Interview with AMY KEATING-ROGERS
Amy Keating-Rogers is an Emmy-nominated writer for television, film, and a lot more. She’s been a playwright, an actor, a songwriter, and even more importantly, a Mom. We know of her time on My Little Pony, but her experience has much more depth and breadth – she’s written for over a dozen different shows, comic books, chapter books, scripts for video games, and more. One afternoon in February of 2016, she graced me with a few minutes of her time for an interview. I asked her about her career, about writing, and specifically about how writers like herself work value-based lessons into a show like My Little Pony. The answers surprised me a bit…
DG: Thank you, very much. I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today.
Amy: Sure. No problem. I'd be happy to.
DG: As a writer, I've been fascinated by the concept of how do you, in a show like this, incorporate messages like this, as opposed to not? I wanted to talk to one of the writers on the show, and actually discuss this in-depth. You've worked on both sides. You've worked on shows that have been message-based, and--
DG: Shows that have not been. You've just been, hey, let's just entertain them for twenty-two minutes.
DG: That's been it. If you don't mind, I've got some questions as I've worked up, based on your history and experience.
DG: All right. Can I get you to start in on how you got started in all of this?
Amy: Just in writing in general?
DG: Yeah. Let's start in general, and then start on writing, I know your bio on your website says that Craig McCracken saw your play.
Amy: Right. I originally was trained as an actor.
Amy: I did plays in high school. I was a theater major in college. During my senior year at Occidental College, I needed another requirement to finish my major. I'd done everything that I needed to do. I took an elective, basically, of play-writing. I expected to not like it, and not be good at it, and I almost dropped it. My teacher wouldn't let me, because he said, you are going to be good at this. That is how I started writing plays. It turned out I had this natural ear for dialogue. I wrote a very short play that got produced in the new plays festival.
I went on to get my MFA in acting at CALARTS. [While there], three or four of my plays got produced in their New Plays festivals. I just took various playwriting workshops and all this training, but for me, playwriting was really not what I was trained to pursue. I was really pursuing acting.
Once I was done with my MFA, I started trying to get auditions. I was part of the theater company; I was trying to get commercial auditions, that kind of thing. Acting in Los Angeles is really hard. On the side, I was still writing plays, and while I was doing, I worked at 1-800-DENTIST, which is this referral place for dentists?
Amy: Then I was a production assistant on the Powerpuff Girls. At that time, a play of mine was being produced. “The Stuff” was being produced in Hollywood, and so I put posters up, all over the place. Craig [McCracken] actually hadn't seen “The Stuff” when he gave me a chance to write on Powerpuff, originally. He knew about it, because of all the posters. He knew I was a writer. They needed help with the writing, and he gave me that chance. Then, he saw “The Stuff," and he thought it was funny.
That is how I got into this. It was very, very accidental because I am a theater person and not somebody who - I watched animations, as far as I watched Saturday morning cartoons, as a kid, but animation wasn't my passion. Theater was really my passion.
DG: This is really interesting, I've talked with writers who have been performers, they see what's going on. They have the ear for the dialogue, and they also have an eye for the blocking.
DG: In their mind, especially anything else. They see where the relationship between the characters and how that's going to play out, as well. That actually has an influence in how the scene lays out for them as they're developing it, as they are writing it. I perfectly can understand how that, how the acting side of that influenced you as a writer. Even in going into animation. I understand that. That makes perfect sense. I guess, my next question is this – you’re a decade and a half removed, are you still keeping your hand in?
Amy: In theater?
DG: Yeah. Even on an amateur basis. Are you still keeping a hand in?
Amy: I'm not. My daughter is currently in high school, and she is training as an actor.
Amy: I go and see plays at her school. That is about as involved as I am.
DG: You’re not a theater mom?
Amy: Yeah. No. I am not a crazy theater mom. I just haven't had a chance, because once I started writing for animation, soon after that, I started having a family. My plate got full.
DG: You worked with Craig, and then, of course, you must have worked with Lauren [Faust] as well on the show.
Amy: Yeah. I obviously met Craig. Lauren started - I am trying to remember when she started, but she started after I was there. There weren't a lot of women on our crew. The women, we kind of hung out together. Not that we didn't hang out with the guys, too, obviously, but we would talk as chicks talk. Lauren and I became friends, and we worked on Powerpuff. We worked on Foster's Home for Imaginary Friends. Then, I started freelancing, and I saw her at the wrap party of Foster's, and she said, “Oh, I am pitching this new version of My Little Pony. If it gets picked up, I would love you to work on it.”
