Kathleen “Bird” York didn’t need to find another career path.
She’s well established as an actress, a musician and songwriter — she was Oscar nommed in 2006 for “In the Deep,” her tune from “Crash” — and in the past few years, she’s sold TV scripts to Fox Television Studios, among other shops.
But York had read about the Showrunner Training Program run by the Writers Guild of America, and was intrigued. She wanted to be prepared for the happy day when she gets the call saying that her pilot script has been greenlit.
York didn’t think she had much of a shot at getting accepted to the program, which receives hundreds of submissions each year for about two dozen slots. She didn’t have the traditional background of having worked as a staff writer on a series. Turns out, York is exactly the kind of candidate the program aims to recruit — a person with industry experience plus drive, smarts, creative vision and talent to spare.
The first thing that participants in the program learn is that “there’s no way that anyone can completely prep you for being a showrunner,” York says. “So much of it you have to learn on your feet. This program can only give you an idea of what to look out for, and the kind of things you’ll need to know how to do to be a good showrunner.”
The Showrunner Training Program, funded by the major studios and nets, was the brainchild of John Wells and Jeff Melvoin, two industry vets who were dismayed at watching promising young writers crash and burn because they didn’t have the depth of experience to run their own ships. The talent pool of showrunners has also been stretched thin as more cablers dive into original scripted series.
Now in its fourth year, the program consists of daylong seminars at the WGA West on six consecutive Saturdays with top biz players, from showrunners to execs to below-the-line and post-production pros. This year there were two bonus sessions — a workshop on the pilot process with the prolific Stephen J. Cannell and a Wells-guided tour through the Byzantine process of budgeting and scheduling for a series.
“They gave us test-case scenarios,” York says of one of the showrunner-led sessions. (The speakers over the six weeks were a who’s who of TV scribes: Chuck Lorre, David Shore, Bill Lawrence, Neal Baer, Greg Berlanti, Carol Barbee, Jason Katims, Mike Scully and Yvette Lee Bowser, among others.)
“They gave us actual problems that they had to figure out on the job,” York says, citing everything from unforeseen budget shortfalls to set problems to misbehaving actors. “They put us in groups and told us to figure out how to deal with it. It gives you an idea of how much you’re going to be on the hot seat all the time.”
York, who writes and performs music under the name Bird York, brought a keen eye and perspective to the process from her diversity of experience as a thesp and musician. She’s been working as an actress since she was in her teens — among her most prominent roles was Congresswoman Andrea Wyatt on “The West Wing” — and she’s got years of experience writing, performing and recording her own tunes. She’s been particularly active in recent years doing songs for soundtracks of pics and TV skeins including “Seven Pounds,” “Nip/Tuck” and “Everwood.”
“When I’m on a set, I’m always asking production questions. As a musician, I’m accustomed to sitting in an editing room and dealing with that world. As I writer, I have an understanding of tone and theme and (story) arcs,” York says. “Showrunning seems like a really cool opportunity to braid all of this together.”
York’s multiple careers have prospered by dint of a determination forged from a difficult childhood. Raised in a family of six kids in Chicago, her mother died when she was 11, and her father died four years later. Amid the family upheaval that followed, York was homeless for about year in Chi when she was 15-16. She finally relocated to Los Angeles and reconnected with her older brother right around the time she turned 18.
Those formative years were at once traumatic and empowering. York didn’t have anything like a normal adolescence, but she learned to live by her wits and gut in ways that have served her well as an artist trying to make a living in a notoriously tough biz. Surviving the mean streets also gave her an unshakeable sense of self-confidence, York says.
“You couldn’t get a better education in character than by sleeping on the couches of strangers and hanging out with people that you really wouldn’t otherwise want to hang out with unless you were trying to survive,” she says. Music and acting “became my lifeline. Making something beautiful … just became essential to me,” she says.
York intends to continue her multitasking even if her star as a TV writer-producer takes off. Keeping extra-busy is good for her creative soul.
Having so many avenues to pursue at any given time “keeps me from being a bitter writer, and it keeps me from being a bitter actor or a completely downtrodden musician,” she says. “I’m always making something that makes me feel good instead of sweating the business and whether someone’s going to buy my script. It keeps me in a more positive place.”