Interview with Shelly Altman - General Hospital Head Writer

Get a glimpse into how the #metoomovement became part of the General Hospital landscape. Ten questions with GH head writer Shelly Altman follow where she discusses how she created this story for this iconic soap opera. Learn how the #metoomovement affects nurses. Nurses General Nursing Interview


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Interview with Shelly Altman - General Hospital Head Writer

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Shelly Altman, the head writer of ABC's General Hospital. Shelly has been writing the #GHtoo storyline along with her co-writer Chris Van Etten. In the recent past, Shelley has also been the head writer for The Young and the Restless, and a writer for One Life to Live. Shelly is also responsible for the transgender and Alzheimer stories that have been recurring on GH.

Note to the reader: Alexis Davis, the attorney for the health care staff in the #metoomovement is part of a wealthy, evil and at times lethal empire that came from Greece and settled in the fictional town of Port Charles, New York.

Kick back and get into how the #metoomovement became part of this iconic soap.

9 Questions for Shelly Altman

1. What motivated you to start the #GHtoo storyline?

Actually, that was a storyline that Jean Passanante (retired head writer on GH) and I had been planning to do about two and a half years ago. It was just something that as two women of our age we just were talking about having experienced harassment in a way that wasn't addressed when we were younger. Because of other driving stories we put it off, time passed. This was ironically before the whole #metoo movement became so prevalent. The timing just seemed right. We had the right characters poised in the right position and were able to tell a story that we know does happen in real life. So, we thought that it was an important story to tell now.

2. How did you decide to involve the characters of Kiki and Dr. Bensch, why those two?

Again, going back even 2.5 years ago. They were the characters that we had in mind. We wanted a young woman in a workplace environment who would be facing the workplace harassment as well as sexual harassment. Again, the major focus, the major industry of our fictional town is the hospital. This character seems to be poised to be dealing with this situation with an older person in a more powerful position.

3. Adding Francesca to the mix, the RN, how far along in the story were you? I never saw the episodes of Dr. Bensch coercing her, and I didn't read online about them. Were they filmed?

No, they weren't. Francesca was a new character who was only recently introduced into a different storyline. Because we deal in this kind of drama. We didn't want to show it on camera we wanted it to be a surprise both to Kiki and to the audience. Surprise to the character of Kiki. Again, we were trying to point out that the fact that often harassment is a hidden crime. We intentionally didn't show it because so many women go through this and do not feel comfortable talking about it. It was only through another young woman's struggle that Francesca felt emboldened to come forward.

4. How often do you turn to the news to get story ideas? I know there is a transgender one too now.

Actually, we don't sit down and say what's current and how can we tell a story about that. Our stories almost always grow from the characters themselves but because we are dealing in the contemporary world and I work with such a wonderful team of writers who are very up on their current events. It just seems to happen organically that this is what's on our minds and therefore we put it into the characters' minds as well.

5. Using Alexis Davis to represent Kiki, why not tough as nails lawyer Dianne?

Alexis as the mother of three daughters took this case quite personally. That as the mother of three daughters this case became quite personal for Alexis.

6. Do you think Alexis is more sympathetic given her background as a Cassadine outcast?

Absolutely. That is another storyline that we are dealing with. That is something that Alexis herself is exploring. But I also do think that as a professional of her age. We dealt with this in a meeting that she had with other professional and working women that as a matter of course and as a matter of history she had to have faced some form of harassment in her career and in her ability to get where she was today.

That's exactly the answer, this is a civil case and the District Attorney wouldn't get involved. She will get involved in her own thing. And again, I would imagine but we did not tell this story, Margaux as tough as she is would most likely have been sympathetic to Kiki's cause and as a prosecuting attorney she would have been going against Bensch and not for Bensch. I would say that Scott Baldwin remained true to character.

7. How far in advance is GH written? Is it a collaborative process between you and the other writer on the show, Chris van Etten?

I am looking at a board right now right now we have written through Oct 25th. About 2.5 months plus close to three months ahead. Yes, he is my co-head writer. This is the most collaborative of all art forms I believe. We work with a team of writers who write outlines and then yet another team of writers who write dialogue in script form. I think it is extremely helpful to have people of different sexes writing this story because we can share different viewpoints. Although Chris and I are generally in agreement about almost everything, it still helps to share viewpoints.

8. Can you give me an idea of how your typical day goes? I see you are on the East Coast and GH is filmed on the west coast. How often do you visit the set?

Every few months Chris and I get out there to California. It would be great if it were more often. The fact that we are in New York is simply an accident of location. We don't hire the writers out of NY. We happen to work with this executive producer before when he was located in New York on a different show.

The typical day Monday through Wednesday Chris and I work with a team of outline writers to plot out a week's worth of shows. The remainder of the week I work on a projection for the future for the following week and months down the line. As I said then after the outlines are written and approved by the network and by everybody involved in the show they are then passed onto dialogue writers who write the actual script. Even in that last stage, we are channeling those characters and then we have a script editor who takes a final pass at the script and makes sure everything sounds right. She has been with the show for a very long time and she really has the characters voices in her head.

9. How long does it take you to decide to get rid of a character, either kill them or send them to prison? I know in soaps, no one ever really dies? Is it due to fan criticism?

There are so many reasons those decisions can be made. Sometimes, it is simply because the actors chose to leave the show for other pursuits. Then, as a result, that will dictate the story for us if we know we are losing the actor it's an opportunity to perhaps write the character off in a dramatic way. Sometimes it was the way the story was always designed. There are certain characters brought in knowing well in advance they will be dying or they're here for only a certain amount of time. Those decisions really depend on story to story and actor to actor. There are different reasons fans do not like a character. Is it a character they love to hate like Nell? She is a character the audience loves to hate. Again, she is leaving the show of her own volition. She is such a wonderful actor that she is trying to pursue other things. That was a character we very specifically did not kill off. We hope she will have time to visit us again and we find her a very useful character. If we are getting a response that the audience just didn't like a character our first impulse isn't oh we've got to rid of him because the audience doesn't like him. The first thing we would do is find out why. The second thing we would do is either try to redeem the character or take the character in a direction the audience might respond more favorably to. Absolutely. Because of that, I love Dominic and we really wished him well. We intentionally did not kill that character (Dante). The character is very valuable, and the actor is wonderful. You want to leave your options open for the future.

The #metoomovement is relevant to nurses because we do not exist in a bubble. Regardless of our age, or background, as nurses, we should expand our horizons and know what is going on in the world outside of the confines of the hospital or healthcare environment. Although this is a soap opera and a fictionalized version of events, it is still true to life and affects us all.

Debi Fischer RN, BA, BSN, MSW, LSCW is a nurse in a surgical oncology step down unit. Prior to that she worked in orthopedics and neurology. She has earned a master’s degree in social work and is also a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

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