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Robin Amos Kahn

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Down the Rabbit Hole

Posted: 03/27/2013 1:42 pm

When I was a little girl, starting around 8 or 9 years-old, I used to dress up in a sheet, wrapping it around myself like a ball gown, and pretend that I had just won an Oscar. I would give my thank you speech into my mirror and always thank my mother, my father and my director.

There weren't many well-known women writers or directors in Hollywood at that time, and very few women playwrights, but I did know actresses (or actors as they now known). I knew Natalie Wood, Jane Fonda and Shirley MacLaine, Sophia Loren and Bette Davis. Well, not personally, but I watched their work and I could see myself in movies, being funny, preferably with Paul Newman, my biggest crush.

Unfortunately, I didn't look like Natalie, Jane or Sophia and I didn't have the talents of Bette or Shirley -- it turned out I really was a writer. I studied acting and loved it, but once I got on a set, I felt self-conscious and anxious, I really preferred being behind the scenes.

By the age of 27 I was living in Hollywood, writing screenplays and working on The Young and the Restless. After a couple of years, I became a writer for the show (the last thing I ever imagined myself doing). I had written a screenplay about working on a soap and the head writer immediately hired me as soon as he read it. It was, unfortunately, a comedy, and Y&R is, unfortunately, not -- so it wasn't a perfect match. After one year he fired me and I went back to writing screenplays and then a year later he re-hired me. Writing the show felt like being a ballerina on stage with 50 pound weights strapped on my feet.

I was dancing, but I couldn't really let loose and move. I was trapped in the formula, the "blueprint" for the show and all soaps:

Carol: Lance, I need to know... are you... are you --

Lance: Am I what, Carol?

Carol: Are you... (long pause, fighting back tears) ... seeing someone?

Lance: Seeing... someone?

Carol: Another... (pause) woman...?

Lance: (pause) Another woman?

Carol: Yes. Your shirts smell of perfume, you're always working late, you have charges on your credit cards for flowers and jewelry I've never received...

Lance: You looked at my credit card statement?

Carol: I am asking you...are you in love with someone else?

Lance: (long pause) I'm sorry.

Carol: Are you saying....?

Lance: I am in love...with someone else...

Carol: Oh God. Oh my God! Who is she?

Lance: Carol... (pause) I really... I -- I'd rather not --

Carol: Tell me.

Lance: No...

Carol: I need to know....I -- I must --

Lance: (long pause) Your sister...

Carol: (pause) ... what?

Lance: Yes.

Carol: Betty?

Lance: No, Veronica.

Carol: You hate Veronica!

Lance: Not anymore.

Carol: (long beat) Oh. My. God.

Lance: I'm leaving you.

Carol: You're what? (beat) You're leaving me?

Lance: (pause) Yes.

Carol: What are you saying?

Lance: I'm f*&king leaving you Carol, because you're dense. You're an idiot. I hate you.

Okay, the last line would never have been on a show, but you get the picture.
On and on it goes, year after year. Stalling, re-hashing, re-marriages, re-divorcing.

In comedy, you say whatever comes to your mind and if you have a slightly funny mind, it's often funny. In soaps, you have to do everything in subtext and long pauses and it could take you 19 scenes to get to the point. It's a challenging exercise, but if you want to dance without those 50 pound weights, you're out of luck. Not that I don't have tremendous respect for really good soap operas -- The Sopranos, in fact, was one of the best soaps of the past 20 years. There is a true genius in story telling in these long-running shows, and the day-to-day writing of them is challenging.

I kept trying... the money rolled in, the shows, one year at a time -- Days Of Our Lives, Search for Tomorrow, The Young and the Restless, Guiding Light. (That was my favorite, they allowed me to be a little funny). I would get hired and then burn out after a year. I couldn't seem to break into sitcoms because they were also a formula, three jokes per page, minimum. They were dominated by men -- unlike soaps, which had many women headwriters and gay men -- sitcoms in the 80s and 90s were still ruled by men, not unlike the world of Mad Men, with a few women like Peggy Olsen running around, but mostly women secretaries and production assistants.

The best job I ever had was watching 20 years of General Hospital, alone in a small screening room at ABC in Century City. I would bring snacks and lunch and watch hundreds of videotapes of every year and then at the end I wrote a sample script and they didn't hire me. But that was fun -- being paid to watch a show's entire history, eat snacks and take naps.

I finally got married and moved back to New York, where most soaps were taped, but I could never seem to get hired when I actually lived here. I went out for drinks with one producer, who within 20 minutes was completely plastered and I honestly couldn't figure out if she was propositioning me or hiring me. Since nothing happened the following day, I figured she was propositioning me. I once got an audition for another soap, but I was deep into morning sickness and kept throwing up after writing every scene. Actually, now that I write that I wonder if it was the hormones or the actual writing of the scenes.

Years ago, I read an interview with the actress (or actor) Swoosie Kurtz. She was asked why she never had any kids and she said this, "I realized when I got into this business that it was all consuming and I loved it. If I had had kids, then they would be my main focus and the truth is, I can only do one thing well."

I related to that. Once I had my daughter, I kept writing, but I didn't have the drive to push my career as hard and then life got even more complicated, caring for my parents. My father died fairly suddenly of a stroke, but my mother needed attention for a good seven years. So writing and show business was on a back burner and I worked at whatever job I could get to bring in money. My marriage suffered, my daughter suffered, everything eventually fell apart.

Out of the ashes of that period, my writing career re-emerged and it feels like I have a second chance. One day, completely unexpectedly a phone call came from a director who had read a play I co-wrote years ago -- he wanted to do a staged reading in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at the Berkshire Playwright's Lab. I was so happy to have the opportunity to see my work on a stage.

It was a glorious experience, the actors were all fantastic, the director was amazing, the theater, The Mahaiwe, was beautiful, like a Broadway theater, the audience was packed, the laughter was like medicine. At the end of the 90 minutes I felt joyous and alive, in a way I hadn't felt in such a long time.

That play, Scrambled Eggs is about to open in New York City at the Beckett Theater. There is no one named Lance, or Veronica, Betty or Carol and no one is sleeping with anyone's sister. Well, actually, that's not true. One minor character is sleeping with two sisters... but that's just a side joke.

It's a comedy and there are no 50 pound weights on anyone's feet. It's about relationships, and sex, and life. I will be there on opening night, not wearing a sheet, and not collecting an Oscar in front of millions of people, but for me, it will be the equivalent -- just by being able to be myself and write what I believe in, what I love to write, I've won. It just goes to show you that the dreams you had when you were a kid are still alive in you, and that it's never to late to live them. Okay, maybe you're never going to be a major league pitcher, but you can still coach a baseball team or play baseball. You can sing in a choir, or write poetry, or paint, or dance.

And, just so you know, on opening night I will be terrified -- in my life, that's always in my script too. But I'm not going to let wobbly knees keep me from dancing through it all.

 

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