Former soap scribe Jean Passanante is looking back on her decades in the business. Most recently co-head writer at General Hospital from 2015 to 2017 before retiring from writing soaps, she spoke to American Theatre about her storied daytime career.
Passanante worked for years in the theater, including as artistic director at New Dramatists. When she heard of the playwrights' organization’s financial challenges, Passanante recalled:
I started to think very selfishly about how my babysitter made more money than I did, and then a friend of mine came to me, just coincidentally, someone I knew from St. Louis where I grew up, who was working at ABC. He said, 'I know this is crazy, but the soap opera people keep hiring the same people over and over again to write these shows and they keep failing.' He was foreseeing a moment, which was quite accurate, when cable television was going to swamp broadcast television and there would be so many options for viewers that soap opera was basically going to be hung out to dry. So they needed to make changes. And he said, 'Would you ever be interested in coming in and bringing in interesting writers you have worked with? Finding writers who are interested in writing for soap operas who would ordinarily not be in that category?' I thought that really sounded like fun. What I would be doing seemed like a kind of dramaturgy, and I was also training writers to do something that might earn them a living (and maybe still write their plays).
Then, she became a network executive before evolving into a writer. Passanante added:
It took two years for the executive producer of One Life To Live, Linda Gottlieb, to say, 'Hi, you are doing all this work training people to write for the soaps, why don’t you do it yourself?' I kept saying, 'No, no, I couldn’t possibly do that. I’m not a writer; I’m not a writer.' And she said, 'Don’t be an idiot, try it.' If you understand story structure, how stories get put together, then soap opera writing is a great thing for you.
Did she find a connection between her work in theater and her award-winning work in soaps? She explained:
The connection does apply, because you are always going to be telling a story—even a playwright who does not write traditional narrative drama, like a Mac Wellman, it is still telling a story. It may not follow in a linear path, but there is a beginning, middle, and an end. Of course, the big difference in soap opera is generally there isn’t an end. You have to move the end of one story into the beginning of another one because you want to keep it going. I think I’m an appreciator of storytelling, and I have a sense of narrative. What I think of when I go to a play is, was the ending deserved by the rest of the play? Do I feel that it got me where it wants to go? That is very true of a soap opera. One scene, one character, one characteristic, one desire, one whatever, has motivated a vast amount of story.