The Sturm und Drang of soap-style acting is a much-parodied cliché. But acting in soap operas is a tough job that provides actors the opportunity to grow in their art while making a good living.
"Even among actors there's a perception that soap acting is directed to an unsophisticated audience, so you have to lay it on heavy," said Pacific Resident Theatre actor Frank Collison, who worked as a recurring character last year on Passions. But, Collison told me, "A lot of terrific writers and actors work for soaps."
After a week of watching various daytime dramas and talking to Collison and others, I'm awed by the challenges involved. As James Reynolds—police commander Abe Carver on Days of Our Lives for almost two decades—told me, "I get to play every single emotion from ecstasy to despair." As a longtime stage actor (with a touring one-man show, I, Too, Am America, about the African-American experience), Reynolds has perspective on the benefits of soap acting. He said that at least five actors whose work he grew up admiring came onto Days briefly and couldn't cut it. "It's consistent, and challenging, work," he affirmed.
Clearly it takes a disciplined and talented actor to succeed in soaps, as former soap stars Meg Ryan, Martin Sheen, Sigourney Weaver, and James Earl Jones will attest.
Like sitcoms, soaps are shot with three or more cameras, allowing for master shots and coverage simultaneously. In soaps, however, an entire, finished episode (or more) is shot in one day (as compared to seven to 10 days for a nighttime series), and the director, a remote figure in a booth, is editing the show in the camera while you're acting.
Camera angles are continually changing, with a red light atop one of the cameras indicating the "hot" camera. Nevertheless, with all these cameras pointing at you, you must be "on" all the time, as in a play, for the sake of the other actors, and because—as soap teacher/former producer Lyle Hill of Weist-Barron-Hill said—if you're the "listener," and in fact you're mentally planning your weekend—that discourages the director from doing reaction shots of you.
If you've worked on-camera in other TV genres, it's not that big an adjustment, noted Collison, who spent six years on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. "You're not as concerned as you are in film about throwing the shot if you dip your head an inch or two to the right." Of course, if there's a tight close-up on you, you do have to be careful, and you'll want to know where the camera is cutting you.
Indeed, you need a general hyper-awareness. "It's a dance between actors, cameras, boom mike—sometimes two or three of them—cable pullers, the director up in the booth," explained Steve Carlson, whose book Hitting Your Marks (Michael Wiese Productions, 1998) provides excellent detail about working on sets. You must do during shooting exactly what you did during the run-through, because the director will be following the pattern of speech and movement you established then. Soaps are not the place to get impulsive.
Also you'll need to pay attention to the cameras during rehearsal and run-through. Notice, for example, when the boom's passing over your head. Otherwise, you'll be distracted in the middle of a performance.
"In regular shooting they'll set up the scene for you," added Carlson. Here you have to make sure the camera sees you, you're clear of other people, and you're in your light. If you don't hit your mark, you won't look good, and they might not use your close-up.
The sets are already there and lit; flick a switch, and voilà—virtually no setup time. You can usually just walk from one set to another. So don't count on the crew's set-up time to go over your lines.
Indeed, learning your lines is a big deal. Contract players (who usually have a seven-year gig, as opposed to under-fives, day players, and recurring characters) often memorize their lines the night before (after a full day on the set). And there's no time for line flubs, because of the on-camera editing. "You can make about two mistakes a year and keep your job," warned Carlson.
Contract players can have as many as 20 to 30 pages of dialogue or more daily, several days in a row. Compare that to four to seven pages a day in film—if you're lucky. Some shows provide people to run lines with you during hair and makeup. Having worked as both a contract player (on General Hospital and others) and a recurring character (on The Bold and the Beautiful), Carlson can attest that the more you use your memory, the more it develops. After being away from soaps for four years, he found memorizing hard when he returned, but he knew if he got a regular role that muscle would shape up. The lines get locked into your short-term memory, he explained: "Half an hour later I couldn't tell you what they were."
Reynolds breaks down the scene as he memorizes. He knows his character well enough to know what his reactions will be, and it also helps that he knows the other characters, and the actors who play them. Then during rehearsal he makes adjustments based on blocking and other actors' choices. The frenetic pace is similar to working in summer stock.
Rehearsals for soaps are really more like techs, where you get your blocking and some basic direction and adjustments, which you're expected to nail immediately. There's no time to discuss the nuances of character motivation. Nor can you ask for another take.
The conventions of soap writing demand realistic characters in drastic situations. When we spoke, Reynolds' character had separated from his wife, who'd lost her baby, gone crazy, escaped from a mental institution—and may be with another man.
And soaps move slowly. Carlson, who was a writer on One Life to Live, said, "You realize people will watch it two to three times a week. You can only progress the story so fast."
Pregnant pauses are a mainstay of the genre. "Often the camera is taking a reaction shot within the context of the scene, so there might be a pause in the dialogue while they do it," explained Reynolds. "You've got to stay in the scene for your fellow actor and for the sense of the scene. They're brief seconds, anyway."
"Having to hold the pauses that long is very unnatural," admitted Carlson. "You just have to realize they're fading out on you."
The "tag"—those de rigueur silent close-ups on the key player at the end of every scene—also slows things down. "They help in the event that the fan was doing something else and missed something that happened in the scene," explained Lyle Hill. "It makes the viewers curious, and sets them up for the next scene or episode."
Because characters tend to be written fast, and in black and white, it's the actor's task to make them dimensional and real, observed Laura James, who teaches soap acting at The Acting Workshop. Subtext, she said, is very important.
"Villains, bitches, drug addicts, authoritarian figures—all must have vulnerability and be very specific, as all acting must be." You won't necessarily be given the textual transitions as you would in the classics. The characters may go from one extreme to the other, and you have to justify that. "You have to get to the essence of a character quickly and transfer it effortlessly," James elaborated. "Actors tend to settle for not doing much. But your choices must be deep and truthful, extraordinary, risky—not necessarily big but digging-down-deep personal. As Stanislavski said, do it effortlessly but very specifically." Hill pointed out the importance of your character being consistent day to day in his or her attitudes toward subjects.
Elizabeth Karr, who learned the ropes by doing extra work on soaps and then graduated to larger roles, approaches all her work, whether onstage or on-camera, the same way: "What's my objective, what's my action, did I accomplish it, where's the conflict?" (Caveat: Don't do extra work so often that you're recognizable as such and therefore categorized by the director, warned Hill.) Karr said Rosemary Harris taught her to think the thoughts of the character—think, not indicate, is the operative word here. She conceded that, in soaps, sometimes there is so much to shoot in a day that acting values have low priority. That only makes it more of a challenge for the actor, of course.
Reynolds finds that his emotions are very accessible now, due to his years of experience in acting—and life. "I'm much better at it this year than last and will be better next year," he said, although that has less to do with that it's a soap and more that he's "out there and doing it." Yet he wouldn't be out there and doing it so often if he weren't on a soap. BSW