Jean Passanante may be best known as a soap opera writer, but she started out in theatre as an actor and director, and worked at several major institutions, including New York Theatre Workshop and the O’Neill Theatre Center. After more than two decades in an acclaimed soap career, Passanante has retired, and spoke with me in June about her passion for and connection to the theatre, and her plans for her next phase.
NATHANIEL G. NESMITH: You graduated from Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis. Was theatre your main interest then?
JEAN PASSANANTE: Yes, actually, it was. I acted a lot in plays in high school. I think, though, the way I grew up, it was sort of understood that I would do something a little less what my parents might have considered flaky—that I would probably major in English or teach at a university, which my sister had done, something like that. Yes, I was definitely a theatre person.
You later went to Dartmouth. What was your major there?
Drama. They make a distinction at Dartmouth between theatre and drama. They want it to sound more academic, so it is drama.
One of your classmates there was Peter Parnell. Did you ever act in any of his plays while at Dartmouth?
Yes, I was trying to remember the name of it, but I can’t. He wrote one-acts at the time and was very much aimed toward being a playwright. He was doing his homework. He actually, I think, would admit that at that time he was kind of imitating the styles of various other playwrights to determine his own style. He won the big playwriting competition at Dartmouth, I think, a couple of years in a row. We were good friends. In fact, we shared a house with some other people for a while.
In the 1970s, you began to gain respect as a director. One play you directed in Boston was Edward Moore’s The Sea Horse, and one critic said of your direction that it was “crisp and confident.” Why didn’t you stay with directing?
Well, you know, it was hard, particularly as a woman at that time. That play had started in a small theatre company in Vermont, near Dartmouth. And we had taken it to Boston. I was not at all clear what to do next, how to launch myself, but I knew I wanted to be in New York. It became pretty clear quickly that I could get work in theatre administration. Not working was never an option for me, since I did not have a trust fund. I had to work. I guess now people would have to do internships. I was lucky because I got paid work, first as an assistant to a literary agent, and then I started to get jobs at Williamstown and the O’Neill. In New York I also produced a pair of one-acts, Window Washer and Turnbuckle, by John Sayles. I got swept up in it and I did well at it and just put directing aside. I just assumed I would go back to it, but it just never happened.
You also acted in Sayles’s film debut as a director, Return of the Secaucus Seven, along with David Strathairn. How did this come about for you? What can you share about the impact of that movie on your life?
I was still directing at that point in summer stock at a theatre called Mount Washington Valley Theatre in North Conway, N.H. I was sort of recruited from Dartmouth; I started as an actor there and I ended up directing one play per season and the last season as co-producer. At that company I met a lot of the people who were ultimately actors in Secaucus Seven: John Sayles, Gordon Clapp, David Strathairn, and Maggie Renzi; most of them had been theatre majors at Williams College. It was sort of a Williams/Dartmouth collective of young people in their 20s doing non-Equity theatre. John really wanted to direct films and he wanted to direct his own films. He wanted to be an independent filmmaker. At that point, he had sold a novel or two and a couple of screenplays. He channeled all of his funds, his personal fortune, into making Secaucus Seven, which he made for $60,000, which now seems incredible. Because he is a really smart guy, he knew the way to do it was with friends and to do it with a readymade kind of venue. We had an inn where we all lived, and he shot a lot of the scenes in that inn. It was a ski lodge—a really decrepit ski lodge–and we had a theatre, and most importantly, there were a group of eager young actors who had never made a movie before who were very excited to do it for $60 a week or whatever we got paid at the time. And there was a crew that John knew from Boston that was willing to do it for not very much money. It was done on a shoestring budget, and there was a connection with that theatre company.
As far as its influence on me, first of all, it created a community of people that I got to know very well and became close to and worked with one way or another over time. Also, when you are trying to get work in theatre, or anywhere, really, it is a plus if you can stand out in some way. I became known as a movie actress for a minute, which is never what I thought I would be. I made only one other movie with John (Lianna), a very tiny part. It made me a kind of interesting oddity, I think. It also taught me a lot about collaboration and people joining together to work for the greater good for not much money. What is important is the community and the work itself, not all the trappings of luxury, which positioned me well to go on and work in nonprofit theatres for many years after that.
