Shortly after my show All’s Faire came out, I was approached by a gentleman who asked Dinosaur Diorama and I to make The Guidling Light as a webseries. To be clear, he was only a fan of the show, not a producer of any sort. He had seen our show, which starred both Robert Bogue and Mandy Bruno of that show, and likely knew about our casting of other soap stars (Kelli Giddish back when she was on All My Children, Tom Pelphrey) in the past.
I thought long and hard about this. Not because I particularly like soap operas or have any creative interest in The Guiding Light. But I was fascinated by the idea of turning an existing soap property into an online property. I went out and bought Dark Shadows and watched it to see. Could something like this be turned into a webshow? Creatively? Legally?
After doing the math, I couldn’t make it work. The most I would be able to produce might be a short scene per day. Ultimately, I realized that the people who watch soaps wouldn’t be satisfied with that. They watched soaps because they were hooked on the stories, but also to occupy time when they were at home or at work. Soap watchers are a mix of very active fans (buying magazines, talking on forums, following the actors) and very passive fans (turning it on and watching it with half your mind while you do something else).
That said, I loved the idea of the online soap. I loved the idea of event television online. I loved bringing a show to an under-served online audience. I loved the the discipline involved in crafting a daily storyline (even if it does sometimes revolve around amnesia and/or demonic possession). I loved the absolutely seamless and meaningful integration of products into a storyline (they’re not called SOAP operas for nothing, folks). I thought long and hard about getting involved.
But I didn’t. Time went on and other projects swiftly took its place. And then today, I saw this:
“Beloved Soaps to migrate online. All My Children and One Life To Live being bought by production company Prospect Park (they make “Royal Pains” among other things).”
And I’m fascinated. This is a proven company. Buying a proven (if a bit faded and temporarily suffering) property. And aiming to produce for a thoroughly unproven medium. This is big. Very big.
Now that people all over the country have high-speed broadband, and people of all ages are much more used to watching video online, how will these soaps do? But the bigger question to me is, what will they look like? Will they be an hour long? Will they be a scene long? Will they be union shows (it looks like yes, the same cast and crew at least will be involved)? Will they be daily? Will they in any way resemble the shows that so many people knew and loved?
Further, they are “expected to be the first of a number of brand-name TV shows” to be programmed on a “new, as-yet-unnamed, TV-focused network”. Big. Very very big!
As some of you know, I have something sort of similar (but also completely different) in the works. But if Rich Frank and Jeff Kwatinetz can take this first massive step and make it work – and I have every reason to believe they can – then I want to be the first to welcome them to the sandbox.
Or should I say soapbox (and buh-dum-CHING and cut to commercial).
P.S. Kudos to Roger Newcomb over at We Love Soaps. This must be a big day for him
The following remarks were delivered by Thom Woodley at the WGAE’s Capital Hill briefing on Internet policy.
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I am a writer, and a creator of content, and as such, by necessity, an entrepreneur. What I’m going to talk about today are the business models of web video, how the open web allows creators to do innovative work, and the dangers that paid prioritization creates for that innovation.
In our discussions of net neutrality today, we’ve a couple of times heard the comparison of the internet to highways. I’d like to expand that. Let’s suppose that a state decides adopt the prioritization model to their roadwork. This would mean they don’t pave roads in a certain area as well as other ones. We all know what would happen. The economy in that area suffers. Trucks can’t get to it, no one wants to drive along the bumpy, dirty road.
It’s the same online. Pavement equals streaming speed. If the streaming speed is slow, no one will watch. We don’t force the people who live on that road, the businesses on that road, to pay directly for paving the whole thing. But Internet Service Providers want to do that exact thing to content providers. If we don’t have net neutrality, ISPs could charge content providers money to deliver their content at a reasonable enough speed.
I am going to make the case that that is tantamount to killing a new industry before it has developed.
There is a business model of independent web video. There are a few. They exist, but they’re still nascent. And it’s very different from television or most other traditional economic structures.
I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Long Tail Theory of economics. I’ll just give a quick abstract. Say we’re in a book store. 80% of people who come into that store will tend to buy the same top 20% of books. The remaining 20% of people may also buy that top tier, but in addition, seek out products that are more diverse, less common denominator. When we chart these spending habits, rank of products sold against volume of sales, we get a short ‘body’ and a long ‘tail’.