DG: Having worked with Craig and Lauren for so long, what's the most important lesson you’ve learned from each of them?
Amy: I guess, I would say, especially with Lauren, because I worked so much with Pony with her, just really trying to find the character-driven stories and put unexpected twists on them. There's a way a story can go that's very expected, but Lauren was very good at, she was really good at pushing story, and really wanting to make sure everything laid out correctly. Craig just gave me one of the best opportunities ever by hiring me for Powerpuff. I got to write books and comics. So many things. I guess what I learned from Craig is give that unexpected person a chance.
DG: That actually segues right into my next question. When you worked on [Powerpuff ], you worked across many different platforms. You worked on animation scripts. You worked on comic books. You worked on chapter books. Were you working on all of those simultaneously, or were you basically segmenting across them?
Amy: Here's the thing with Powerpuff. It was actually a storyboard-driven show. A storyboard-driven show means that I didn't write the scripts. I only wrote one actual Powerpuff Girls script called Mo' Lingual. Mo' Linguish? I always forget which (Note: Mo’ Linguish, Season 6). I always say that every time I say that.
Powerpuff, I wrote the outlines for, so when I started writing Powerpuff the hardest thing for me was not putting dialogue into the outlines. I am somebody who loves dialogue so much, and so it was this incredibly difficult thing, but the storyboard artist would take my outline, and they would draw things, and then they would do the dialogue. Whenever I put dialogue in, that's hilarious, that's the best line, ever. They would come up with something else that is hilarious, and I'd go, oh, my heart would get broken. I said, "Okay, I have to not put myself in that situation because that just isn't how this show works." That's how Powerpuff worked. That's how Dexter's Lab worked, and that is how Samurai Jack worked.
I would write the story in detail, so then a storyboard artist could go and get where everything is going, and they would draw, and everything. Where I got to write dialogue for Powerpuff was in those books, in those comics, and everything. Anytime the Powerpuff Girls had an interview in a magazine, I wrote their answers, in those interviews.
DG: Wait. You were the voice of the Powerpuff Girls?
Amy: Other than the storyboards, and yes. Of course, I paid a lot of attention to what everybody was writing, so I would be correct. I would write their voice as correctly in those other mediums.
DG: Does anybody know that, in the real world? That you were actually the voice, the intellectual voice behind the characters other than [on the screen]?
Amy: I don't know. I am not sure.
DG: That's so fascinating. That's cool.
Amy: And Craig really trusted me a lot because he was so busy, he didn't have time to write the books, or comics, or anything. He trusted my writing skill and he said, for instance, the Scholastic chapter books, other people ended up writing books after me, but he wanted me to establish the tone of the books, so that other people could then take that information and pitch stories, and write books, and that kind of thing. I did do those simultaneously, in answer to your other question.
DG: What was it like, basically, “I've got to compartmentalize, I am doing this now, I am doing that now?”
DG: You are basically juggling suddenly between the three—
Amy: Yeah. Juggling all these different ideas, and different styles. Because a comic book is very different than a chapter book, and that's different than a quiz book. It's different from a dialogue for a game. I got good at putting on different hats, for writing.
DG: Very cool. All right, the next question deals with the switch back and forth between lesson-based shows like My Little Pony and Care Bears--
DG: Traditional ones that provide a moral at the end of the episode. My Little Pony, originally, when it was first structured, had twenty-one minutes of a lesson, followed by a minute of, “Spike, take a letter,” or a journal entry that pretty much makes it really easy to figure out what the lesson was, because you hammer it home in those last thirty seconds of dialogue. When you're aiming at a group of six to twelve olds, it's called reinforcement. (My Little Pony) got away from that this last season. That was a choice - different show runner, different choice.
Amy: I think it is also the evolution of the show.
DG: Yeah. Is the show getting away from teaching lessons, you think?
Amy: The lesson teaching was something that we were told we had to do at first. I don't know if you remember this from watching the show, we use to have that E/I stamp in the corner.
DG: Yes, you did.
