Jesse Szymanski can count herself as one of those few among us who manage to follow through on a career path chosen early in life. “I had known for years that I wanted to get into the field of television. When I was in the 12th grade, I took an aptitude test and it just confirmed I was right for the job. I applied right away to a program in radio and television arts at the North American Institute of Technology, and I got in. I graduated at 19.”
From that point onwards, Szymanski steadily climbed her way up the ladder. She began by working as a production assistant at the Idea Factory, an Edmonton-based independent production company. Within the short space of three and a half years she went on to associate produce a lifestyle series titled Sew Much Fun.
Szymanski’s drive to succeed was seconded only by her commitment to her family—when her mother fell sick with breast cancer, she left work to be by her side. Five months on, it was only at her father’s insistence that she returned to work: “You need to get back in the saddle,” he had told her, and she realized he was right.
She broke back into the business with a brief stint at a small corporate video company before being hired on as a producer at Access Television. When Access Television was purchased by CHUM a short while later, Szymanski was retained in the talent pool. She quickly progressed from producing short educational and commercial vignettes to covering the Prime Minister’s cross-country Teaching Awards of Excellence.
Then, recognizing an opportunity in a number of Speakers’ Corner booths left unused at the CHUM station, Szymanski pioneered the introduction of a regular Speakers’ Corner program in Alberta. Booths were set up at a number of malls and festivals, and Szymanski oversaw all elements of the weekly half-hour show, including the theme music and any supplementary footage required to fill the time slot. “Sometimes for a weekly show you had to be guaranteed to have a certain amount of footage. We would go out with a camera and get streeters asking questions about everything from political and social issues to dance moves.”
Always keen to delve deeper into the local cultural scene, Szymanski took on a second job as an entertainment reporter for the City Show on City TV. During her two years as an interviewer, she wrote her own material and scouted for interesting subjects involved in music, theatre and visual art.
It was only around six months into this entertainment gig that she was first approached by producer Ron Scott. At the time, she wanted to explore her new role as a reporter further before launching into another production role. A year and a half later, however, the time was ripe. CHUM station was set for another corporate takeover, and Szymanski was ready to move back into independent production.
She signed on with Ron Scott’s Prairie Dog Film + Television, where she immediately began working as a producer on My Green House, a lifestyle series spotlighting eco-friendly options for the domestic space. She went on to work as Associate Producer on Prairie Dog’s first foray into dramatic television, Mixed Blessings. And it is a genre that the Prairie Dog team has come to master. Szymanski’s latest production, the hard-hitting dramatic series Blackstone, has garnered critical praise and numerous awards.
Szymanski believes that the qualities drawing her to the show also account for its acclaim—qualities like the social awareness and authenticity that give it a purpose. “There is an energy when you’re on the set of this production that tells you it has purpose, and I think that for any creative person involved in the arts—to have the opportunity to be involved in something that can create change, heal, reform, touch lives—that’s the goal.” Centred on the political and social intrigues of the fictional Blackstone First Nations reserve, the series has been widely praised for its unflinching, often gritty realism.
In Szymanski’s view, Prairie Dog manages to approach these controversial topics with sensitivity rather than sensationalism, partly because the show features a complete First Nations ensemble cast, which is directed by Métis producer and creator Ron E. Scott.
“It being created and controlled by First Nations people allows for two very important things to happen: first, to be able to draw on one’s own very real and true life experiences, and inject that into the creative of the show; second, having respect from the viewer as to the authenticity of the product created. This is not something coming from a different culture passing judgment. These are their own stories, told with the intention of healing, of bearing one’s soul, of dealing with it and moving forward.”
Szymanski’s own Ukrainian- Polish descent makes her an exception, but being in a minority position on the set of Blackstone has only allowed her to “learn and grow.” And that has been the goal throughout her career.
In order to succeed in the production business, however, up-and-comers need to have more than just a sense of purpose. They need to show perseverance as well. “If it is a dream of yours, you have to persevere and you can never give up, because it’s a hard industry, especially in a small to medium market. There are challenges that you face every day. I think that you just need to continue to say, ‘Tomorrow is a new day, and try your best.’”
As a member of the CMPA, Szymanski also adds that the Association helps to overcome any challenges that arise: “If there are any questions, the CMPA offers guidance and support. We’re human beings and we need to seek out those things as well, just like the cast does, just like the crew does. Feeling that community and that representation is a positive thing for producers, especially when dealing with broadcaster relations. It’s all about being connected and represented.”