In her work with children’s media, Koyalee Chanda ’92 creates relatable content with representation in mind
For much of her 20-year career as a television director and producer, Koyalee Chanda was often “the only person of color in the room,” she recalls. Today, as vice president for kids and animation at Hello Sunshine, the award-winning production company founded in 2016 by Reese Witherspoon, she is embracing the opportunity to open doors for other storytellers, while “dismantling the preconceived boxes” that limit the complexity of characters in children’s television.
Hello Sunshine, the mission-driven company behind hits such as “Big Little Lies,” “The Morning Show,” and “Little Fires Everywhere,” creates programming with “women at the center of the story,” explains Chanda, who joined the company in January. “So we are now keying off that to do the same for girls—finding stories where the main female characters have agency and are empowered. These are, ideally, highly entertaining series for kids that also push the needle.”
That desire to shape media and society, in part, reflects Chanda’s own experiences at Williston. A day student from Holyoke and the daughter of a prominent obstetrician, she followed her older brother to the school and let her outgoing personality shine, especially in the theater. “I would audition for every play, and I would never get a role, but that didn’t deter me,” she says. “I would do whatever I could to be involved in other ways. I would make props. I would paint the set. I would stage manage if I could. I worked part time in the theater office under Ellis Baker. I found my love of theater at Willison.”
But when the school held tryouts for a Tennessee Williams play, Chanda was told that the production had too many racial undertones and there just wasn’t a part for her, she recalls. “It was explicitly told to me that I did not fit the bill racially to be cast,” she says. “So I just didn’t work on that particular production. And that was a moment of real clarity for me.”
Chanda didn’t give up on the theater program and now sees that experience as a mobilizing moment for her, and an illustration of how the decisions of show creators can have broad impact. “The plays that were chosen had these racial specificities that I think boxed the casting in, in a way that was unfortunately exclusionary to people who didn’t fit into one of those boxes,” she says, adding with a laugh that she knows she’s “a terrible actor” and may not have gotten a part anyway. “But definitely the idea of wanting more representation and inclusion in casting, and even the choice of content, became very central to my career.”
That career took off right after Chanda’s graduation from Wesleyan University, where she majored in theater (she also holds a director’s certificate from New York University). Hired on to what was then a fledgling children’s program called “Blue’s Clues,” she began as a production coordinator (and the voice of Blue’s friend Magenta) but within a year was directing. “I don’t think anybody realized how big it was going to become,” says Chanda, who would eventually direct some 30 episodes as the show became an international phenomenon. “It was such an amazing training ground for me in terms of how to communicate with kids.”
From there, Chanda formed her own production company, creating content for Sesame Street Workshop, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, and others. She was the voice director for Nickelodeon’s “Backyardigans,” produced the pilot for PBS’s “Odd Squad,” and was co-executive producer of Nickelodeon’s hit series “Wallykazam!” In 2018, she produced the family podcast “This Podcast Has Fleas,” an audio cartoon about a dog and cat with competing podcasts. After moving to Los Angeles to work in creative development at Apple, she was hired by “Doc McStuffins” creator Chris Nee to work on Netflix programming, then made the move to Hello Sunshine. Over the years, her work has been nominated for seven Emmy awards.
Now living in Culver City with her husband and two daughters, ages 7 and 12, Chanda looks back at her time at Williston as an important period in her life. “It’s all formative and really incredibly valuable,” she says. She recalls how there was just one other South Asian girl on campus, who looked and acted nothing like her, and yet teachers often confused the two of them. Still, she says, she stayed close to the faculty in the theater department, “and I got an opportunity to assistant direct my senior year, which was amazing.”
Her experiences continue to inform her work today with Hello Sunshine, where she has a number of animated children’s shows in the pipeline. “You can’t work in kids’ content and not have a really keen sense of how much impact you can have over your audience,” she says. “Our goal is to make content that all kids can enjoy, but really be focused on making sure those girl characters are complex and funny and engaging and smart and empowered.”
Speaking in August in a livestream discussion titled Talking About Race With Children: How Storytellers can Facilitate Important Conversations, she offered this broader assessment of being a content creator for a young audience: “Not only do you need to make sure you are creating content that is really engaging, you have to do right by them. And do right by this world…. We may not have all the tools at this moment to tell all the exact right stories to rise to this challenge, but we are certainly going to try. And we are always looking for people to help us do that in the best and most authentic way possible. So bring it on!”