Amy: When we had the E/I, it was really hard to write the script, because there were a lot of rules that are put on you in order for you to get that stamp. I cannot tell you how happy I was the day when we didn't have that stamp on us anymore. Because, no pun intended, it took the reins off and we were free. Yes, we teach lessons, but it's more that we, for me, and I think for everybody, what was important was we were telling stories about these characters and yes, there also happened to be a lesson in there. We tried not to be too lesson-y about it.
DG: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amy: We tried to, I wrote on four of the five seasons that have aired. It was much more about the storytelling. Sometimes we would get to the end, and we're like, "Oh, crap, what is the lesson?" Making sure that the lesson wasn't the same lesson that we taught, before. We would go, and we would review things, and say, "Okay. Yeah. That's what the lesson is. That works." Sometimes you are telling this great story, that maybe doesn't have an obvious lesson or one, you know, tell Applejack to stop being a jerk, that's not the lesson. Rainbow Dash. Whoever. It depended, really. Sometimes you would start with a lesson, and this is true of all the shows, like Powerpuff, and Pony, or Dexter's Lab, or something, you would come in, sometimes you would come up with a title that was funny, and go, okay, what can we do with that title, and make it a funny show. You never know which way inspiration is going to hit you. You just sort of go for it and go, okay, what's the situation we can put Rarity in? What is she going to learn from that? Sometimes it's just that you have a funny idea, and you find the lesson, later.
Amy: If it's not a lesson based show, you don't have to worry about it. It doesn't mean that the character hasn't learned a lesson, it's just that you don't have to blatantly say it.
DG: Basically, what you are saying is, it's better without the E/I things, you just are more than anything else trying to be story driven. Period.
Amy: Yes. Story and character driven. Really focusing on the characters and their journey. Within a character’s journey, you will find some sort of lesson, we've done it for, obviously, many, many episodes. It's just that you kind of have to have faith, and faith in the characters, and faith in where you are going that you will get to that lesson. The E/I thing is really just being able to have more fun and be a little more irreverent, because that is what the show is, but it's not following social-emotional, like guidelines of things.
DG: At least not with the E/I stamp, that is for sure. Given that in animation can subtly teach this stuff.
DG: Do you think sometimes you guys do that anyway, especially in places where people aren't necessarily expecting it. You did an amazing job with the Coloratura episode.
Amy: Right. Yeah.
DG: Finding strength in one’s own roots. You didn't hammer people over the head with it.
Amy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DG: You write a lot of stuff with music, or you did.
Amy: Yes. I did.
DG: Was that just because you were really good at coming up with lyrics, or was that just something that you naturally stumbled in to?
Amy: First I stumbled into it. For "The Best Night Ever," with At The Gala. Lauren, Rob Renzetti, the story editor at the time, and I were in our story meeting, and we knew that we were going to have to recap why they are going to the Gala. We saw it, but it was way back in "The Ticket Master," at the beginning of the season. We said, "Okay. What's a fun way to do this?" And, we said, "Okay. This is a great place for a song. We can recap what every pony wants, and have it be entertaining." For somebody who remembers "The Ticket Master," it's different, for somebody that’s coming in for the first time, they get kind of up to speed on what's going on.
DG: And for those people that like Sondheim, you can trip off another song.
Amy: (laughs) Okay.
DG: I heard that argument again, this week.
Amy: For a while. What are you going to say?
DG: No. No. No. It's great. I had fun tweaking them when they did. As I told them, “Absolutely keep them away from The Art Of The Dress."
Amy: Exactly. So, then with The Smile Song, that was the next thing that I wrote, and it was similar, it wasn't recapping, but it was, “What's a fun way to talk about the fact that Pinkie likes to make ponies smile?”
DG: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amy: That's where that came from. I didn't write on third season; I was at my first Brony convention. BronyCon, the one in New Jersey, and I was hanging out with Meghan, and I ended up singing, well, I ended up singing all the time at these. This is my first one, and I sang my version of The Smile Song, and Meghan was story editor at that point. After the con, she called me and she said, "Hey. We have a musical coming up, and I think you should write it for Pinkie Pie.” Because she knew I liked Pinkie, she knew I liked music. That's how that came about. Then, with "Cutie Mark Crusaders," similarly when we decided it should be a musical, we knew it was going to be, either I was going to write it, or Cindy Morrow was going to write it. Once everybody knew I enjoyed that, and I was good at it. Then I got offered those opportunities.
