By Mellini Kantayya
“Showrunner” is a relatively recent term specific to episodic television. Not surprisingly, it refers to the person ‘running the show.’ They are hired by the production entity and in turn hire all department heads. The ultimate responsibility for the end product falls squarely on their shoulders.
In October, NYWIFT board member and VP of Programming Rosalind Murphy produced A Conversation with Annetta Marion and Kathryn O’Kane: The Art of Directing and Running A Show The Art of Directing and Running a Show. The event featured a frank conversation between directors/showrunners Annetta Marion (Oprah’s Master Class, OWN Network) and Kathryn O’Kane (Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Netflix). O’Kane and Marion’s discussion illuminated the unique role of the showrunner, and the combination of skill, gumption, and inspiration essential in helming a show.
The showrunner needs to see the big picture at all times. While department heads and line producers are awash with details, showrunners look across all episodes and keep an eye on the project as a whole. They ensure that a clear through-line and aesthetic continuity are maintained throughout. Marion “prioritize[s] the creative and use[s] [her] analytical skills to support that.”
Being a leader and setting the tone is paramount. Kathryn O’Kane has a rule in hiring: “nobody mean.” It’s the showrunner’s responsibility to build an enthusiastic, respectful team that works in service of the show. They’re cheerleaders with the know-how to communicate and tailor information for each individual so it’s received in the best possible and most effective way. As challenging as this may be, Marion added that, “doing something that’s really hard in [that] group dynamic,” is the joy of the job.
Use the principles of improv. It’s advice one would expect for performing in a television show rather than running one, but both Marion and O’Kane strongly suggested taking an improv class. Marion stated, “In improv you have to deal with your circumstance,” regardless of what comes your way. O’Kane credits improv with helping her become a better, more present listener. She said, “Being present, and not fearing conflict, is such an essential tool.”
Problems? Challenges? It’s the showrunner’s job to fix it. Annetta Marion said, “When everything you’ve planned for goes wrong—it’s ok. The job is to still get it done…sometimes you need to be an exaggerated version of yourself and really take control.” Kathryn O’Kane learned from Marion to always delivers “bad news like the weather report”—quickly and flatly. She then offers solutions, stating her first choice first. She concluded, “Be bold and trust yourself. The show must go on!”
The Art of Directing and Running a Show is one of more than 50 panels, workshops, and networking events programmed by NYWIFT each year. See what’s coming up in our calendar.
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We checked in with Kathryn to offer our congratulations, learn more about the filming process, and discuss what’s next for her.