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PLAYING POLITICS: Veteran Showrunner Barbara Hall Charts Her Course with Madam Secretary

Posted By Michael Ventre, Monday, August 10, 2015

The common thread that connects Madam Secretary and Bruce Springsteen may not be immediately apparent to the uninitiated. The former is a television series on CBS about a female Secretary of State, one that was renewed for a second season and appears on its way to a secure place in the network’s future. The latter is a musical and cultural icon from New Jersey whose highway was once jammed with broken heroes on a last-chance power drive, at least according to legend.

But for Barbara Hall, veteran writer-producer and the showrunner of Madam Secretary, an evening spent with Bruce in November of 1980—along with thousands of others inside the old Capital Centre in Landover, Maryland—spurred her on to where she is today.

"I’m not exaggerating,” she declares. "It was a moment when my whole life changed in terms of my understanding of what I wanted to do.”

She didn’t get invited onstage like Courtney Cox. She had seats much closer to the overhead catwalk than to Bruce. "I could barely see the stage,” she recalls. "But I saw this presence, and I said, ‘That’s what I want to do’—not as a musician necessarily, but I saw this visual image of someone throwing himself entirely into his artistic expression and making an entire life out of it. It was a commitment that I suddenly understood. It changed everything. It changed the direction for me. That’s why I ended up in LA, I think.”

It was the kind of big-dream epiphany that a young girl might have when she watched the news and saw Madeleine Albright or Condoleezza Rice or Hillary Clinton serve as the chief foreign affairs advisor to the leader of the free world. It might also be the kind that a young woman might fix her sights on when she hears that Barbara Hall is one of the top showrunners in the business.

The confluence of those aspirations is what brought about Madam Secretary and Hall’s participation with it. "We pitched Nina Tassler at CBS on an idea we had,” recalls Lori McCreary, an executive producer of Madam Secretary who has worked more often in feature film. "Nina said, ‘I know the perfect writer for you. You have to meet Barbara Hall. I’m surprised you haven’t met her already.’”

It’s easy to surmise why Hall came to mind so readily. She has not only compiled an extraordinary list of credits in television but also boasts a unique body of work outside it. A native of Chatham, Virginia (population: 1,300), she has written for landmark series like Newhart, I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure, created Joan of Arcadia, was one of the creators and executive producers on Judging Amy and spent time on Homeland. On top of it all, she’s authored 11 novels, records and performs her own music, and is a devoted mom to her daughter.

The progress of that resume fairly charts the demographic transformation of television producing. "It’s been a really interesting evolution,” says Hall, who graduated summa cum laude from James Madison University with a degree in English. "Back when I started, I literally would be up for jobs, and it was like, ‘We need a woman in the room. We need a female voice.’ People were pretty open about it. It was heavily weighted on the male side. Then there was a sea change to the point where there were equal number of men and women in a room. Then there were women running and creating shows. There was also a bit of a backslide on that for a while. And I feel there’s a resurgence going on now.”

David Chase, arguably New Jersey’s second most prominent contributor to American pop culture after Springsteen, also had a major impact on Hall’s career. The two worked together on I’ll Fly Away and Northern Exposure, and Hall identifies the creator and showrunner of The Sopranos as one of her mentors, along with Joshua Brand and John Falsey.

Early in his career, Chase recalls, he benefitted greatly from working with two extraordinary women on The Rockford Files: executive producer Meta Rosenberg and writer-producer Juanita Bartlett. "I learned a lot from those two women,” he shares. And in Hall, Chase saw a reflection of his Rockford colleagues—not least in her amazing talent for writing.

Barbara Hall (2nd from right) at the 2014 Produced By:
New York conference with moderator Mark Gordon (center)
and fellow showrunner panelists (from left) Greg Yaitanes,
Terence Winter and Jenni Konner.

"When (Barbara) turned in a script, it would be so good that it would make you want to go back to work,” Chase says. "Because you had to prove that you could be better, or it would get you excited about the whole show when you were getting bored with it. You’d say, ‘Oh, there’s still more to do with this show. There’s still room to go here.’ That’s what I always got from her. With the good writers, that’s always how it is. They turn in a draft and you say, ‘Oh shit, I wish I had done that.’”

