By Malinda Miller (Engl, Jour’92; MJour’98)
The novel twist in the Regency-era Bridgerton series, produced by Shondaland, is seeing strong, complex characters of color play significant roles, like that of Queen Charlotte.
But when it came time to hire set designers, cinematographers, lighting and sound specialists, makeup artists, and hairdressers, the crews that were available in the United Kingdom were mainly white, and mostly male.
The contrast of that to the early 1800s England they were creating for viewers spurred Sara Fischer (Jour, Engl’78), Shondaland’s executive vice president and head of production, to tackle the larger issue—the racial diversity of workers in the industry’s behind-the-scenes jobs.
“I decided that we had to change the way our sets look, to make it look like what you would see when you’re walking down the street,” Fischer said.
Digging deeper, she found it was not a lack of interest that kept people of color, who had been historically underrepresented in the industry, off their crews. Rather, it was the lack of access to training, on-set experience and, in some cases, even transportation to remote filming locations. She went to Shonda Rhimes, creator of the series, to develop a program to identify and train—with pay—people for behind-the-scenes roles. That was the start of The Ladder Program.
Fischer is no stranger to discrimination. She was one of the first two women hired in production roles at CBS Sports. During one of her pregnancies, when she was working as an assistant director, she was told she’d be fired if caught sitting down.
With experience, she’s learned to use her voice in ways she was afraid to earlier in her career.
Sara Fischer on the set of Bridgerton. Experience has shown her how she can use her voice ‘to change things that aren’t right.’ Photo by Barnaby Boulton.
"The fact that we’re changing peoples’ lives in such a profound way is the best feeling in the whole world, and I’m so glad that I’m able to do it."
—Sara Fischer (Jour, Engl’78)
Professionals who completed The Ladder said the experience helped them access the networks needed to take on high-level roles in the entertainment industry. Photo by Sherise Blackman
Righting wrongs by speaking up
“You can right wrongs. You can be vocal, and you can change things that aren’t right or that make you uncomfortable,” she said.
One of the first areas they tackled were the hairstyles. “We had to find and train hairdressers of color who were comfortable working with Black hair in the fancy hairstyles of Bridgerton,” Fischer said.
Fischer launched The Ladder, which is funded and jointly supported by Shondaland and Netflix executives and staff, for Bridgerton’s second season. During the program, cohorts of 10 to 15 trainees are brought on and paid for the duration of a production. Each selects a specialty—assistant directing, sound, camera, props, locations or video—and receives mentoring, coaching and hands-on experience.
To reach locals from the United Kingdom who have struggled to get into the industry, Fischer—who is from Los Angeles—hired Sherise Blackman, a British actress and writer, as the program supervisor and diversity coordinator.
Blackman knew she wouldn’t be able to recruit through the traditional routes, such as agencies. Instead, she built interest through her networks, WhatsApp groups and outreach to diversity organizations.
Three years later, more than 40 professionals have worked on one of the Bridgerton seasons or Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story through The Ladder.
Many of the participants, like cinematographer Roger Russell, have years of professional experience but still encounter closed doors when applying for jobs. Over the course of several decades, he has worked in cinematography for commercials and music videos, but had not been able to access the networks needed to get on to a high-level narrative production.
Another program graduate, Zara Hughes-White, had never been on a set before she joined as a video trainee during the third season of Bridgerton. After completing the program, she left with more than a year of experience and is now working on a British production.
Iona Ryan appreciated the on-set experience and teamwork of the training program when she worked in the locations department on the Queen Charlotte set.
“I’m grateful for my team, that they allow me to make mistakes and learn and grow. They are always by my side to assist me and help me,” Ryan said in a Shondaland video.
When Sara Fischer sees disparity, “she doesn’t get frustrated and talk about it. She does something about it."
—Noelle Green, Netflix
Behind the scenes, but visible
The success of trainees is only one measure of The Ladder’s influence. The changes are also appreciated by the actors—India Amarteifio, the young Queen Charlotte, told Fischer she’s never seen anyone working on a set who looked like her—and others visiting behind the scenes.
While filming Bridgerton’s third season, “three directors of color shadowed our director, and each one said to me that they’d never been on a set with so many people who looked like them,” Fischer said. “That’s how much we’ve changed our set.”
Making that level of change required persistence and commitment.
“Sara’s got a really strong will and a great relationship with Shonda Rhimes that drives a lot of these opportunities,” said Noelle Green, a Netflix film production executive who partners with Fischer on a number of diversity, inclusion and access initiatives. When Fischer sees disparity, “she doesn’t get frustrated and talk about it. She does something about it.”
A Ladder to the U.S.
Access, of course, isn’t only a challenge in Britain. In 2022, Fischer started working with the Netflix labor department and union representatives to bring The Ladder to Shondaland productions filming in the United States. The experience of working on a set is crucial for trainees, in terms of both skill development and in meeting minimum work requirements to join a union local—key to getting any job on a major TV or film set in this country.
For Fischer, the effort is worth it to see individuals such as Mahogany Caldwell—a Ladder participant who trained in craft services—gain access to union jobs. Caldwell previously worked as a security guard on a studio lot, a job she found wasn’t getting her closer to her goal of working on a set.
It’s been challenging to continue momentum with Hollywood productions shut down due to the strikes by writers and actors, but the slowdown has provided the opportunity to get the word out about both programs. Once the strikes are over, The Ladder will be brought back into action. In the meantime, “we’ve stayed in touch with them—I’ve done weekend seminars and we’re making sure we keep them inspired and excited,” Green said.
Fischer is at the point in her career where many others retire, but she’s motivated to keep going. She said the approach they’ve taken to roll out The Ladder “is time consuming, but relatively easy to implement” and could be adopted by other studios and networks.
She gets emotional talking about the effect the program has had on individuals, and tells the story of meeting two British people recruited by Blackman. The first time she met them, they started crying.
“The fact that we’re changing peoples’ lives in such a profound way is the best feeling in the whole world, and I’m so glad that I’m able to do it,” Fischer said.
“I love our shows. I go to amazing places, I get to work with amazing people—but in the end, they’re all just shows. And this is changing peoples’ lives.”