Now, in a store, there’s a physical inventory. So it only makes sense to keep that top 20% in stock. Of course, for an online store, inventory is more vast. So you can open up the full 100% of products, and get that extra business. And here’s a hidden secret: people in this long tail will tend to pay more for the products they love, if they are perceived as rare.
How does this relate to television? TV has a fixed inventory of time that it is selling. As well as a great expense in broadcasting it. So it only makes sense to program shows that 80% of the populace will seek out. The same with movie theaters – a fixed number of screens. But web video has no fixed period of time. It has no fixed numbers of screens. Strictly speaking, it has no distributional limits, except for streaming speed.
That means that online, this long tail of specialized content is now open for everybody.
From an advertising perspective, we know that a message moves farther and more effectively when it is highly tailored to its audience. You are three times more likely to watch a video if a friend shared it to you. So advertisers have an excellent model here. Let’s take as an example, an award-winning and very popular series I participate in called The Temp Life. It is sponsored by a staffing agency who could never afford to buy TV time. But they could afford a more specified and tailored web production with Hollywood celebrities like Milo Ventimiglia and Illeana Douglas. And the show just finished its 5th season, which is longer than most real Hollywood shows.
Web video, due to its long tail nature, has the tendency to gather audiences of more specific demographics. These shows function with a smaller audience, but they become more valuable to the sponsor. My show The Burg gathered an audience of hipsters and influencers mostly based in New York. It’s the kind of audience TV shows desperately try to attract, but had not reliably done so. Sure, the show did not rack up the millions of views per episode that a TV show needs. That’s okay. We did not need it. We had a highly activated audience who, when we did do sponsorships, were much more accepting of our sponsors’ products.
Web TV will not be, in the future, about gathering the ‘most views’, but gathering the ‘best views’.
But it’s worth pointing out that putting any of this content behind a paywall, or tiered download situation where it didn’t stream quickly, that would have killed it. People would not have watched.
There are two more models I’d like to briefly discuss.
One is the audience-supported show. Take the show Anyone But Me. It’s a multiple award-winning show about a lesbian teenager and her struggles. It’s excellent. It tells a difficult story about a topic some would think is controversial. And it likely would never have been made on TV. They are able to make this show because they have an audience who is demanding it. Again, it’s a smaller audience, but they are so passionate about this show that they pay for it. Not per download – by donation.
But it’s tight. Profit margins are slim in both of these models. If we were charging Anyone But Me an extra fee to stream fast enough so that the audience can watch it, then they probably would not be able to make it.
Another model that is developing is even more interesting to me, as a small business owner: the local webseries scene.
Distribution is, at present, open to everyone. I can make a video and put it up – there are no walls between me and a prospective audience of millions. At the same time, the means of film production are accessible to everyone, with consumer-level editing software and digital cameras. This means that a webseries can be generated and created anywhere, for any audience. This is of course different from film and TV, where you have to be in LA or NY.
What we are seeing now is communities of content creators and webseries makers beginning to pop up in every state of the union. In places that never had any sort of film industry before, we suddenly see one popping up. And it can be sponsored by local advertisers. I point to one of the shows I’m involved in, Greg and Donny, which is about two guys just chatting about stuff going on in the small, post-industrial steel town Johnstown, PA. Now, that sounds like a very specific show that no one outside that town would want to watch, right? Well… stay tuned.
I believe in a few years, we will be seeing small town film scenes. Communities of webseries creators and vloggers from Maine to Utah. Decentralized micro-industries of creative professionals from Alabama to Wyoming. I believe we will see this… down the road.
But not if the road is too expensive to travel on.
Net neutrality is vital to keeping the lanes of communication open. The creative economy of the future depends on it. Thank you.
Writer and web video pioneer Thom Woodley created one of the first narrative web series “The Burg“, the Streamy and Webby nominated shows “The All-For-Nots“, “All’s Faire” and “Greg & Donny“, and is the founder of DIORAMA, a new web video channel aimed at programming television-quality independent content.
