mister Rogers. I really did think he was talking to me!

MD: Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood seems very respectful of the original show. Is that a day-to-day concern in the show's production, or more of a jumping-off point?
BK: Since the educational foundation of the show is Fred’s body of work, staying true to his vision is a number-one concern. But beyond that, we are fans, and we love creating those little moments of nostalgia that are nods to the original production. When it comes to planting little nuggets from the original series for our viewers to find, (to steal a phrase from my boss) “the more you look... the more you see.”

MD: Are there major philosophical differences, for example in teaching strategies or how children view television, between the original show and Daniel Tiger? (One thing I definitely noticed—as someone who doesn't watch a lot of current kids’ TV—were the pauses, waiting for the child viewer to respond to a question.)
BK: While it’s important to us that we are creating television that Fred would be proud of, we are also aware that we are creating television for today’s kids—and kids have come to expect different things from television. They expect to be included and acknowledged. Fred himself was actually revolutionary, the way he broke the fourth wall and spoke right to us, his audience. The difference is, Fred didn’t necessarily expect that kids would respond. We now know that they do, and can accommodate that in production.

Philosophically, we actually have a lot in common with the original show. We believe in treating our viewers with kindness and respect. We believe in showing good modeling, supportive adults, and authentic relationships. I think what’s really changed isn’t philosophy, but simply execution. And, we don’t use puppets!

MD: Music plays a major role in the series. Can you talk a little about the writing and recording of the original songs?
BK: We work with a Canadian music production company called VooDoo Highway to create the music of the show. Music was important in Fred’s work with children: He composed and performed a huge catalogue of memorable songs which still resonate today. We knew that music would be important in creating the series, and we use it throughout each episode in a variety of ways. Some of the music is based directly on Fred’s songs, and some falls into the ‘inspired by’ category. For each song, we send VooDoo Highway a description of what we want for each song: tone and feel, narrative arc, sample lyrics… and then they dazzle us with their musical genius. I wish I could sit in on those writing and recording sessions, but alas, they’re in their composer cave in Toronto.

MD: There are live-action segments mixed in with the animation in each episode. For me, it recalls Fred Rogers and his field trips out of the studio. Did creators feel it was extra important to visit the “real world” with the show being set in the Land of Make-Believe?
BK: Two words: crayon factory. OK, more words. The live-action segments are basically another way to extend the learning for our viewers. Hearing the strategy, or seeing the real-life situations that parallel the animated stories, allows kids to generalize the theme, and even more make the transfer into their lives.

MD: It’s an interesting animation style on the show—actually reminds me a little of South Park! How closely do the writers work with the animators?
BK: Oooh... our first South Park comparison! I think the animators have done a great job of creating a rich and colorful environment. If you look closely, you’ll notice a ton of texture and real-world elements. I wish I could say that I get to watch the artists at work, but alas, our design and animation partners are also in Canada. Still, we collaborate closely throughout the writing and production process. Our scripts provide as much detail as possible in terms of what we see in our heads, and the animation company weighs in at the scripting stage, to tell us what’s do-able and what their suggestions are to achieve what we’re going for. Once the animation process begins, we continue to collaborate via notes and discussions to make sure that the writer's vision is being carried out... and improved.

MD: Who is your favorite all-time Land of Make-Believe character?
BK: I think that I am most like Miss Elaina [daughter of Lady Elaine Fairchilde from the original series]. But the character who I’d most want to be like is a new character named Chrissie, who we’ll introduce later in the season. So stay tuned! Also, probably not coincidentally, I like writing for those two characters the best… but don’t tell the others!

You can follow Becky on Twitter.

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