DG: Yeah. The Cutie Mark Crusader episode was one that I wanted to note with you, because you happen to end up teaching one of the most basic lessons of Zen, in that episode. Did you know that?
Amy: I don't know. Tell me the lesson, and I will tell you if I knew.
DG: One of the basic lessons of Zen Buddhism is that once you stop trying to force the world to fit into the vision that you have for it, the world opens itself up and shows you what is possible and available to you.
Amy: Very cool.
DG: I am sitting there in my chair, watching the episode and I am going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, they stopped trying to be 'Cutie Mark Crusader everything' - the second that they say, 'we're not going to do that, anymore-.' "
DG: That's when they get their marks, and I am going, "Oh, someone out there likes us." It's beautiful. Thank you for that. It's a perfect teaching tool. Thank you very much for that.
Amy: Absolutely. That was a fun one to write.
DG: Yeah. It looked like it. The reaction I've heard about it, over and over from people, that it is just amazing.
Amy: That's awesome.
DG: That's great. Let's move on from Ponies, though.
DG: Because you've moved on from Ponies.
Amy: I have.
DG: Although, I know you have affection for them in your heart.
Amy: I do. I thought you asked about conventions; you mentioned it in the questions earlier. I am attending, they haven't announced it, but I am attending three conventions later this year, this year.
DG: Which ones?
Amy: I cannot tell you, because they haven't announced it, yet. I am not allowed to spoil things.
DG: Okay, then, I'll jump a question and come back to talking about Star Darlings. BronyCon, the one that is coming up in July, the big one--
DG: They announced this week that they're creating a "&Up" segment for their convention. First one that's happened at any of the conventions, basically designed for adult Bronies.
DG: What do you think about something like that at a convention designed for a show originally about six to twelve-year-olds having a specific track for twenty-one and up?
Amy: I don't know what exactly they're programming is going to be. Actually at Nightmare Nights in Dallas there was an event, I guess it was a panel, where it was twenty-one and older, and it was me, and Mitch (Larson), and FoalPapers, basically all the special guests were there, and you had to be twenty-one or over, it was basically that we got to be inappropriate, mostly in our language. Because the panels during the day, you're appropriate. You're polite. Not that you are not polite, but that you watch your language and you make sure because it is a family-friendly event.
DG: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amy: You're family-friendly, as you should be. With the twenty-one and over thing that we did, we got to be more, you know, grown-up and rude, I guess, and crass or whatever. It was fun, because everybody was of age, and we knew we weren't going to be offensive to little children, who might imitate us, or anything like that. In that experience, and the one I had at Nightmare Nights, I thought it was perfectly fine. It was a lot of fun.
DG: Cool. That answers my question. You think it's okay.
Amy: I think it's okay.
DG: Now, Star Darlings. You came on in April of last year.
Amy: Yes. That's when I officially came on at Disney, but I've freelanced before that, I started freelancing on that, on Star Darlings, specifically, December of 2014.
DG: What I was trying to figure out was, were you involved in earlier development of those characters? Knowing time frame in terms of development of animation, it would seem like you walked into something that had already been developed and already had a book.
DG: Then you are just writing stories for characters that have already been developed?
Amy: They'd already been established. A “book bible,” so to speak, had been written for the books, and I went in and revised it for a “show bible” to make it work for writing short episodes. Then, I wrote the shorts for them, yes, the characters were established.
DG: The video shorts are basically supporting the books at this point? As opposed to the books which supporting the show?
Amy: Yeah. Hopefully, they work together, but yes.
DG: Okay. The moral dilemmas, you're the one that came up with those, or they were already established, out of curiosity?
Amy: It was me, coming up with stuff, and then people who were working on the animation, and the producers, and that kind of stuff. We got together because it is always nice to have other people to bounce ideas off with. We came up with ideas together about what the Star Darlings should be doing. What would be fun, and what would be, again, what would be good for their characters. You mentioned "Taming Star," which was with Sage, and Sage is this, she is very confident, she is very good with Wish Energy, but she can be a little, it's not brash, but, like maybe a little over confident, and then learn not to just going in guns blazing with her powerful Wish Energy, that she could ease into things, a little bit more, with who her character is.
DG: We are hopefully going to learn more about them because one of the things is that [in the intro] they mentioned twelve, but we see five. I guess, we are just going to concentrate on the five, I am assuming.
