Saturday, February 25, 2017

The Loneliest Liberal: Mum’s the word

I’m going to be in a TV soap opera

By James Knudsen

It’s probably a safe bet to say, that among the contributors and consumers of Moristotle & Co., there aren’t a lot of soap-opera devotees. The genre is one of those things that elites on the coasts look down their noses at while they make high-minded jokes about the low-brow art form. Still, it does pay.
    I had a brief dalliance with soaps while a Marine stationed in Tennessee, back in the early eighties. One Life to Live and All My Children were the shows my roommates and I watched before marching off to class. I never regained the habit after leaving for the West Coast, but I do recall a genuine interest in the story lines and wondering what the next twist might be. As an actor, the work never held much interest for me. It is often viewed as a stepping stone to other types of work in television or film. Julianne Moore, Tommy Lee Jones, and Susan Sarandon, to name a few, are all Oscar-winning actors who spent part of their early careers on soap operas.
    Still, when I signed up for a Saturday workshop several years ago, taught by one of the top casting directors in the soap-opera field, I went into it certain that I would learn little, while feeling superior. I wasn’t wrong. I was completely wrong. And I retold that story when my phone rang on January 30. The call was from the casting department of a well-known soap. (I am bound not to reveal anything before it airs, so details are scant.) Would I be interested in doing background work the following Monday? “Yes!” I replied.
    One of the things they want to know right away is, “Have you ever worked on the show before?” No, February 6, 2017 (Ernestine would have turned 91 that day) would be my first day on the set of a major daytime drama. That meant I would have to provide proof of my eligibility to work and so on. It also meant it would be my first look at the set of a soap opera that cranks out close to 250 hour-long episodes per year. That is an amazing amount of material. To do that requires that the people creating the show do it as efficiently as possible. And everything about the operation is geared toward that.

The first thing one notices upon entering the studio, located on the second floor, is that every square foot of the ceiling is occupied by lighting instruments. Lights are also hanging much closer to the actors, often at eye level. You also become aware that the place is huge. I didn’t have a tape measure handy, but I’d guess that the square footage is somewhere between a supermarket and a big-box store. Most of the filming takes place on what can only be described as a “street” made of polished concrete. On either side of the street are various sets where scenes are shot. These can be reconfigured to be any manner of setting – lobby, house, elevator. At the end of the street is a permanent set where most of the action is set, including my incredibly brief appearance. Cameras, sound equipment, and crew roll noiselessly from place to place. I was in the sixth scene and we began shooting Scene 6 before the first hour of the workday was completed. Efficiency experts would do well to study what happens on the set of a soap opera.
    Critics of all kinds would also do well to have a better understanding of what goes on. Having spent most of my time as an actor performing on stage, I now see that, from an artistic perspective, I’ve led a charmed life. The stage, while not the ideal environment, has far fewer distractions when compared to a television studio. There are the aforementioned lights, cameras, and microphone boom, plus monitors displaying in realtime the action being shot, voices coming over the loudspeakers to offer line corrections and announce the next scene, and crew members a few feet away. And always in the background, the need to keep the process moving. I performed the two crosses that made up my day of work, two times each; one for practice, one for the reel. That was it.
    I am reliably informed that we had a director, but I never met that individual. By comparison, theatre usually involves numerous rehearsals of scenes, with time for discussion with the director. My only interactions were with crew, stage managers, and technicians, so any artistic process, was the responsibility of the actor. Television, while a collaboration between many individuals, is a much different medium, requiring very different skills, compared to the collaborative art form that is theatre.
    My day was over by 10 a.m. I’m waiting for my phone to ring again. Aren’t we all.

Copyright © 2017 by James Knudsen


  1. Good for you James. But how are we who never watch soaps to know when to tune in?

  2. Great insight into that process James, I used to watch some of the old standbys like General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, Dark Shadows and MASH. Some might not think of MASH as a soap but I always did. And while I knew it must be grueling I never thought of the distractions. Interesting, as the "loneliest liberal", that you speak of the coastal elites as-dare I say it?-a conservative might. And you are doing something we all might aspire to, making a living with your art. I only wish!

    1. I'll work my way through this in reverse- Making a living with my art? Making money, yes, enough to live on, no. As to my sounding suspiciously like a conservative, rest assured, my liberal bona-fides are solid, but let's be honest liberals and admit, soap operas are conversation fodder for the wine and cheese party. M.A.S.H. as soap opera- I never made that link, seemed too episodic for that. Still waiting for the phone to ring.

  3. Congratulations on the strange experience. I once did a comparable gig for a Broadway Musical star. Fun. Wierd.