A Labor Of Love That's Paying Off
Claire Labine and Paul Avila Mayer
Three year ago the Family Ryan was just a dream for writers Claire and Paul. Now they’re as real as next door neighbors.
One year ago Claire Labine and Paul Mayer realized a dream which any writer might envy. They saw the characters and stories which they had created for over two years materialize into a daily soap opera called Ryan’s Hope. As executive producers, Claire and Paul carefully supervised casting, sets and scripts, turning their personal fantasies into reality for millions of daytime viewers.
Now, a year later, we asked what this incredible experience has been like for them. “Like going head first into a meat grinder,” replied Claire Labine promptly.
It wasn’t quite the answer we expected. But there are good reasons for it. Take, for example, the problem of the plot.
“We worked on the characters and the story for about two years before the show started,” Paul Mayer explained. “When we began, we were interested in the impact on a large, loving, Irish Catholic family of the death of the oldest son. We started the slow process of working toward his death from the first day of the show.
“In order to make audiences familiar with some of the background and to show why people cared about him, we showed a lot of flashbacks of each person’s most beautiful moment with Frank. After four weeks of that, everybody said, ‘You can’t kill him. You absolutely can’t.’ We had two years of storylines projected on the death of Frank Ryan, and then we decided to keep Frank Ryan alive.”
Claire shudders at the memory. “It all really got desperate for us at the point at which it was decided Frank would live. At that point we were writing literally only a week ahead of what was happening in the story, which is terrifying with a serial because it is so relentless. You get to the point where hours count desperately.”
This unanticipated change in plot meant a year of seven-day work weeks for Claire and Paul. They keep to a work schedule which would defeat most people. Fortunately, they are two extraordinarily dedicated writers.
“Sometimes,” Claire admitted, “we both don’t feel like working on the same day. But that’s rare. Collaboration makes it a great deal slower, but I think it makes it a lot better. We both have passionate feelings about the show. We both care a lot about the characters. That’s so very important.
Because they are executive producers of Ryan’s Hope, as well as the headwriters, they have been intimately involved with every aspect of putting the show together. This involvement has led to some headaches and disappointments. Ryan’s Hope was set in New York City deliberately so that the city could be used to give atmosphere to the soap. As Claire and Paul originally conceived the show, much of the action was to take place on city streets and locations. This aspect of their plan has not worked out to their satisfaction.
“If there’s one thing that has disappointed us, it’s been the cost of shooting on location,” Paul explained. “It’s simply staggering. There is no way to do it economically. We did Mary and Jack’s wedding on location as well as a few other scenes, but it’s been a lot less than we thought it would be. When you start moving that van and those cameras out, it really starts to cost heavily.”
Other problems have arisen in the area of casting.
“You start out with a character in mind and you cast as close as you can, and then you put two people together and nothing happens. You have a love story projected and it just doesn’t work. You put two other people together and there’s chemistry,” Paul explained.
Still and all, casting has its own special rewards—particularly when you strike it rich with an actress like Emmy award-winner Helen Gallagher, who plays the irrepressible Maeve Ryan.
“You can put Helen Gallagher with almost anybody and the story works,” insisted Paul.
Claire agreed. “Helen has done more than anyone in terms of taking the character and making it her own. We could never, ever think of anyone else being Maeve now. If she left, it would be like the world ending. It would be like our own mother going away!”
This intense concern for their characters is normal for Claire and Paul, in an abnormal kind of way. “Claire and I have an absolutely schizophrenic world and these people are all very real. We invest a lot in them.”
“We tend to be positive about life and we don’t want characters who are hand wringers,” said Claire vehemently. “People get into trouble, and the people who love them feel a natural concern. But our people are stronger than people we have created on other shows when it comes to dealing with difficulty. We made them up stronger. They came into our heads stronger. You know that a Maeve Ryan is really going to be able to handle almost anything.”
As Claire and Paul discussed these characters they have created, their conversation hummed with enthusiasm and mutual understanding. Claire’s warmth and exuberance neatly balance Paul’s ironic wit and reserved manner. They sat side by side, a natural team.
They have known one another for five years, ever since they were both subwriters on Where The Heart Is. “It was my first soap,” Paul recalled. “I called her and said, ‘Hi, how do we do this?’ We began talking on the phone, and we liked each other. We liked the show and we liked writing soaps.” They took the job of headwriters jointly, and then went on to Love Of Life where they enjoyed two successful years. The idea for Ryan’s Hope was developed while they were at Love Of Life.
“We came from terribly different environments. Claire comes from a rather conservative, Roman Catholic family, living mainly in the South. I come from a Jewish-Irish family, raised in Hollywood and New York in the theater. And yet, by the time we met, we both had stable marriages, we both had three children, and we were both active in inner city political problems. We came from entirely different worlds, and yet we arrived in the same places.”
The two writers work at Claire’s home in Brooklyn where they meet early each morning to plan plotlines, rewrite scripts, make phone calls, drink coffee and just plain talk. They have developed a method of working together which suits them.
“When Claire, and I work together, I tend to provide a lot of raw material, and she sculpts it,” said Paul.
“We each have our own areas of concern and fortunately they complement each other,” added Claire.
“Claire is more at ease with herself if people can be brought into harmony by the end of a scene. I say, if there’s a reconciliation, then there’s no reason for people to watch tomorrow!”
“Paul has a better developed sense of what is dramatic. I would be perfectly happy to write endless lovely scenes between Maeve and Mary. But when you put our two concerns together, it works out very well.”
Audiences apparently agree because Ryan’s Hope, the very youngest soap, has a healthy share of the ratings and a devoted following of fans after one short year.
For Claire Labine and Paul Mayer it has been both a short year and a long year. While they both insist that they would never, ever write another soap, they are obviously hooked on the one they have. Has it been worth the effort?
“There is no amount of money in the world,” Claire stated slowly and emphatically, “that can pay you for writing a serial because it is too much work.” Paul nodded knowingly. They have each devoted a solid year of their lives to this project and they have made sacrifices for it. Yet, clearly they want to continue.
“I care about it more than I did a year ago,”
Claire asserted. “I get sad and tired and discouraged more easily than
I did a year ago. But then one day you tune in and they’ve done a show
which just sings and you think, ‘Oh God, they are so beautiful and that
was so good.’ And you cry and you laugh and you get all excited and yes,
it makes it all worthwhile!”
The writers explain a twist of the plot to Malcolm Groome, Pat Ryan, and Emmy Award winner Helen Gallagher, Maeve. Of her they say, "We could never think of anyone else as Maeve now."
Many writers find it impossible to work with a collaborator. Not so with Claire and Paul. They only find it next to impossible. They usually write in Claire's apartment.
Many critics consider RH the best written daytime drama. Actresses like Ilene Kristin can spread their creative wings with Claire and Paul's tender phrases and very human situations.
They've involved Seneca, John Gabriel (center), in the timely, controversial topic of mercy killing. He was convicted, but Claire and Paul gave him a last minute reprieve.
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