Meet the Creatives: Lesley Birchard


Lesley Birchard is terrified of flying monkeys.

You'd think the responsibility that comes with being the Executive in Charge of Programming on a big show like Over the Rainbow would be terror enough, but Lesley manages to keep her cool. See, as a programming executive, Lesley's job is to take a show from its humble developmental stages and turn it into a bona fide reality, ideally creating something that's both entertaining and successful.

A typical day might entail meeting with the production team to discuss scripts for live shows; stopping by the CBC's Communications department to talk through branding and publicity strategy; getting together with the digital team to brainstorm cool social tv ideas; speaking with producers to offer up input on set and costume design; watching rough cuts of the show and giving notes to the post production team; discussing sponsorship opportunities with the sales department; firing off a few tweets for good measure; meeting with the CBC's Factual Entertainment team to develop new show ideas; and, of course, attending to the ever mounting pile of Wizard of Oz paraphernalia on her desk. Yikes!

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Lesley's desk - a little trip to the land of Oz.

Lesley's description of it is much more elegant, 'As a programming exec, you're the point person for the production. You're the point person between the people working on the production directly and the all the various departments at the CBC that are there to support the production. So I oversee the show and help to keep them on track creatively. A big part of my job is to make sure the show is focused and on message, and to make choices that will please Canadians.'

But when we asked her to reveal her most memorable Wizard of Oz moment, she confessed, 'The flying monkeys terrified me, even still when I think about them I get nervous, which is funny because I studied primates in University.'

Perhaps a fear of of flying monkeys isn't terribly interesting - let's face it, those things terrified all of us as kids. What is interesting, however, is how Lesley made the jump from primates to prime-time TV.

'Somehow after university I ended up in the world of theatre production. The great connection to Over the Rainbow is that prior to working in television, I worked for Mirvish Productions. I was David Mirvish's personal assistant for several years. It was a great first job for me, I met amazing people and got a real sense of theatre in Canada,' she explains.

And now, all these years later, she'll have a hand in helping the Mirvish's cast Dorothy in their upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz. How's that for a full circle?

Morphing from personal assistant to programming executive took a lot of time and a lot of hard work: 

'I felt it was time for a new challenge. In my spare time I did a lot of photography and creative writing and I had never really thought about television. But I always wondered how I could combine my love of the visual and my love of storytelling. It turned out that a friend and former colleague had gone on to open a great shop in Yorkville called Teatro Verde. He had done some guest spots on design shows and he knew of a show that needed a publicist.

It came at a time when I felt like a needed a real change, so I did the leap to television. I was a publicist for part of a season, and then I was a researcher. Then I started field directing little tiny stories, which led to field directing half hour shows and then finally field directing and story editing on bigger reality shows like Canadian Idol, Project Runway Canada and Canada's Next Top Model.'

Not bad for someone who started out in Physical Anthropology.

'It's been a very circuitous route; I mean I never studied TV. I feel like so much of it is about intuition and being creative. I've sort of tried as much as possible to get to know a lot of different areas of the business, not even necessarily wanting to specialize in all those areas, but I felt that if I'm going to be a story editor on a show, for example, then I should know what the editor does, so I learned to edit. The same goes with directing and editing,' she explains.

Lesley will also be the first to tell you how passionate she gets about her projects, 'I get really immersed in my shows, I get very excited about them, it doesn't matter what the content is, and by the time it goes to air I'm the biggest supporter of it. I'm always the first to cry. It's also made a total Twitter fanatic out of me - I tweet too much,' she jokes.

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A miniature Over the Rainbow music box - Lesley's favourite bit of Oz memorabilia.

When asked what it is about Over the Rainbow that appeals to her most, she doesn't miss a beat, 'I love the fact that as much as it's a serious story it has so many whimsical elements too - so we can truly have fun with it. And we can take some of the iconic imagery from the movie and really run with it, like the crystal ball and the ruby slippers. We don't have to invent something out of nothing; it's something we're all already familiar with. And I love that the girl who wins and becomes Dorothy, her life will change. I love that knowing her life will change for the better and that she'll really be achieving her dream. I enjoy working on shows where somebody's life changes before your eyes. And I have to say, I'm insanely excited about our search for Toto. What other show has an entire seating area in the studio covered with astro-turf and a fire hydrant?'

Lesley has an emotional connection to the original story too, 'I do have to say when I was 4 years old I took ballet and I played a poppy in the Wizard of Oz, and I think I had to do pumpkin rolls across the stage... So the Wizard of Oz is in my blood,' she says with a laugh. 'I come from a small town, a town that has no traffic light in rural Ontario. And I think probably a part of me identifies with Dorothy and that feeling of thinking there's got to be something better out there, but now as a grown woman I know that there really is no place like home.'

You can bet Lesley will be watching (and probably tweeting) from her current home, in the studio, when Over the Rainbow goes live on September 16th. Until then, you've got just enough time to create your own collection of Oz memorabilia - and perhaps even conquer your fear of flying monkeys.