Archive for April, 2011
My Detroit nieces visit their native NY every year. I call and ask what they’d like to do while they’re here. Their response – “Pizza at Delizia”…”go to China Fun” …walk to the “little park” (as little girls they played in the big sprinkler at John Jay Park on hot summer days). They also loved visiting the Guiding Light studio, mostly because of the vending machine on the 4th floor! We do something new every year – a play, a museum, a walk on the High Line. But a Delizia slice, China Fun veggie dumplings and the little park are mandatory.
Tradition: “The handing down of stories, beliefs and customs from generation to generation”.
Those are our NY traditions. My sister and I always meet at the Grand Central clock and start walking. Our NY tradition…
During my early New York years my phone rang every Sunday at 10 am. My dad, “casually” checking in, and hopefully bringing me a funny story from home – the best ones involved his younger sister, my Aunt Fran and Cousins Bill, Rob and Jane! When he died, my phone rang at 10am on the Sunday after I got home from his funeral. It was Aunt Fran, well aware of our Sunday morning tradition.
Detroit is a town that has been through so much turmoil, we treasure the sharing of laughter and stories and tradition – which usually involve food! One of my favorites I shared with my friend Margie. We worked at Kresge’s in downtown Detroit during high school. Friday was payday and once we’d pocketed our fat paychecks we’d hurry over to Coney Island for lunch.
Right after GL was cancelled. Margie and I (with sisters Susie and Janice) paid a late night visit to the Coney Island. I’m so glad we did because Margie died suddenly six weeks later. She was a Guiding Light viewer, by the way. She got her patients at the VA hospital in Detroit hooked on GL. After she died, Susie found a bag of Soap Digests in her room, with GL articles flagged. Margie was stunned when we were cancelled. “What will I do when I’m working Thanksgiving or Christmas? My patients like to watch the holiday shows.”At Guiding Light, we shared traditions with our audience…the Bauer BBQ, the funny Thanksgiving, the Christmas crawl… We also had traditions that involved pajamas, Munchkins, Ivory soap, red wine… After GL, my new traditions include pancakes at Polonia with David and sandwiches with my beloved dog Scout (and Tony, my husband). Scout’s tail would thump extra hard when I walked in with that Ottomanelli’s sandwich on Fridays. She loved traditions!
So many have spoken out since the latest soap cancellations were made public last week/ Spoken angrily, emotionally and eloquently… I hope the cancelled shows find a new home. I hope we support the four shows that remain. As for bringing us more “information”– soaps serve information with comfort, continuity and a little escape on the side. We remember the letters – the pregnant teens who wished for a brother like Frank, the woman with Down Syndrome who assured us that Fletcher and Holly’s baby would be okay, women who saved their own lives after Bert Bauer and Lillian Raines saved theirs with early detection for cancer, mothers who learned to speak English watching soaps. About that young demo networks are seeking. The world is scary these days. You think kids are only interested in hunks and train wreck TV? The kids who came to GL wanted to meet the dads, the uncles and the big brothers – the guys they could count on. We all, young and old, want something we can count on every day.
“When we are good, we change people’s lives.” – Jerry ver Dorn. What a responsibility and what a joy. Soap opera might be transitioning but it has to survive somehow. It’s part of our American storytelling tradition.
Some people know a great deal about many things. I know…one or two. Number one – don’t get so electronically “plugged in” that you forget to look around. I just learned how to text and as of today, own nothing that has “I” in front of it. When I walked into the Guiding Light studio with a Blackberry, one of our production coordinators laughed. With good reason… the Blackberry is in a drawer and I chat on my old flip phone, which my colleague Liz wryly refers to as “retro”. I do appreciate technology. I love e-mailing friends at five am, reading my nieces Facebook postings and even chatting on Twitter. But I’m glad I’m a latecomer to the technology game. Being too plugged in would’ve distracted me from my favorite hobbies – eavesdropping, talking to strangers, perusing restaurant menus and looking into apartment windows. It’s amazing what you can see and hear out there in the world when you’re paying attention. It’s particularly true in NY. So much life spills out onto the sidewalks… where to look first? Some days it’s hard to look. But more often than not I see something, hear something or meet someone who changes my life. Imagine if I’d been texting when I walked by the dog adoption group on First Avenue – I wouldn’t have seen Scout. If my husband Tony had been checking his e-mail in the elevator he wouldn’t have seen me when the door opened – hmm, I’ll have to ask him how he feels about that.