About Return of the Secaucus Seven, one critic wrote, “Although some of the acting is awkward, there are some splendid portrayals, especially by Adam LeFevre and Jean Passanante.”
I was thrilled, of course. I don’t know how seriously I took it, because I had not had good luck going to auditions or anything. I think to an ordinary casting director I would have looked like a character actor who would maybe work if I had a nose job and lost 20 pounds. It just wasn’t going to happen for me and I kind of knew that, but it was thrilling to get that kind of notice. I see Secaucus Seven now and I look very tense to myself.
What about David?
David was in the company that I mentioned, Mount Washington Valley Theatre Company. David was the star; he was 21 or whatever. He was always somebody you couldn’t take your eyes off. I think about this a lot now. What is it about him? First of all, he is a very smart and gifted actor; yet there is something about him. Somebody asked me once, “What do you think star quality is?” I don’t know if that is what David has, because that is a word that is shaped by commercial enterprise. He has just got a profoundly interesting personality that reveals itself in his acting. He is an extraordinary person and I saw that firsthand when I cast him in things. He had been a clown with Barnum and Bailey. He could kind of do anything. I learned an enormous amount from just watching him work and seeing how he was able to dive into things without seeming to put a lot of intellectual effort into it. It was emotional and imaginative. I have been so interested to see him have this very consistent movie career over all this time. I am not surprised at all.
He was so much fun to work with, there was a lot of tomfoolery with him. In this acting company, we were in a production of a play called Drunkard. It was kind of a musical. We played an old farm couple; we were supposed to be like the couple in American Gothic. We had to walk out, I had a basket under my arm, and I was supposed to take his arm and walk out, then look stern and old. I reached for his arm, and he had actually taken his arm and put it inside his shirt and very carefully pinned up his sleeve, so it looked like he had his arm amputated. He did this as we walked onstage. He did it just to see if I would laugh. Of course, I dug my head into my arm and tried not to, but I had to hold on to his little pinned sleeves. [Laughs] He is a wonderful person, but back then, you couldn’t trust him! There was always the risk that he’d do something to make you break up when you were onstage with him.
In the early 1980s, you were artistic director of the New York Theatre Workshop, a theatre that’s responsible for developing and producing new playwrights and directors. What would you like to share about that phase of your life now?
That was a great phase. I learned a tremendous amount from that. Partly I learned what not to do again—if I had the opportunity. I think that I didn’t take a strong enough leadership role with the board of directors, and that would have helped me a lot. But it was complicated because the board of directors existed before the theatre. Stephen Graham had funded a nonprofit entity for producing plays; most of the people on the board were commercial producers. There was obviously the idea of workshopping a play cheaply and then moving it into a commercial production. When I came in, I felt uncomfortable with that. It felt like an abuse of our nonprofit status. So, with Stephen’s approval—I never got an argument from him, he was great—we really turned it into a theatre company. New York Theatre Workshop really became a producing theatre with a kind of annual agenda and purposefulness to our artistic mission.
The thing I was most proud of was the development of the New Directors Project. I got the idea for it from a guy I knew, Jim Peskin, who was a director. He had gone to Yale, and he came to me, and he said, “You know I am looking for work as a director, and I have to tell you, it is impossible. How do you go to someone and say, ’Hi, give me your budget; I have never directed in a theatre your size before, but I want to direct a play’? It is kind of like that thing people say, ‘Call me when you got some experience.’” He was saying, “I don’t know how I can ever get the experience. There is no one who is going to hire me because I don’t have the experience.” It seems like a Catch-22. So we created the New Directors Project as a way to give directors that first opportunity to direct with a small budget but with very talented collaborators, designers, actors, etcetera. That first season I think we had Michael Greif, Liz Diamond, Michael Engler, R.J. Cutler, David Warren—some very talented people. Michael Greif—this was his first job in New York, and he always credited me with that. Any time I saw him, he would introduce me to whoever he was with as, “This is the person who gave me my first job in New York.” It worked for him.
I was there for four years, and they decided to make another choice and they brought in Jim Nicola, which was very smart of them.