McCreary agrees: "She puts magic in all her scripts. She has the great ability to put in the right amount of humor and the right amount of humanity and have it all come together. It’s a joy to read her writing.”

Hall’s writing chops led to her becoming a successful showrunner, a position that requires a skill set that extends well beyond breaking stories and writing scripts.

Hall and Lori McCreary participate in a Madam
Secretary Q&A session held at Harbor Picture
Company in New York.

"She really is a dream boss,” says David Grae, who got his first staff job from Hall on Joan of Arcadia and is now a co-executive producer on Madam Secretary. "She treats it in many ways like a partnership, even though she’s the boss. She’s very humane and respectful and generous in a business where some people aren’t. I’ve worked with some people who were much more egotistical and insecure. Barbara is so good, she doesn’t have to be that way.”

Her mentor Joshua Brand, whose recent credits include the FX hit The Americans, adds an appreciation for Hall’s ability to keep her composure in a frenetic and pressurized business.

"No matter if the walls were falling down, she was unflappable,” he smiles. "You never saw her sweat. It inspired confidence. She’d look at you with those blue eyes as deep as Lake Tahoe, and you felt everything would be all right. She might have been having a nervous breakdown, but you’d never know. And she saved you from having one. I think her ability to inspire confidence and project competence help make her a successful producer for the long haul. They’re qualities that continue to serve her well.”

Hall’s approach to her television work came out of writing novels and was further influenced by working with Brand and Falsey, whom she credited with helping bridge the gap between literature and TV. "It’s a lot about character-driven narrative,” she explains. "Complicating situations, taking scenes from recognizable human experience and making something poetic and dramatic. I felt like it started then and continues now.”

She applies the same methodology on Madam Secretary, with a strong female lead character in Elizabeth McCord (played by Tea Leoni) that incorporates elements of all three female U.S. Secretaries of State to date, but isn’t bound by those examples.

"I really wanted Elizabeth McCord to be our own creation,” Hall confirms. "I didn’t want her to parallel too strongly any [real-life] female Secretary of State. For a lot of different reasons, she needed to work in television in a unique way. For me, that was about making her more of an outsider—someone who didn’t come from the political world. She doesn’t have that in common with the other three female secretaries of state. But I did read all three of their stories, and I did pay attention to their approaches. And I think the main thing I came away with was that they all had very particular styles. I took a little bit from each of their styles.”

It’s one thing to create a multi-dimensional character; it’s quite another to keep a show running with vigor and imagination for 22 episodes a season. Grae observes that Hall has the rare skill to create a particular vision that helps a series live a full life.

"A lot of shows in their first season, or the first couple of seasons, take time figuring out what they are,” Grae says. "Barbara has amazing clarity from the pilot. From the second, third, fourth episode she knew there would be some kind of international incident for the secretary of state, and at home Tim Daly (who plays Henry, McCord’s husband) also has an interesting life. Barbara brings a clarity to it that many showrunners, even experienced ones, struggle to get.”

When she’s not running a major network drama series—which requires regular cross-country jaunts, since the show is produced in New York while the writing staff is based in LA—she continues writing novels and being a great mom to her daughter, who lives in the Big Apple. She also writes, records and performs her own music, an interest she has pursued since she got a guitar for her 15th birthday.

"Sometime during college I began experimenting with writing songs,” says Hall, who last performed about a year ago at a release party for her CD. "I studied poetry. I sort of began marrying the two forms. It’s something I just kept up. When I moved to LA, I just met musicians. When you hang out with musicians, you end up making something together.”

Ultimately, beneath the sparkle of her many accomplishments, it all comes back to Bruce. "Bruce Springsteen is from a small town in New Jersey that nobody had ever heard of before he put it on the map,” she points out. "I was from a small town in Virginia that nobody had ever heard of, and I suffered from this sense of, ‘It’s hard to pursue greatness when you’re not keyed up for it.’ When I saw someone else who didn’t ignore that but used that, he made poetry out of the place he came from. I understood suddenly what that was about—that you could make poetry out of your surroundings, wherever you were. It made me understand the concept of throwing myself into what I felt I was meant to do.”

Somewhere, in another small American town, a young woman is watching Madam Secretary and getting some big ideas.

* Written by Michael Ventre | Photographed by Kremer Johnson Photography

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