Amy: Right. When you have twelve characters, that's a big challenge. To really give everyone their place in the sun, or whatever. We still touch upon the other girls, they are the one-minute shorts, that we get to at least meet them, and see what their interests are.
DG: I've got to ask, you've written, twenty-two. You've written eleven.
DG: What's it like writing three (minutes)?
Amy: It's very fast. There's not a lot of time for lollygagging. You have to get in there and tell the story and make sure you have still the beginning, middle and end, all in there. It's an interesting challenge, it's like, okay, now I am writing a haiku. You just go, but it's good. It's interesting. All of my writing has developed different skills from writing outlines to writing books. Now, I am writing three or one-minute shorts, or two-minute shorts. Depending on what I am asked for. I just have to adjust and say, okay, how can I tell that story.
DG: Like writing a haiku. I can remember that one. That's great. All right. One last question.
Amy: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
DG: Actually, two.
DG: I am looking back to My Little Pony. Most of the lessons that they have taught on that show were basically positive ones to learn from. My Little Pony dealt with an issue or rather a lesson that most shows will avoid like the third rail. The one about Tank, in the fifth season (Note: "Tanks for the Memories").
DG: It dealt with death. It dealt with it symbolically, but it dealt with death. Why do you think most shows won't deal with it?
Amy: Gosh. I am not sure, because certainly in plenty of movies, characters in animated movies, characters get killed off all the time. Usually, parents. I am not sure why they wouldn't, maybe they just don't know how to handle it appropriately. That was really, from what I gathered, that was Mitch Larson and Cindy Morrow working really hard in making that one work. Mitch one hundred percent believed that he could get this done, and still have it be funny. I think that's it; it's like how do you make that funny, because there are some funny moments in there, even though Rainbow Dash is struggling with this, and everybody is trying to ease her through all of this. Death is a hard subject, how do you broach it, appropriately.
DG: Let me ask the follow-up. Do you think the show is eventually going to deal with the sort-of ghosts in the room, which are the parents of the Apples?
Amy: Applejack? I don't know. I think if we came up, or if they came up with, the perfect story then, yeah. I think they would do it. Absolutely. It's just a matter of you don't want to treat it lightly, and especially now. People have thought about it for so long, and what's going on with them, and in Cutie Mark Crusaders, Applejack basically says, “Mom and Dad are gone, and they would be so proud of you.” That was something that I was specifically asked by Meghan to put in there. That this huge event has finally happened to Apple Bloom, and her parents aren't there. We've acknowledged that her parents are gone. Someone would have to come up with just the right story.
I've heard Lauren Faust, talking at Equestria LA, recently, I think that was September, and in her mind Applejack's parents, they had passed away. It was like, there was no question in her mind, that's why the Apples’ parents weren't around. Because that happens for kids. That happens. To have characters that are a family where you have a brother, two sisters, and grandma, but just no parents. Yeah. I don't know that they are dealing with it. I just know they would be careful with it if they did.
DG: I have faith in the show. They haven't really tripped over themselves, so far. Of course, a lot of the talent has moved on. One last question, then. You've done a lot of amazing work. That is not an empty compliment, in any way. What is the one best lesson, that you think you've taught people through your writing? Across any medium.
DG: Over your career.
Amy: The one that resonates the most, with me, was the idea that I came up with in "Testing, Testing, 1,2,3" with Rainbow Dash, that people learn in different ways, and to not limit more people, that saying that you have to learn in this traditional school setting, kind of thing. To give people the opportunity, to get to know people and figure out how they learn. Because people are incredible. It seems that one has resonated a lot in people because there are lots of people with learning disabilities.
DG: Including, I must admit, my daughter. That one definitely resonated with me.
Amy: Including my son. That is how I came up with it, because of Soren and watching all the kids at his school, and how incredible they are in their different ways of learning. Even though these kids may have severe disabilities, that is no reason to discount them.
DG: Ms. Rogers, I appreciate you taking the time to talk with me today. Thank you very, very much for your time.
Amy: You are welcome.
Amy: Thanks. Bye-bye.
I appreciate the lessons Ms. Rogers shared. She’ll always have a soft spot for Pony. Keep an eye out for her latest project, Star Darlings, available online at Disney.com, and follow her online at AmyKeatingRogers.com.