ON TOP OF THE “WORLD”: CHRIS GOUTMAN '73 HELMS ONE OF DAYTIME’S LONGEST-RUNNING SOAPS
It’s a beautiful day in the picturesque Illinois town of Oakdale—but not for long-suffering heroine Lily Snyder, who has descended, once again, to the depths of misery: Her baby son has been kidnapped by a former family friend seemingly gone loco, and she hasn’t a clue where the two might be hiding. “What if I never see my baby again?” she wails to her equally distraught mother-in-law, her face crumpling into tears for perhaps the 135,000th time in her sorrow-filled life.
Fortuitously, help arrives in the form of two of Oakdale’s finest, promising to locate and return Lily’s baby to safety no matter what it takes. One of the officers moves closer to the mother to offer words of comfort and assurance.
From another room, a thoughtful Chris Goutman '73 observes the unfolding action, weighing every panicked expression, every tense word. As the cop speaks, Goutman leans into a microphone: “He needs to be a little louder.”
He watches a production assistant relay this message to the actor playing the compassionate police officer, and, as actress Martha Byrne (Lily) prepares once more to summon anguish on cue, he turns to another screen in the control room, where young blonde actress Jennifer Landon is modeling a dark wig she’ll wear in an upcoming “evil-twin-with-a-twist” storyline. She turns to the right, then the back, then the left, rubbing her arms in the chilly studio, as Goutman contemplates. He nods his approval.
This is just a glimpse of a typical workday for Goutman, executive producer of the long-running CBS soap opera “As the World Turns.” Goutman assumed the helm of the critically acclaimed, award-winning show in 1999, and nearly a decade later he’s still amazed at the direction his professional path has taken.
“If you asked me 20 years ago if I’d be doing this, I’d have said not in a million years,” he laughs. “But working on soaps has been a lot of fun—every day you’re doing something new, telling a different story. What you create in terms of the working environment is very much a family.”
Goutman got his first crack at producing during his Haverford days, when he produced and directed the plays End Game and Dutchman. Although he’d taken acting classes with Lee Devon at Swarthmore, he went to Carnegie Mellon University to earn his M.F.A. in directing—this side of the business appealed to him because, he half-jokes, “directing is one less person telling you what to do.” He also had a background in both theater and visual arts—his father was a painter and his mother taught drama at Bryn Mawr’s Baldwin School for more than 40 years. Goutman was always as interested in the design element of theater as he was in the performances: “Directing combined the things I loved the most.” During summer breaks from Carnegie Mellon, he’d return to Haverford to direct shows for the Haverford/Bryn Mawr Summer Theater Festival.
After graduate school, Goutman came upon the New York drama scene not as a director, but as an actor. “It was the fastest entry into the business,” he explains. “I had no desire to direct Off-Off-Off-Off Broadway plays for three pennies.” He was fortunate in finding success right off the bat, landing a part in The Promise at the Roundabout Theatre for which he won a Theatre World Award. “I took it as a sign that I had made the right decision.”
In the late '70s and early '80s he started acting on a string of soaps: “Search for Tomorrow” (where he met his wife, actress Marcia McCabe), “The Edge of Night,” “Texas.” (All of these shows are currently off the air; Goutman swears, “The fact that I was on all of them is just a coincidence.”) On “Edge of Night” he scored his first paying stint as a director thanks to a producer who was both a friend and mentor. “It was towards the end of my run,” he says, “and I went up to the producer and said, ‘I have an M.F.A. in directing.’ He said, ‘Would you like to direct?’ I said, ‘Well, yes, that’s why I told you I have an M.F.A. in directing!’” Goutman trained for five weeks before taking his place behind the camera, and instantly remembered why he’d loved it enough to pursue an advanced degree: “I loved the rush I got from it.” He’s still grateful to that producer.
“In every career, there’s a person who believes in you for some reason, and will give you a chance,” he says. “Part of the pleasure of working a soap opera is the mentoring process—for many soap actors, this is their first full-time job, so this is a bit of a school. Part of what I do is teach them how to be an actor, how to appreciate what you have.”
Goutman got his Directors’ Guild of America (DGA) card in 1981, and throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s continued directing soaps, including “Another World” and “All My Children.” In 1998 he was offered the job of executive producer at NBC’s “Another World,” a show that was on the verge of cancellation. Rather than being disheartened by the situation, Goutman found it liberating. “I was in a win-win situation. If it went off the air it wasn’t my fault, so I had eight months to have fun.” After the axe officially fell in 1999, he had no intention of going back to producing: “I thought I’d just go back to directing. I’d only have to come in two days a week, I wouldn’t have to look at the ratings every Thursday.” But Proctor & Gamble, which owned “Another World” and still owns “As the World Turns,” asked him to become EP at the latter, and—“like an idiot,” he laughs—he accepted.
Producing a daily television series is not a job for lightweights: 12 hours a day, seven days a week of reading scripts, viewing tapes, overseeing casting, set designs, costumes, makeup, hair. “It’s five hours of television a week, and every show has 20-odd scenes, so we’re producing 100-odd scenes per week,” says Goutman. “It’s an avalanche of material.”
On “ATWT,” that material often transcends the usual soap trappings of love, lies and schemes, focusing on family drama and storylines with social messages. Last year, a story in which teenage Luke Snyder (son of the aforementioned Lily) realized he was gay and came out to family and friends was embraced by critics (the show was nominated for a GLAAD award) and fans. “The story was met with such acceptance by everyone,” says Goutman, who wants to continue in this vein of relevant storytelling. There are plans, for example, to give Luke a boyfriend in the near future, and Goutman wants it presented in a positive light, showing the perspective of Luke’s family with every step: “They accept their son as gay, but how will they accept a son and his boyfriend?”
Goutman has also supported socially significant topics and organizations outside of the studio. In 2005 he took actress Cady McClain and several crew members to the Caribbean to work with RARE, a group that produces radio soap operas to educate locals on issues of birth and population control. Goutman and the “ATWT” gang conducted three-day workshops on writing, acting and directing. “They create these characters that are archetypal in their community and use them to change lives,” he says.
With groups like RARE using soap operas for their own purposes, it’s hard to believe that the medium is considered by many to be out of fashion. Yet, where there used to be more than 20 daytime soaps on the air, there are now only nine. The cable revolution has contributed to soaps’ slow demise, as well as the increasing popularity of soap-like prime-time dramas. The Internet is also replacing television as a prime source for entertainment.
“The genre has ossified,” says Goutman. “The format is the same—you enter into characters’ lives, learn about them, learn about yourself from them—but in terms of the way we do it, the look of things, we’re antiquated. To survive, we must transform ourselves.” Goutman takes advantage of every available opportunity to promote his show, from crossovers with higher-rated soaps to online character diaries to original Internet series like “InTurn,” a “Real World”-style chronicle of up-and-coming actors who live together as they compete for a contract role on the show.
“I am a shameless salesman,” Goutman proclaims. “I will beg people to watch the show.”
In the future, when the “World” inevitably stops turning, Goutman wants to continue directing for hire, and generate his own material, whether it be in television or independent film (he already has one under his belt, called The Square Root of Three). He also wouldn’t mind running his own community theater.
Whatever happens, he won’t regret the time he spent running the “World.” “The only true thing you know about any television show is that it will eventually go off the air,” he says. “If I had directed a sitcom for five years, would that have been any more fulfilling? I don’t think it would. I like drama—this has been a good gig.”