A guiding light for children
Kay Wilson Stallings had her career mapped out by the age of 10.
She wanted a job in television, children’s television specifically.
It’s how she ended up at Sesame Workshop, the home of Big Bird, Elmo, Abby Cadabby and their many muppet pals.
“Today there is a lot of media and a lot of things competing for children’s attention. In some ways children have developed a more sophisticated palate,” said Ms Wilson Stallings, the twin sister of health minister Kim Wilson.
“I love that Sesame Street is the gold standard of international media.”
She got her start answering telephones for The Oprah Winfrey Show and made her way up the ranks until her work on a talk show for children reaffirmed her earlier goal.
“After ten years I decided I just wanted to do kids’ content,” she said. “I moved to New York. The two biggest places to work in children’s television in New York are Sesame Workshop and Nickelodeon.
“I was very fortunate that a friend of a friend’s babysitter knew someone at Nickelodeon. They got me in the door.”
Ms Wilson Stallings so impressed Brown Johnson, a recognised leader in children’s television, that the Nickelodeon executive created a role for her.
“I have been really fortunate to have people who saw my talent and really spoke on my behalf,” she said.
Blues Clues had just launched; Dora the Explorer and Little Bill were in the works. Ms Wilson Stallings built on that, developing more than 30 shows during her 16 years with the television channel.
When Ms Johnson moved over to Sesame Workshop in 2015, Ms Wilson Stallings followed.
Eager to help the non-profit expand into other areas, she created Sesame Studios for YouTube. She also helped develop the first new Sesame Workshop shows in nearly a decade: Esme&Roy, Helpsters and Ghostwriter.
“Children were watching much more content on digital platforms like YouTube,” said Ms Wilson Stallings who had been senior vice-president of creative development, but was last month promoted to executive vice-president of creative and production.
“Our mission is to help children grow smarter, stronger and kinder. Wherever children are, that’s where we want to be.”
In her new role she oversees development of new content and Sesame Street spin-offs, and works more closely with their international partners. A lot of her time is spent dealing with producers and creators, reading scripts and looking at animation tests.
“I also listen to talent voiceovers, casting and music,” she said. “That is the good part of my day, being actively involved in the creative component of the content we make.”
Recognising just how difficult it is for women and people of diverse backgrounds to get a job in television if they didn’t know someone she created The Sesame Workshop Writers’ Room. An eight-week programme, it is designed to provide opportunities for minority writers.
“All writers who take part are talented and experienced writers, but it is giving them an opportunity to be in the room,” she said. “We get 600-plus applicants a year and we narrow it down to eight to ten fellows that participate.”
Industry experts help the fellows take their work from premise to script in hope that it “can be pitched to a distributor”.
Ms Wilson Stallings is not the first Bermudian to be involved with Sesame Workshop. Michael Frith, a veteran of Jim Henson’s Muppets team, honed his skills on Sesame Street back in the 1970s; Mel Ming was president and chief executive of Sesame Workshop from 2011 until his retirement in 2014.
She was born in Panama to Bermudians Glenda Dawn Barclay Gunter and Sayeed Ramadan. Her father was in the US Army at the time.
When their parents divorced, she and her sister Kim moved with their mother to the United States.
Ms Wilson Stallings returns to the island several times a year to visit her family.
“If I had known we were going to be under quarantine for so long, I probably just would have come home and stayed there,” she said. “I don’t know when I will be able to go again.”
Her 13-year-old son, Cortez, was often her muse when he was younger.
“I still share stuff with him,” she said. “I might be looking for a variety of designs. I might say which ones do you like? He has great creative instincts. Nine times out of ten things he chooses are successful.”
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