Here’s the second thing I know. Don’t be afraid to venture out on your own. If you can’t go to an event without a date you’ll miss some great events. Me, I’ve always loved going to the theater alone. On a Saturday afternoon in 2001 I bought myself a ticket to see “Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine” by Warren Leight. I’d loved “Side Man” and was looking forward to seeing John Spencer on stage. Halfway through Act One, I noticed the man next to me writing in a notebook. During intermission, Nosy Nelly (me) asked about the notebook. Turned out he was a critic who worked for a paper in New Jersey. We chatted about the play and John Spencer. End of show, Phil kindly mentioned that he generally gets two tickets to the plays he reviews and would be happy to take me as his guest if I’d be interested. I gave him my number at the studio and we said our goodbyes. I couldn’t go the first time Phil offered the extra ticket , but I was free the second time he called. My friend Danielle insisted on walking me to the theater. She wanted to make sure she could ID Phil in case I turned up missing the next day. I think they discussed this at my 50th birthday party. Well, one play led to another and another – good, bad, first runs, revivals, Broadway, off B’way and across the Hudson. I don’t get to the theater alone quite as often these days, but I can’t complain. Thanks to Phil I’ve seen so many wonderful plays. “Kimberly Akimbo”, “Curtains”, “God of Carnage” – and of course “Shining City”. We had to walk around the block after that one!
Tonight I’ll rush out of work, grab that M86 bus going west, then take the 8th Ave local to 42nd street. As I reminded my husband this morning, I have theater with Phil. This will be the 73rd show we’ve seen together, thanks to his generosity – and my nosiness. We’re friends. As the years have rolled along, we’ve added Jazz in July, Christmas Morning Coffee. If we never saw another show, we’d still have our traditions. As Phil says, “Good for us… are we lucky, or what?” I know I’m lucky. So…no ear buds just yet. Windows to peer into, people to meet. Try it. Maybe you’ll adopt a wonderful dog, meet your future partner…or just see someone who inspires a character in your next project, or even better becomes a character in the story of your life.
P.S. – the Technology Gods rapped me on the knuckles for this one. My phone and my internet were out for the first part of the day today!
I took the M86 bus west early this morning. A trip made seven days a week for months while writing Guiding Light. We started our work day at the Starbucks on 86th and Columbus, armed with the shiny, pink flowered schoolgirl notebooks we’d buy from Jay at the deli across the street. I still have that stack of notebooks under my couch, covered with dust and dog hair. I haven’t bought a notebook since.
Riding through the park I thought about two things as I watched the first dog run of the day. Two worries. The task of writing this blog and the fact that I was heading to meet a young person at the above-mentioned Starbucks who wanted my advice about television writing. I’ve never written a blog before. I HAVE spoken to young people about daytime television, many times over the years. They generally find my story amusing – the fact that my waitress job led me to my 17 year gig at Guiding Light. They’re impressed by the jobs I held there (lots) my Emmy (one) and the fact that I loved my work so much. But they wanted solid tips… advice. The truth is, some wonderful people gave me a chance. I showed up, accepted assignments, made my deadlines and was so damn happy they let me stay. When it ended, I staggered out of the studio, back into my “real” life, did my best to keep walking and talking, and finally got an office job just as the money ran out! What am I going to say to Nicole? Why didn’t she get in touch with one of the writers still writing TV? They could talk to her about sustaining and surviving in this business. I don’t even know Nicole very well. I’m not a television writer anymore. The flowered notebooks are under the couch. What do I say? Okay, I’ll buy the coffee. It’s the least I can do after wasting her time this morning.
Nicole arrives. I buy the coffee. She’s looking for answers. I ask her questions. What is she writing? What does she watch on TV? What did she study in school? Premed, then Columbia film school. Wow. I’m surprised by the stuff she’s working on and interested in her take on daytime. A friend calls while we’re there. When I explain our meeting she says “talk her out of it! Tell her to run back to med school.” I can’t. I am more practical than I used to be – keep your day job, money stress is paralyzing. But if you want to write, do it. Say you’re a writer. Don’t be shy. Take a class, work on a web series….I can’t talk her up to my EP and try to get her a sample deal. But I won’t tell her not to go for it. This could be a great time for young writers. Shows are tumbling left and right but still, exciting things are happening. Out of the ashes… I am dazzled by the people who are pouring their hearts into making web series. We still want to tell stories. The audience still craves them. We’ll have to tell them differently, we won’t make that 80’s and 90’s money… but stories will be told. And something tells me that Nicole – or Danielle or Brett or the Rebeccas or Nidhi or Michelle or David or Kimberly – one or two or all of them – could be the Irna, Agnes, Bill or Claire of the future. Why not?