After my year off, I told my agent I wanted to staff again. With 3 kids, a stay-at-home husband and a mortgage, my personal hiatus turned out to be quite expensive. The job market in NYC for primetime dramas is intensely small. There were only one or two shows that had their writing staffs in New York, even though they were filmed here. This is the dirty little secret about shows set in New York. Most of them are written in Los Angeles. Current shows like “The Good Wife,” “Law & Order: SVU” (until recently), “CSI: NY,” “Gossip Girls,” “Royal Pains,” “White Collar,” “Castle,” etc may film on our local streets and avenues, but their writers are holed up in sunny offices on the Fox, Universal, Warner Bros or Paramount studio lots in and around L.A. “Mad Men” – so iconic in its portrayal of glamorous 1960-70s New York, is not only written but filmed on stages located in hardscrabble downtown L.A.
So, it became clear that I was going to have to take a job in that sunny city. Having lived in L.A. for that almost year I was on “The West Wing,” I knew it would always be a fun place to visit, but not where I wanted to raise my family. My reasons are completely personal to me and no offense to anyone who finds it a wonderful place to live. I just can’t deal with the idea of having two cars and driving everywhere. A cab ride home is a luxurious option on a lazy day, but no matter where I am in NYC I can always take the train. But when I was offered a job on the new NBC series “Southland” about the Los Angeles Police Department, I have to admit, I was thrilled. It was innovative, gritty, brash and totally compelling. I wanted in.
“Southland” had had a highly-acclaimed 6-episode first season and had been renewed for a second season with a “let’s give it a shot” 13-episode order and an option for the back 9. I watched the first season on my laptop in The Writer’s Room in Greenwich Village and was blown away. I then walked 3 blocks to meet “Southland” creator Ann Biderman at the Dean and Deluca on University Place. Ann is a longtime New Yorker despite spending lots of time in L.A., especially to research “Southland.” We had a great chat, interrupted a few times by Ann’s friends and neighbors saying hi, confirming plans to spend the weekend in the Hamptons. Two weeks later, I was sitting across from Ann in a conference room in John Wells’ office on the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank. Next to me were Robin Green & Mitchell Burgess, the husband-wife writing team, whose Village apartment was just blocks from Ann’s, and next to them sat Nathan Louis Jackson, fellow playwright and my Brooklyn neighbor. The irony! Here we were eating Poquito Mas takeout in the Valley on a staff that consisted largely of New Yorkers! (There were 2 other writers who were Angelenos). And you know I fantasized about how fabulous it would be if we were actually in some dank and dingy office in Chelsea or even Greenpoint, Brooklyn instead of the swanky environs we had in Burbank. But we were there for a variety of good reasons which ranged from access to the cops whose lives we were chronicling — to L.A. is where the studio and network wanted us. Funnily enough, we rarely went to set because with such a small staff we just didn’t have the time to produce our episodes. We were always either breaking story, writing an outline or writing one of many drafts of our episode (neither Ann nor John took showrunner passes. I would put a heart emoticon here if I were the emoticon type.)My family came and spent July and August with me in a furnished sublet in Larchmont, but come September when it was back-to-school time, they went back to Brooklyn without me. I would fly home on the redeye Friday nights and fly back to Burbank on the first flight out Monday morning. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s what we did. That is, until I got a phone call from Ann one Thursday afternoon while I sat in my friend’s backyard writing the second draft of my second episode. I thought she was checking on me, making sure I was on track to turn it in on time. And the truth is, I was behind. Would have to pull an all-nighter to get it done. But Ann had something completely unexpected to say.
“So, do you guys all sit around a table and write the scripts together?”People used to ask me this and I’d wonder where they got this idea. “The Dick Van Dyke Show”? It couldn’t have been farther from our reality on “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”. Not only did we not have a table around which we could all SIT, let alone write scripts together —we didn’t even have a writer’s room. That’s right. No room at the inn. Our showrunner believed in his writers’ abilities to, well, write and that’s what he wanted us to do. It requires a completely different skill set to be able to pitch ideas out loud, respond to other people’s ideas spontaneously, and to cobble together story lines in your head or on a marker board than it does to write. Not to discount that method, many writers do excel at it. Some have reputations for being “great in the room.” I have heard some shows rely on the writer’s room so much they even have exercise equipment in them! But Rene Balcer was not one to have his writers toss out motives for murder while sweating it out on the elliptical.