You worked with Richard Romagnoli and Cheryl Faraone when New York Theatre Workshop presented Sheldon Rosen’s Souvenirs in 1984, and they later founded Potomac Theatre Project (PTP), which is still running and producing plays. What was it like working with them?
They were enormously influential for me and New York Theatre Workshop. In those years, I learned two things: I got used to working on the cheap end. But I also wanted to make New York Theatre Workshop a theatre that had a future and a purpose other than just to showcase work for commercial producers. They had been producing work at a place called New York Theatre Studio, under an Off-Broadway contract. And it became pretty clear that we would not be able to function with any continuity if we went with that kind of contract if we wanted to have a season. Richard and Cheryl really taught me how to do that. They said, “Here is when you have to make choices about the money you have; this is where you can put it. Pay what you can pay, but the point is to put the work out there and to have some consistency.” They really taught me all of that production savvy; I think that really helped launch us and made us able to produce. It was two plays a year, plus a workshop, plus the New Directors Project. I think if Richard and Cheryl hadn’t come into it, we would never have been able to marshal our finances to make that happen.
In 1986, New York Theatre Workshop also presented John Guare’s Bosoms and Neglect. What was that like?
It was a great experience. John is such an extraordinary person. It was a play that he had done on Broadway earlier and was not entirely happy with it, and he wanted to make some changes in it. Anne Meara played the mother, and it had a really great cast. John would change things up to the last minute. He was inspired to add odd little moments. I had worked with him years before, when I worked at Lincoln Center as assistant company manager and some of his one-acts were produced at the time. His movie Atlantic City had just come out and my movie Secaucus Seven had just come out, and he thought it was hilarious that we were both in movies that had the names of New Jersey’s cities in the titles. We had this never-ending game where he would come up to me and would replace a word in a play title with a New Jersey town. He would walk by my desk, and he would go, “I remember Mahwah,” and I would do the same to him whenever I saw him. I was one of many young assistant types, and no one of any power. At the end of it all, he came to me and said something like, “Will remember you, you bob to the surface.” I was so flattered by that. So he found out I was running a theatre and he was very supportive; it is possible that he even approached me about doing the play. We went in with a strong relationship. I am not sure how he felt about the production ultimately, but I think he was able to accomplish what he wanted to accomplish with it.
Also in 1986 at New York Theatre Workshop, 1951 was presented—a Hollywood Blacklist musical conceived and directed by Anne Bogart with a text she and Mac Wellman adapted from transcripts of the hearings before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. What can you share about that?
That was very interesting. She had started working on it at UCSD with students there. I went out to see it and it was on the road to being something really interesting, but it was not there quite yet. She had a different overriding concept for it in New York, and it had a different focus, and Mac Wellman did more writing on it. I felt when it was over that it wasn’t quite done yet; I think there was more we could have done with it, but it was fascinating. She was amazing to watch: how she worked with the actors, built the show around the text and around the actors, and around all the artists involved. And Mac Wellman is a terrific artist. I had a baby on opening night of that production, so my memories are a little fuzzy because of that.
Another play I must ask you about that was presented in 1987 by New York Theatre Workshop at Perry Street Theatre was Joe Sutton’s As It Is in Heaven, which starred Kevin Spacey. What was it like to work with Joe Sutton?
I loved that play. I think it is so prescient. It is about the religious right moving into the mainstream of the Republican Party. Who would imagine that? It was so interesting, because there is a line where the money guy is telling the political operatives, “There is one thing your candidate must agree to if you want my money, and that is he has to propose an amendment to the Constitution that the United States is a Christian nation.” That got an audible gasp from the audience. It was just so unthinkable. People were horrified by that. And now it is practically where we are. It is the threat that hangs over our heads in many ways. I think it was a play with a lot of smarts—a lot of wisdom. Kevin Spacey was a wonderful actor; he was young. He was just starting to become well known. He was kind of ambitious, and, I think, a little upset the play wasn’t moving to Broadway. It was a prickly cast and there were some adventures. I came into rehearsal wheeling my baby. I held her over my head and said, “I have a baby, don’t be mean to me.” Then we were able to talk; it was a very nice leveling device. It was an interesting experience and really a terrific play. I guess it would be considered dated now, but at the time, it was wildly progressive.
