Hi Suds Buds!
Business first! Due to popular demand, the weekly TRO Soap Chat is now one hour later! Please join me tonight and every Monday night from 8:30 to 9:30 PM ET (5:30 to 6:30 PM PT) in the TRO Suds Buzz Chat room. Thanks everyone for getting back to me. I hope to "see" you soon at one of our weekly chats.
Congratulations to the fans of Michael Nader (Dimitri, AMC). Your combined efforts were instrumental in bringing the Count back to Pine Valley. Nader begins airing again as Dimitri during May Sweeps. Stay tuned to Turtle-Run as this story develops. Nader fans, post your feelings on Dimitri's return on TRO's Nader Campaign Message Board in the "Congratulations You Did It" folder.
Last week's column highlighted comments TRO's visitors share in regard to their favorite soap. Many of these concerns involve the writing, as that's where everything begins. I recently interviewed Producer/Director Gregory Hoblit about his new film Frequency starring Dennis Quaid. (Frequency hits theaters April 28, 2000 and I highly recommend it. Two purple turtle-tales up!) During the course of our interview we discussed "material," and what types of projects get the green light to get produced as major feature films and why. His response: "Write a good script that everybody wants to make, and it will get made. I don't mean to be glib about that, but that's it! Everything is about material." (The entire Hoblit interview will be online at TRO in May in our Filming on Location section!)
Why should soap opera be any different from feature films? It's still about the material, which means, it begins with the writers.
Several weeks ago (February 1, 2000) Soap Opera Digest ran an article by Elaine G. Flores titled "These Suits are Made For Walking" (pg. 37-39). Flores interviews TV Guide's Michael Logan and they discuss the revolving door policy for soap writers -- how it's not only acceptable for writers to be fired from one show only to be rehired by another, it's the standard for the industry. (See Top of the Week, January 4, 2000 Soaps for the 21st Century where we also touched upon the writers revolving door phenomena.) According to Logan "...in this era of excessive panic and budget-cutting and all of the other concerns that are facing the soap industry, people don't want to take a chance. People would rather play it safe than let in somebody new." In this comment, the "people" Logan refers to are the network execs, and by "playing it safe" he means recycling the same pool of seasoned, proven writers.
This theory has some merit, as veteran writers bring experience to the table. They are used to working under the constraints and myriad pressures involved in writing a soap. According to Alfred Brenner in The TV Scriptwriter's Handbook, "Writing soap operas, or daytime serials, is not for everyone, especially not the neophyte." But if you're wondering why there are so many recycled stories, here's your answer. It's the same people telling the same stories on the different soaps.
Again, I stress what every writer knows. There are only 7 stories. Love. Revenge. Jealousy. Power. Greed. Friendship. Fish out of Water. There are some who believe there are only two stories. Love and Power. End of Story. What makes stories new and different is the approach and sensibilities of the individual writer. If what Dona Cooper, SVP of Programming at ABC Daytime, says in Flores article is true, that there are only about 150 network approved and qualified daytime writers in existence, how can we expect fresh, new storytelling when it's the same group of people doing all the writing?
Let's do the math. If there are ten currently running soaps with writing staffs of 10 or 12, that only leaves a pool of about 35-50 out-of-work soap writers as replacements at any given time. Odds are they were fired from or burned out of the last job.
In The Television Writer's Handbook, Constance Nash and Virginia Oakey address writing for soaps: "Each script should have a provocative opening, build interest through some conflict or problem, and end on an upbeat, cliffhanging note." Occasionally we see that on a show. But I think it's the ideal and far from the norm. Shouldn't it be the other way around? How can it when all the writers are overworked and there are not enough of them to go around?
So, what's the answer? Development programs for writers. If networks are loathe to entrust shows to newcomers who do not know the industry, then they should create arenas for new people to learn the ropes. I remember reading in Logan's column last year that Angela Shapiro of ABC Daytime said ABC was about to embark on a writer's training program, but I haven't heard anything else about it. Execs need to bring in new talent to work with the veterans, or how else is the industry expected to survive?
Don't get me wrong. There are some amazing veteran soap writers. New writers could learn tons from these folks. I've had the pleasure to interview Penelope Koechl (who, when last we spoke, had joined the team at Guiding Light and was trained in the Proctor & Gamble school of soap dialogue writing, undergoing extensive preparation before her first script ever made it to air) and Meg Bennett, who was part of the General Hospital writing team that won the Daytime Emmy last year. Stay tuned to Turtle-Run to meet these talented writers and learn first hand what goes into writing a soap.
In wrapping up this discussion, remember this: Writing a soap is an intricate, involved, scattered process. There are many cooks in the kitchen, and there are many demands that must be met. At one point, when I implied to a friend who is a huge soap star, that I always loved the idea of writing for a soap, as you literally play God, bring people back from the dead, have them marry each other's father's mother's brother's cousin's sister, etc., and wouldn't that be fun to do, he replied saying, "You're too good a writer to write this drivel." (Interesting comment, as performing this drivel supports his luxurious lifestyle!)
I submit it doesn't have to be drivel. It's hard work. It's pumping out 700-800 pages of material a week, but it can be better. It can have the depth and intricacy it was created to have. As Brenner continues "More than any other form (of TV writing), the soap opera uses television the way I believe television drama should be used, the way it was used when it was live and dealt with the revealing moments in the lives of ordinary people, when it explored human relationships with 'needlelike precision.' Soaps may be maudlin, unrealistic, and bound by all sorts of cliches, but at least they exist in that dramatic area. And because the viewer gets to know the characters so well and becomes so intimately involved in their lives, he's easily caught up in their stories and comes back to watch again and again."
Somerset Maugham once said: "There are three rules for writing... Unfortunately, no one knows what the are." The French novelist Georges Simenon wrote: "Writing is not a profession, but a vocation of unhappiness." Writing for soaps is a dirty, thankless job. But somebody's gotta do it. I hope TPTB have the foresight to cultivate the talent that will add new dimensions to the storytelling. Have them learn from the best of the veterans, but let some of the oldtimers who've been fired from 8 shows already, retire to less demanding pastures. Their time has passed.
What do you think? Please share your thoughts in the Criticize the Critic folder on the TRO message boards.
SOAP NEWS AND NOTESSusan Floyd (ex Christine Cromwell, OLTL) stars in the new ABC sitcom Then Came You that will replace Norm for six weeks beginning mid-March.
Dondre T. Whitfield (ex Terrence Frye, AMC) stars with Costas Mandylor (Picket Fences) and Dina Meyer (Starship Troopers) in Secret Agent Man, UPN's new take on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Agent premiers March 7th at 9 PM on UPN. Check your local listings.
Chat online at yahoo with PassionsKim Johnston Ulrich (Ivy Crane) and Ben Masters (Julian Crane) on Thursday, March 2, 2000 at 8 PM ET, 5 PM PT. Visit http://www.soapdigest.com for more information.
Donn Swaby (Chad Harris, Passions) will appear at the North De Kalb Mall in Decatur, GA on Saturday, March 4, 2000. Check your local newspapers for further information, or call the mall!
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