Instead, each writer met individually with Rene to break story – based on an idea we brought to him or one that he offered to us. Sure, L&O shows are “ripped from the headlines” and we often came in with articles from newspapers, magazines, foreign newspapers we’d found online, etc. But the headline story would serve the purpose of setting the episode in motion. It was just a jumping off point. We couldn’t surprise, unnerve or reward the viewer if we merely added dialogue to stories whose endings they knew. We would twist the story away from the original headline story.
For example, Marlane Gomard Meyer’s episode “Happy Family” was loosely based on the murder of investment banker Ted Ammon. He was found bludgeoned to death in his East Hampton home while in the middle of a divorce and bitter custody battle with his wife. In the end, it was his wife’s plumber-boyfriend with the mile-long rap sheet who was ultimately found to be the killer. We would never do that. In Marlane’s script, the estranged wife’s boyfriend is looked at as a suspect, but so is the nanny, and the wife herself, but the killer turns out to be one of the couple’s adopted sons, who’d been brainwashed by his mother that when she died (she has terminal cancer), their father would send the boys back to the Ukrainian orphanage they’d come from.
Meeting one on one in Rene’s office we would spend hours talking about who the characters were so we would know why they did what they did. Characters that only appeared in one or two scenes still had complicated back stories. That’s what distinguished “Criminal Intent” from the other shows in the franchise. We were to explore the psychological motives of everyone involved. Even the red herrings had plausible, complicated reasons for killing the victim – even though they didn’t. After spending around two weeks breaking story with Rene in his office, we would go off and write our drafts. And when I mean off, I mean off-campus, off-site, off to wherever it was we were most comfortable writing. For some people it was home. For me, it was The Writers Room in the Village, a non-profit urban writer’s colony where writers of every persuasion – novelists, poets, journalists, etc — share a loft space partitioned into, one must say, rather attractive carrels. I discovered it in 1997 and have written every play, and just about every screenplay and TV script there ever since. It is my writing home. I’d email my scripts to Rene from The Writer’s Room and he’d fax the script back with notes. Meanwhile, he’d started meeting with the next writer “at bat.” That’s how I started to think of it. We were batters in a lineup. And it remains, several shows and years later, my favorite way of working.
But after 5 years at “Criminal Intent,” including 2 years under the showrunnership of Warren Leight, the friend who first mentioned the job opening to me so many years ago, I decided to leave. I took a year off to hang out with my kids – including newborn twins – and work on (and not finish) a spec pilot. By the time I was ready to go back on a writing staff, I was to find out that getting on a show in NYC was not going to be as easy as running into a friend on the 1 train.
I am often asked to speak to early career playwrights who, this day and age, accept as fact that they will have to write for TV or film in order to make a living. It’s not even sad but definitely true.The year that my play Stop Kiss premiered at The Public Theater, extending three times, making it the longest-running straight play produced at the theater since A Chorus Line – I made less money than I do in one month as a writer/producer for series television. And when the play finally closed –my income stream ended. I had been working as a freelance copywriter prior to the play’s opening. The day the reviews for Stop Kiss came out, prompting my phone to clatter off the hook with friends telling me “You’re the toast of the town!” (not to date myself but my phone looked like this), I was hurriedly writing the last of the Star Trek trivia questions that were due for the SyFy Channel website – a job that I had fallen behind on during rehearsals. Wanting to take advantage of the steam misting off of Stop Kiss’ successful run, I went to L.A. for a week and packed in as many meet and greets with studio and network execs as I could. These kinds of meetings can feel pointless at the time, the writer’s equivalent of kissing hands and shaking babies, but you never know what they will eventually lead to. For me, it was an offer to work on the recently picked-up series “The West Wing”. My husband and I sublet our one-bedroom East Village walk-up and rented a small house in West Hollywood so I could see what it was like to be part of a writing staff. It was, shall we say, a unique experience, not only for me as a neophyte TV writer but for the more seasoned writers on staff, many of whom were playwrights too.
At the end of “The West Wing”’s first season, I decided to return to the East Village. To best convey my rationale, I offer this analogy from real life – that year in L.A. my husband and I attempted to get pregnant, but to no avail. The minute we returned to New York City, our first son was conceived. For the first two years of my son’s life, we continued to live in that one-bedroom walk-up while I wrote two pilots for CBS and adapted Stop Kiss into a screenplay.