Tony Kushner was an associate director at New York Theatre Workshop. Was he there during your time?
Yes, I hired him. He had been in St. Louis as, I think, an assistant on an NEA Directors Program. He was really a director at that point. He had gone to NYU as a director. He was recommended to me by someone who knew him through the St. Louis directing NEA grant. Again, this is all about my baby, but it is hard to ignore: I wanted a new artistic associate who could be a real artistic voice in the theatre, and I interviewed a lot of very good people; when they came to my office, I had the baby with me because that was just the way I did it. Most people would come in, they would just have blinders on, and they would pretend there was no baby in the room. There is no elephant in this room; I am just going to talk to you about my artistic ideas. Tony comes in and he starts to talk, and he just stopped, and he said, “I’m sorry, I’m losing my train of thought, that baby is so adorable. Can I hold her?” [Laughs loudly.] Well, that wasn’t the only reason I hired him, but he was a human—a human being. He was reacting to something real that was going on. It wasn’t all in his head and I thought, “I could work with this guy.”
He was spectacularly the right person for that job. He doesn’t back off. He is very sharp. We would argue; we would have all kinds of different points of view about things, but we would fight through it. I would always appreciate his questions and his demanding perspectives. He has a way of finding the political in the material, and an exacting way of evaluating what the text is really saying, and is that something we want to say or not? I learned an enormous amount from him. He doesn’t let go of the important stuff. I worked with him as long as I could and then they fired me. That was that and Tony stayed on after me.
You were fired? I don’t remember that.
Yes, I was. I think the board felt that I didn’t have a strong enough artistic vision. I also think they thought I didn’t listen to them enough, which is probably true. I think a lot of being an artistic director of a nonprofit theatre is learning to be a strong collaborator with the board of directors, but also maintaining your point of view; I don’t think I really knew how to do that. I didn’t have a strong enough voice. It was very gratifying when so many artists were up in arms when I was fired, because many of them felt I had been an effective producer for them, and had put the artists first. It was actually Tony Kushner who organized a petition and some people I knew had written to the theatre to say this was a terrible mistake; Jim Nicola, whom I didn’t know at the time, has said he didn’t quite get why they were letting me go. He thought I was doing a great job.
But I have to say he has done brilliant things for that theatre, and I have enormous admiration for him. Looking back on it now, I really don’t think I wanted to be a producer at that time. I liked the development part of the work; I like working with directors and writers, but I don’t think I like the broader title as much. I didn’t like being responsible for the whole effort. Especially not the fundraising. Of course, it was upsetting at the time, but I made peace with it, and since I have so much admiration for Jim, I think it was the best thing they could have done, honestly.
Backtracking a little, before that you worked in a management position at the National Playwrights Conference of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. What was it like to work there with Lloyd Richards?
I had been at Williamstown and then Lloyd Richards hired me to be his artistic assistant or whatever my title was. I did all the administrative work to run the play competition and do the casting for the four-week conference during the summer, and then I kind of helped run things for Lloyd. I learned more from Lloyd than anyone else in the universe because he was a strong artistic leader with clear principles and point of view. There was definitely a feeling that this was a community of artists, all of whom had something to say, all of whom should be respected, and that attitude came from Lloyd. And all the actors, directors, and writers that I worked with were just so marvelous.
What can you share about your role as associate director, then artistic director, at New Dramatists?
That was a job I wandered into after the New York Theatre Workshop. What I loved about New Dramatists is that it exists with such a strong mission. It is the only place where I can think of that is just aimed at the playwrights where they used to say—I don’t know if they still do—that the playwright is the artistic director. I wasn’t there to put my stamp on anything. I was really there to help them to do what the writers needed, to hear their work read and discussed while in progress, and that was a role that I really connected to, and I felt very happy in that position. That experience, like that at the O’Neill, made me very sensitive to the work that goes into the construction of dramatic writing.
How did you end up, then, as a writer for soap operas?