Nicole and I finish our talk and go our separate ways. I hope I encouraged her without giving her false hope. I hope she has a story to tell. I’m feeling lighthearted and hopeful myself, with a couple of stories rattling around in my head. I buy myself a pink flowered notebook from the deli before I get on the 86 going east.
Jill Lorie Hurst was raised in Detroit in the 60’s and 70’s, the daughter of a mother who watched CBS soaps and a father who loved New York. She studied theater and English at Wayne State University. She moved to New York in 1982 and started a ten year gig as a waitress in the garment district before finding a home at Guiding Light. Jill spent 17 years with the CBS soap as a receptionist, a writer’s assistant, a script writer, script editor, breakdown writer, story producer and finally, part of the co-head writing team until the show went off the air in September 2009. When CBS deactivated her ID, Jill spent 15 months or so wandering the city streets before settling into an assistant job in Manhattan. She has recently joined the writing team of Venice the series and is working on her first play. Jill lives in New York City with her husband Tony, dog Jocko and cat Molly.
A few months after I turned 21, I quit my job writing ads for college textbooks, and began my life as a freelance writer. I managed to get assignment writing about comedy in New York, which meant I got to hang out in comedy clubs and watch a hundred self-loathing guys self-destruct. I also stumbled upon an “all-girl comedy troupe” called the High Heeled Women.
We went out for drinks after their performance .I’d written jokes for comics, I knew a little about how to structure a sketch, and given my expertise, they agreed to pay me ten dollars an hour to write for them. Or with them.
There were four High Heeled Women, but two of them, Mary and Cassandra, wrote the act. None of us had air conditioning so we used the Blimpie’s on West Tenth Street as our office. Mary laughed at everything I said, Cassandra was less animated. Once in a while she’d nod and say, “Funny.” In hindsight, they were good cop/bad copping me. We’d start a sketch, I’d come up with a good one-liner, Mary would laugh, and Cassandra would shake her head. “Why would my character say that?” “Because it’s funny?” I’d reply. She was appalled. Cassandra had been with Second City, she’d performed improv with people who’d gone on to superstardom, she’d played in front of more drunks than I could imagine. Along the way, she’d developed a code.
Comedy came from character. If you wrote a joke that wasn’t true to the character, you were cheating, or “schmuck-baiting the audience.” You also needed to have “conflict.” One character has to have something the other character wants. I was reeling. The comics I’d written for, they just wanted one-liners that could get the drunks to listen. Cassandra wanted one-liners that made “internal sense” to the character, furthered the plot, and still got the drunks to take their hands off their neighbors’ laps.
It was not a dream job. Ten dollars an hour didn’t go very far, sometimes checks bounced. Also, for the first year, my credit read as follows: “the girls write all their own material.” Even so, Mary and Cassandra were the first actors I wrote for. The idea that lines could not be randomly distributed among the actors on stage was annoying at first, but over time I internalized it. I learned about “ticker moments”, about high jokes and low jokes and how to pair them (“blow me” sounds funniest in a high British accent, or an Arnold Schwarzenegger voice). I learned to make sure nightclub owners paid in cash.
After a while, Cassandra began to feel she’d shortchanged herself. Others in the group were booking all kinds of work because of the material we’d crafted for them; meanwhile Cassandra no longer had a signature piece in the show. I started to write a monologue in her voice, about a neurotic woman facing a romantic conflict, between her high feminist ideals and her low desires. Arnold Schwarzenegger courted her in the bit by saying “blow me.” Eleven times. The first night Cassandra performed it, she killed. Anytime anyone else performed it, they died. As Cassandra had taught me, the audience always knows when they are being schmuck-baited.
Warren Leight is the show runner and Executive Producer of the FX drama Lights Out. Formerly, he has been the show runner and Executive Producer of HBO’s Emmy-nominated In Treatment (Peabody Award, Humanitas nomination), and Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Warren’s play “Side Man” won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play, and was a 1999 Pulitzer Prize Finalist. Other plays include No Foreigners Beyond This Point (Drama Desk nomination), Glimmer, Glimmer and Shine (ATCA nomination), and the book to the musical Mayor (Drama Desk nomination). Warren was the former President of The Writer’s Guild of America, East, and is a current member of the Dramatists’ Guild councils. Warren was raised in New York City. He lives with his wife and daughters in New York.