One day, when I was on the 1 train headed for the theater, I ran into Warren Leight, the Tony Award-winning playwright of Sideman. Warren was a friend of Eric Bogosian, who was married to Jo Bonney, the director of Stop Kiss. We’d met at a dinner party. Warren told me that he had taken his first series TV job, and was writing for the latest “Law & Order” spinoff, “Criminal Intent” and that they might be hiring a new writer. Maybe I’d be interested? I said “Sure,” thinking that a cop show was about as far out of my range of abilities as platform diving. But a couple weeks later, I got a call from Warren that he’d given Stop Kiss to showrunner Rene Balcer to read, and that Rene wanted to meet me. My agent sent me a stack of scripts to read. I read a dozen of them within a couple days.
There was something powerfully addictive about these stories, as viewers of CI and all the shows in the L&O franchise well know. But even more than the mothership and SVU, I found that the CI scripts stayed so far ahead of you, misdirecting you with such sharpness and outrunning you with such agility, that I couldn’t wait to turn the page. Suspense was not my strong suit and I wondered how I could ever write for this show. But my meeting with Rene went well and weeks later I was offered the job. I was going to be able to live in the city of my choice while working on a broadcast network TV series with a foreseeable future. I would later realize I had no idea how good I had it.
Diana Son is the author of the plays Stop Kiss, Satellites, BOY, R.A.W. (‘Cause I’m a Woman) and others. She has also been a writer/producer for TV series including “Blue Bloods,” “Southland,” “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” and “The West Wing” in addition to writing pilots and the occasional feature film. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and 3 sons.
I was terrified when Elana Levin contacted me to write four blogs for the WGAE website. I’m used to scribbling words for a group of characters played by actors so talented they made every word so much better than it looked on paper. It was great hiding behind them, but I don’t have them to protect me anymore, so I said yes.
I am not a risk taker by nature. I don’t drive anymore, I’m not athletic, and I’ve never bought a lottery ticket. Swimming in creeks or rivers where fish (or even minnows) might be lurking scares me. We rented a house upstate for years. When we walked home from our neighbor’s house after dark I was sure the bats fluttering above were waiting to swoop down and nest in my hair. My husband had his hands full helping me co-exist with nature. I’m from two edgy and wonderful cities, Detroit and New York and I am very comfortable in both places. But nature…yikes! I’ve made some progress, thanks to my husband Tony.
Being uncomfortable is good, sometimes. My high school drama director cast me as science prodigy Tillie in “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds” – dyed my hair mousy brown, wore polyester and baggy knee sox as I cradled my dead rabbit at the end of the play. My mom’s best friend didn’t recognize me. Great moment for the girl usually cast as the ingénue. My college boyfriend Michael was determined that I get my license. He taught me to drive. Yes, I did drive for awhile. Grace Bavaro sent me from the restaurant to the TV studio. My friend Nancy Williams Watt generously encouraged me to add my voice to the voices of the Guiding Light characters. Super bosses Paul Rauch and Ellen Wheeler would often call me in on Friday and tell me I’d be doing a very different job at Guiding Light on Monday. I always lamented the fact that I never had time to “train” for any of these jobs. My husband watched me freak out and then witnessed my wonder when I realized how great it is to learn something new. Not that I mastered every job, but it’s so exciting to go into a dark, scary place, turn on the light and see that it’s not so scary after all.And it’s fun to help someone else get over their fear. Our landlady upstate asked us to keep our two big dogs Scout, a curly coated retriever, and Annie, our beautiful German Shepherd, on leash when we walked the road – turns out our two little neighbor girls were terrified of dogs. We kept the dogs in check, but the girl’s curiosity outweighed their fear. They were frequent and welcome visitors. At first they yelled “Put Pointy Ears (Annie) in the house” as they came up the road. But after a short time, they reached out their little hands to pet curly Scout. Finally they got to know old Pointy Ears. Little girls and big dogs became fast friends. Eventually they got a dog of their own!
I know that it’s time to challenge myself. I wish I would have prepared in certain ways – learned to type, kept my license, finished my degree…but then, maybe the ride would’ve been different. More sensible, but less fun… Truthfully there’s very little I would change about my experiences.
I’m grateful to the people who thought outside the box when I couldn’t, who gave me a little push. I’m glad I took a breath and said yes to this writing assignment. I learned that I want to take more chances! Thank you for having me here for the last few weeks. I had a really good time.
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.