What isn’t well known are the stories behind the stories: The struggles, the fights, the times she battled, the times she gave up. In this rare and revealing interview, the amazing storyteller Claire Labine reveals the process behind her eloquent and wonderful craft. She’ll share her career highs and lows, and why you will never want to count her down and out.
In Part One, Ms. Labine discusses her writing process, reflections on her early career, and how mothering contributed to her understanding of soaps.
We Love Soaps: I am such an admirer of your work, I can’t wait to talk with you!
Claire Labine: Great, let’s do that.
We Love Soaps: We’re going to go over the shows specifically that you have written. But I’d like to start with a general question about your craft. How would you describe, “The Claire Labine writing style?”
Claire Labine: What I’ve always done was approach stories and subjects that delighted or moved me. Or seemed to me to have within them something of real value emotionally. I think daytime had, and I use that in the past tense, the capacity to illuminate emotional conflicts that people face in real life. And I think it was helpful. We certainly didn’t set out to preach or to make a character a role model of emotional honesty. That wasn’t the primary thrust. But the better characters we came up with did do that. You draw on everything when you write soap opera. The plots of great dramatists, your family and no friend is safe. Family and friends did find their way in [the shows]. It was fun.
We tried to get at the things that were motivating us to write what we would write. Paul [Avila Mayer] always wanted to be a member of a big family, and I’m referring now to Ryan’s Hope. I was an only child, and longed for it upon occasion. But I had a sensational grandmother and a wonderful mother. Maeve Ryan embodied for me elements of both of them. I think Mary Ryan, especially as played by Kate Mulgrew in the early years, was sort of the gal I liked to be, and the woman that Paul would like to hang out with.
There are two different disciplines, writing for an established show and creating a new reality. When you go into a show already established you have to try to respect the creator’s concepts for these characters and the basic relationships within the show and you really only have freedom to create characters when you bring in someone new to interact with the established folks. It is really hard, especially with a show that’s been on the air a long time, to capture the essence of the character as presented, so you’re not totally betraying the audience. And you have to make the established characters behave in a way that is familiar to the audience in an emotional situation with a new character. So you have to design a new character who can emotionally relate to established characters. It’s really very difficult to do.
We Love Soaps: Were you ever taught these concepts? Or did you learn them as you went along?
Claire Labine: We didn’t know anything about writing soaps! The only thing the two of us [Paul and Claire] knew about serials was that I was a great fan of LOVE OF LIFE. It’s because when I was nursing my babies—they were too big to nurse and hold a book at the same time. It just didn’t work. So LOVE OF LIFE was at 12 O’ clock, the same time as midday nursing. And I would sit down for a half an hour and watch television. I watched LOVE OF LIFE grow from 15 minutes to half an hour. I loved Van and Bruce and everything that was going on on Rosehill. Then my agent fortuitously got me an audition for three writing scripts on LOVE OF LIFE. That helped me to get in over someone who didn’t know what the show was about. I could make Van and Bruce sound like Van and Bruce.
We Love Soaps: And tell me about beginning on WHERE THE HEART IS.
Claire Labine: I loved the cast on WHERE THE HEART IS. Jim Mitchell played Diana Van der Vlis’ brother and Diana became a very close friend over the years. She was a marvelous actress and a great comedian. That cast also had Louise Shaffer who I have always admired vitally, not only for her acting ability, but for her writing skills. James Mitchell had such a great musical comedy career before his daytime gigs. I think he went to Palmer on ALL MY CHILDREN after WHERE THE HEART IS was canceled.
We Love Soaps: Also you had Rue McClanahan, Marsha Mason, Joseph Mascolo, Bernard Barrow, Brenda Benet...
Claire Labine: Yes, it was an amazing cast. And in those days the backbone of acting on soaps was the theater. We always tried to accommodate actors who had stage gigs. It fed them, so they would come back with more adrenaline than they had to begin with. That had long been the tradition. You make it possible for someone to exercise their talent in as many ways as they can.
Claire Labine: Then on LOVE OF LIFE we had the invenerable Van and Bruce [played by Ron Tomme and Audrey Peters]. Trudi Wiggins came back to play Meg, who was Vanessa’s wicked and wonderful sister. And we had Christopher Reeves in his first role, right after he came out of Julliard. He was a sterling individual as everyone now knows. But he was so earnest about it. He worked at acting, he had to work at acting, because he wasn’t that good when he started. But he was so good looking and as Mary Munisteri said, “It doesn’t matter, he’s so good looking, he’ll learn. I just want to turn on the television set and look at him!” And on top of that he was so sweet.
We Love Soaps: Now let’s talk RYAN'S HOPE. What in your mind made it such a success in it’s time, and still so beloved today?
Claire Labine: I think it’s the relationships in the Ryan family. We were trying to write the brothers and the sisters that wished we had had. It was easy to get into the fantasy of the big brother who sometimes is his own worst enemy. And Mary and her relationship to Maeve and Johnny. Initially Michael Brockman was the Vice President of Daytime and he got it, and he left us alone. After a few initial attempts to guide us in casting directions, we really said, “Listen Michael, we really want this to be a new reality and we don’t want anyone who has been on other soaps. [Laughs] Except Diana [Van der Vlis] and Michael Fairman [currently playing Murphy on Y&R], he had been on LOVE OF LIFE and we loved his work. And Bernie Barrow had been around forever.
The actors were no small part of it. We were so lucky. They were so generous to the show, and they worked so hard. Helen [Gallagher] sort of set the bar. We had kids to who never been in a studio in their lives and had very little experience even on the stage. Then we had our old timers who were a little bit cynical and who had been around the track a few times. And Helen walked in with her two Tony’s and the respect of everybody in the building and said, “Okay, I’m a song and dance girl and I’m here to do the job.” She came every morning prepared. She was fearsome to the kids that were not. Anyone who had a scene with Helen really paid attention. And that was a gift to us. She is a gift to the world.
We didn’t cast for looks. We did cast for a certain familial style and appearance. I mean Kate [Mulgrew] could have been Helen’s daughter, they had the same sort of style. Siobhan could have been Bernie Barrow’s daughter. We lucked out with two directors, Jerry Evans and Lela Swift, who got it. They understood what we were trying to do.
We Love Soaps: And you were trying to do...
Claire Labine: We were trying to do the best kind of work that Paul and I could do. We were trying to write this thing with honesty and a deep commitment and a desire to get this right. And the whole concept of family is irresistible. The Ryans really did stand together. Every now and then there would be a run of six or seven shows that just dazzled us. Everyone had given their best and it all just came together. Daily drama is hard to write. It’s hard to sustain, it’s hard to invest in sometimes, you get exhausted. And you run out of ideas.
We Love Soaps: You mentioned you’re an only child. How did you understand the complexities between the sibling rivalries and competition amongst the Ryan children?
Claire Labine: It’s not real hard to imagine. Because I was an only child I loved being the center of attention. It was easy for me to imagine what it would be like if that weren’t the case [laughs]. But I wish Kate could have stayed, and Sarah Felder would have stayed as Siobhan. We could have gotten so much mileage out of the two of them. But Kate had to go. I said to her, “You have to go, you have to see what else is out there.” But it was a blow.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Please come back for Part Two in which Labine shares her struggles fighting with ABC, defending the cast of RYAN'S HOPE against the network, and how her understanding of Psychology contributed to the Ryan’s family struggles.
Damon L. Jacobs is a Marriage Family Therapist practicing in New York City, and the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve". He has started blogging again at www.shouldless.com.