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One Life to Live—The Case for Preserving Soaps

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There are many reasons why soap operas, those daytime dramas that once dominated afternoon television, are on life support. More working women, an explosion of other entertainment choices on TV and the Internet, the end of sponsorship by Procter & Gamble (the company that once owned most of the major daytime dramas, hence the moniker, “soap operas”), and shrinking budgets at the networks making less expensive formats like quiz, reality, and talk shows more attractive, have all contributed to the erosion of the audience. A recent event at the Paley Center for Media, co-sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation, brought together cast members from ABC’s One Life to Live and served as a huge wake-up call. Much will be lost—for both those who work on soaps and those who enjoy them—if the genre cannot be resuscitated.

OLTL’s cast was adamant that pronouncements of the soap opera’s death are premature. “We’re still around and doing well,” said Executive Producer and Lead Director Frank Valentini. In fact, OLTL, as well as All My Children, and General Hospital, stand a greater chance to survive because ABC, rather than P&G, owns them. The soap giant began sponsoring radio soap operas in the 1930s, but now only partially supports one—CBS’s The Young and the Restless. Listening to the OLTL actors talk about the show and acting underlined the important role soap operas continue to play in the world of entertainment.

Soap operas provide that coveted first job for beginning actors.

Both Kristen Alderson (who plays college student, Starr Manning) and David Gregory (who plays single teacher Robert Ford) talked about how thrilled they were to land parts on a daytime drama. “I’m madly in love with the show,” said Alderson, who was only six years old when she was cast as Starr. Gregory (above), who was kidded by other cast members about his sexy, good looks, said: “I want to do good work and I want to learn. I could take off my shirt and do that for ten years.”

Some soap actors do indeed make a career on daytime drama, while others use it as a stepping-stone to other opportunities. Famous faces who had their first close ups on soaps include: Meg Ryan, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman, Kathy Bates, Marisa Tomei, Julianne Moore, Demi Moore, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, Judith Light, and many, many more.

Soaps also provide a starting point for those who work behind the camera. Valentini said that he began at OLTL fresh out of school and has been with the program for 25 years. And sometimes those who never thought about acting hit the jackpot. Sean Ringgold was working as a bodyguard for A-list celebrities when he was spotted and cast in OLTL as Shaun Evans—surprise!—a bodyguard. Since then Shaun’s story on the soap has evolved and a whole family created around him. He knew he had crossed over when a director told him: “You’re not security anymore—you’re talent.”

Soap operas are a great training ground for actors.

Working on a soap is hard work. “There’s nothing better than a soap opera to hone your [acting] skills,” said Hillary B. Smith (above), who plays District Attorney Nora Buchanan. “Those who look down on soap operas have never done more than three pages [of script] a day.” Kassie DePavia, who plays “fiery and driven” Blair Cramer, said that her nighttime routine includes doing her “homework,” memorizing dozens of pages of dialogue for the following day. (A side benefit? She encourages her son to do his homework at the same time). Gina Tognoni (newspaper editor, Kelly Cramer), said the scenes she had taped the previous day took up more than 30 pages of the script.

That soap opera “commando acting,” according to Hillary, means that daytime actors can hit the ground running when they land parts in TV dramas or feature films. “After this, nothing scares me,” said Florencia Lozano (one of our Women Around Town who plays the OLTL’s manipulative attorney, Tea Delgado). “You step up to the plate, do what you have to do, be present, and make something happen.” Lozano, an accomplished stage actress, is comfortable in any medium. She recently had a guest role on the CBS hit, Blue Bloods.

Soap operas make a social statement.

Long before nighttime TV featured incest, rape, abortion, breast cancer, racism, homosexuality, and other social issues as themes for stories, soap operas were tackling these controversial topics. And OLTL continues to push the envelope. “We get to walk in every day and tell a story,” said DePavia (above, right, with Lozano, left). “Sometimes we make a difference socially.”

The downside? A storyline can be so emotional, it may be difficult for the actor to leave the character behind at the end of the day. “We have to be very careful what we open ourselves up to,” said Gina, who said that when appearing on another soap, she agonized each night over her character’s dilemma. She learned that she had to let it go. “You have to protect the soul,” she said.

Soap operas influence other entertainment media.

Telling a story, melodrama, teasing the viewer to stay tuned—all are hallmarks of the soap format. “The storytelling aspect of the soap has been adopted by every other medium,” said Hillary. Whether a nighttime drama with a continuing storyline, a reality show that plays up the conflict between participants, or a quiz show where waiting to hear the “final answer” ratchets up the tension, the format of the soap is the boilerplate.

Unfortunately, soap operas, like all entertainment, must always be concerned with the bottom line. And daytime drama has borrowed from the movies in changing how episodes are filmed. To save money, scenes may be filmed out of sequence when special sets or locations are needed. “It’s all about being efficient,” said Valentini. That timing puts extra pressure on the actors. With a film, the actors have read the entire script and know what will happen scene by scene. “But we may be shooting shows that are four weeks apart,” Valentini explained, adding that the actors will not have information about what transpires in between—one reason soap actors must know their characters very well and be able to adapt.

Soap opera actors will keep perfecting their craft and developing their characters, no matter what plot twists are thrown their way. The big question is: will soap operas themselves be up to the challenge to keep this art form fresh and relevant? Much depends on the outcome. Stay tuned.

One Life to Live
ABC-TV
2 p.m., Monday through Friday

Paley Center for Media
25 West 52nd Street
212-621-6600
www.paleycenter.org

Screen Actors Guild Foundation
www.sagfoundation.org

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