Claire Labine and Paul Mayer Write Ryan's Hope
It Takes a Lot of Fighting To Write a Good Soap Opera
And Tears, Hard Work and Much Love
Soap Opera People Magazine, December 1976
by Cassandra White
In the pleasant old house on the quiet Brooklyn street, tensions are beginning to build. Voices - one male, one female - arising. Within a room furnished as an office for two, Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer, headwriters for Ryan's Hope, are squaring off at each other.
"I simply don't see how you can be so blindly unsympathetic to Delia," Paul says, lips tight, voice strained. "I am not unsympathetic," Claire cuts in several decibels higher. "I agree she's had a lousy time, but she is still a scheming, vicious, bitch!"
Now Paul's voice rises: "She also happens to be my favorite person in the whole blasted show..." And Claire: "I know that. You always take her side...."
And on, as the scripts say, into the night....
No, they're not testing out a new storyline, or improvising a scene between Frank Ryan and Pat (although many of the feelings expressed in this Brooklyn room will eventually show up in Ryan's Bar). This is not act; this is the real thing. Claire and Paul are having a battle royal and before it ends, he will be dripping sarcasm and she will be dripping tears, because these two people, who daily create Ryan's Hope, genuinely, passionately - even furiously - care.
Let us add at once that fights are the exception to the rule. Claire and Paul have been writing soap operas together for years as one of the most successful teams in the business. For Ryan's Hope, barely a year old, they have already won The Writers Guild Award for Best Written Serial because they usually agree passionately about story lines and characters, sometimes arriving simultaneously and quite independently, at exactly the same plot twist.
They started out as lowly (well, comparatively lowly) dialogue writers on CBS's Where The Heart Is. That represented Paul's first job in daytime TV. He had been earning a living as a movie script writer and a much-respected adaptor of European classics by Pirandello and Strindberg...."but then came the recession, the film business died, and I had a family to support. When I got the job on Where the Heart Is, I was too naive to know that dialogue writers didn't ask each other for help, so I called Claire, who had been there for all of six months, and said, 'How do we do this?' She liked that, and we became friends."
Claire and Paul had arrived at daytime TV via very different routes. She was a tall, pretty young woman who grew up in middle-class Jacksonville, Louisville and Chicago, attended the University of Kentucky and switched from acting to journalism only when it was pointed out to her that opportunities for six-foot-tall ingenues were somewhat limited. Paul, a slender young man of average height, was born of a Jewish film-writing father and a Spanish-Irish mother, and grew up in the sophisticated theatrical worlds of Hollywood and New York, went to Harvard, and never conceived of any career but writing. Nonetheless, by the time they met at CBS, Paul and Claire had a great deal in common: the same politics (liberal), the same lifestyle (casual), stable marriages (in show business unusual), three kids apiece and even a compatible variety of dogs and cats. From the start personally and professionally, they worked well together, laughing delightedly at each other's jokes, hurling themselves with equal enthusiasm into the tragedies and triumphs of their characters.
After several months, they were promoted to headwriters on Where The Heart Is. "And", says Claire, smiling modestly, "we wrote the show right off the air." (It was actually cancelled to make room for a new line-up). The day WTHI went off, another soap, Love Is A Many Splendored Thing, went with it. That happened to be the show on which Paul's actress wife, Sasha Von Scherter, starred, which left a rather big hole in the Mayer family budget. Claire was luckier; her engineer husband, Clem Labine, was working (he publishes a journal for lovers of old houses) but she, too, wanted another job. When one came along, it was for the team of Labine and Mayer - this time headwriting Love of Live at NBC. The ratings went up 20 points in the 21 months of the team's tenure, and over at ABC, when they wanted to take a chance on an off-beat new soap dealing with the life of a big-city ethnic family who ran a bar and talked like real people, they asked Claire and Paul not only to headwrite, but to executive-produce the show. "Claire said it was going to be too much work." Paul recalls, "but I said, 'oh, it would be fun, we could do it.' It turns out that she was right. It is too much work."