At New Dramatists, that was a time of chaos, the transition between my predecessor, Tom Dunn, and me. Joel Ruark was hired as a general manager, and he came to me and said, “You know, we have a lot of financial problems.” I was very anxious about that. I trusted Joel and ultimately he was able to make it all work out in a pretty astonishing way, but at the time it looked bleak. 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).
Of course, I hadn’t seen a soap opera in about 30 years. I figure I could get back into it. I then had the job interview, and they gave me the job. I went back to Joel, and I said, “I don’t think I can do this, and I can’t abandon you,” and he said, “Are you kidding me? I don’t know where our paychecks are coming from. Go, take that job.” We can blame all of it on Joel; I took the job thinking it wouldn’t last very long. It seems so not me in so many ways.
What it was like writing for a soap opera?
Well, I didn’t start as a writer. I started as a network executive. 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. Then apparently all that dramaturgy I had done, and all the fairy tales of my childhood, and all the reading kind of helped me, and I realized I really liked doing it. Linda Gottlieb made it happen. She just gave me a job, so I started writing, and stayed on that writing team, I believe, for about eight years—it could have been 10 years, I really don’t remember.
You won seven Writers Guild Awards and several Emmy Awards for your writing for soap operas. How did this connect to your involvement with theatre?
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.
In what other ways did your theatre experience prepare you for what you had to do to be a successful writer for soap operas?
Working hard. When you are in theatre, you are going to work hard. In a way, dramaturgy prepared me most, and also acting. You have so much to write. The show is on five days a week. There are no repeats or vacation from it, unless there is the O.J. Simpson trial or something like that, which puts you on hold for a little while. But for the most part you are writing day after day, day after day, day after day, day after day, day after day. And you know you are going to write one or two episodes per week. If you’re a staff writer, and if you are the head writer, you are looking ahead. You have to know you have somewhere to go. You are starting out with the character going: What would she want to do next? What would she think? What does she want? Of course, that is what an actor is doing: What does the character want? What is the objective? And with the pressure to write so much, you have to try to stay in touch with that.
How is plot, structure, and character development different in daytime soap opera writing as compared to the theatre?
One thing I should tell you: I never really wrote dialogue. I was always writing the plot for the story. When I started out, I was what you would call the breakdown writer or outline writer—you write the outline of the episodes. Sometimes you would include some dialogue in order to make your point, but what you are really doing is creating a draft that you will then hand to the scriptwriter, and a lot of the scriptwriters were playwrights, because they had a great ear for dialogue. I would like to do it, but I have not done a lot of that. I was always just figuring out what the story was, what the plot was. What I was doing was not like what writing for theatre is at all, except in terms of what is the story you are going to tell.
The other big difference is that for me, good theatre exists in the silences, because there is so much unsaid going on onstage, and so many other factors coming into play: a live audience, the sound, the lighting, everything that you are part of, that you are drawn into. Soaps are very dialogue-heavy. Characters tend to speak their subtext. It’s necessary because viewers aren’t tuning in every day, unfortunately.
You moved on from being an actress to program director to artistic director to soap opera writer, and finally to retirement. You seem to have the talent to know when it is time to move on.
Well, thank you. I hope that is true. I am doing other things—there is this crazy app I work on called Radish, a fiction app. I do that from time to time. But thank you, that’s very nice of you to say that.
Out of all the roles you have played in your various careers, which is most memorable or most significant to you?
Well, there were some pretty powerful times at the O’Neill when I really felt—when the O’Neill was doing what it was really supposed to do—one of those great nights where you saw a play take its path and moved into something and saw the writer feel, Okay, I am getting closer to what I want. Then you see the actors being so collaborative and so interested in being part of it, and you see the look on the playwright’s face saying, Yeah, I am hearing my play being read now by some really terrific people. They may not be perfect, and they may not be the right cast, but they are telling me what I need to know about the play. And I got to be in the room on this occasion—that really was pretty exciting.
Actually, it is an experience with August Wilson I am talking about. I would say the opening night—if there is such a thing at the O’Neill, or the first reading of it—of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. I would say that was the pinnacle. It was clear that something really important was happening.
Nathaniel G. Nesmith (he/him) holds an MFA in playwriting and a Ph.D. in theatre from Columbia University.
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