It certainly would be for any two - possibily four - ordinary people. On a typical work day (of which there are at least five per week) Paul gets up in his Manhattan apartment at six o'clock am, jogs around the nearby reservoir to wake himself up, showers and spends his only private time with Sasha, a half an hour over coffee. At 7:30 he drives to Claire's house in Brooklyn. Claire, by then, has fed her family and gotten her children, Matthew 17, Eleanor, 15, and John, 10, off to school, having promised her husband that she would never allow a mere soap opera to interfere with the important things of life, like children and cooking. Until recently, she and Paul worked in the Labine dining room; now they hole up in the office. There they prepare detailed outlines of twenty-five "acts" (five per show) per week, passing some along to their two dialouge writers to be turned into scripts, and writing the rest themselves.
Their greatest creative energies and agonies go into the development of "the long story" - enough plot to take three major situations through an entire year. "Or if we're lucky," says Claire, "a year and a half." "Or if we're unlucky," says Paul, "we suddenly find out that we're about to run through a year's worth of story in nine months."
"Or, says Claire, "that some tiny little change in one script has shifted everything around and thrown months of work down the drain." They sigh. They shrug, philosophers to the end. "We're always in trouble," they say, "always behind."
There are easy ways out of trouble, of course, but Claire and Paul will have none of them. "We have never consciously filled up time by having one character tell another character what two others did the week before. They talk about each other if the discussion has a real effect on the people doing the talking."
Nor will they settle for obvious plot lines. "We don't just introduce heroines with round heels," Paul says, "although from time to time some of our women do have---er--some slight problems of that nature." "The real trouble," explains Claire, "is that we like our characters so much we have a terrible time making them do dumb things, or letting calamities happen to them. We want them all to be happy. Unfortunately, that makes a story grind to a stop."
So they cudgel their brains, stare at the walls, sometimes derive inspiration from what is usually an unlikely source, the network vice president in charge of daytime TV ("But in this case, it's different--he is a friend of the show!") and sometimes come up with conflicting story lines on which they can't agree. The Seneca-Jill plot was a case in point: Paul proposed it, Claire found it 'loathesome," they made each other miserable over it for months before Paul won. Now Claire concedes, "I like it." Her children, however, were sorry to see them call a truce. "In 18 years of marriage," Claire says, "my husband and I have raised our voices to each other maybe twice. We're not fighters. So when my kids are treated to the sight of me stamping and screaming and throwing things, they find it quite amusing."
Their regular work day in Brooklyn is interrupted, about once a week, by a visit to the studio in Manhattan, where they occupy a cramped borrowed office, audition actors for new roles, check out the color schemes of sets and costumes, discover in horror that essential script changes were never taped....or just sit for breathless minutes to watch the show go on the air. Paul anxiously rubbing the back of his neck, Claire driving frantic fingers through her soft pageboy, both of them nodding, frowning, smiling at every change of mood on the screen. In Brooklyn, or Manhattan, the day ends around five, when Claire makes dinner for her family and Paul drives home to his. He eats dinner with his daughters, Rachel 13, Ruth 11 and Daisy 9 and by eight o'clock pm is working again, usually til 10:30. Claire works later still. Around midnight she has been known to wake Paul with a desperate phone call: "I can't read my notes on act three...what was Mary going to say to Frank?"
Is it worth it? A hard question, which neither of them can answer easily. The money is good, of course, and someday may be even better - but if you live in New York City, putting three kids through private schools and dentist chairs, it doesn't leave as much for luxuries as one might think. And no time to enjoy the ones that are available. They are both perpetually hassled, rushed and exhausted in mind and body. The resultant strain of family life can be, and sometimes is, not a matter to pass off lightly.
And yet..."I love working this show," says Paul.
"I'm very proud of this show," says Claire. "If ever you see a scene on it that doesn't work, or a mistake we didn't catch, believe me it's not because we didn't try." They do try, both of them, all the time, and obviously with immense success. To both of them, Ryan's Hope is something very special - a drama about strong people, decent people. The pressure under which Claire and Paul create those people, that world - that hope - is intense, exhausting, sometimes threatening to their own private worlds. "But we can cope with it," Claire says firmly. "Maybe not always gracefully. But if it ever is too much for us, we'll give it up rather than spoil it."
What all the Ryan's hope, is that it will never come to that.
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