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Week 04 Episode 03: Synthesis

Table of contents

  1. Listen
  2. Transcript
  3. References
  4. Exercises

Listen

Transcript

Hello, welcome back to Parallel Worlds.

Today, we’re going to be using two sources for our work: your list of contexts from Week 2, Episode 5, and your list of things or concepts from yesterday. If you can’t find these right now, you might want to go back and redo the exercises.

But first, you know what we’re going to do. Your daily reflection, five minutes of freedom to fish into your mind and find out what’s floating around in there.

OK, ready? Let’s go!

5 minutes

Alright, welcome back. That seemed intense today. You really disappeared this time. Phew! Maybe take a moment to breathe. In, out, in, out. You know how to do it. I assume you’ve been doing this, breathing, your whole life. If you forget, please do pause this podcast and get some help, you can come back to it later.

Anyway. Let’s get onto the next thing, shall we?

Today we’re going to be synthesising. If I’d planned this better I’d have a nifty synthesiser noise here.

What do I mean by synthesising? Well, we’re just going to be mushing some stuff together and seeing what comes out.

A few years ago I went to a workshop run by the British immersive theatre company Punchdrunk. I’ve said on this podcast before how much I love their work, so I won’t go on about that again. But one thing I want to share with you from the workshop is a method that they use to create new theatre pieces.

It’s hard to create something from scratch. Something that catches, that people want to experience, to be part of. We often rely on metaphors when we’re describing things to other people. Oh, you’ll love this – it’s got the drama and epic worlds of Game of Thrones, mixed with the tragedy of Shakespeare’s King Lear, with a soundtrack like Grand Theft Auto 4, but set in 1930s Brooklyn.

The approach that I learned in the Punchdrunk workshop was to make a triangle. At two of the points of the triangle, you put themes, or works of fiction. And at the third point you put a context, a place and time. You then use those three influences to make a new thing. For their show A Drowned Man, which took place in a huge former post office building, they took the unfinished play Woyzeck by Georg Büchner, which has themes of jealousy, and culminates in a man drowning; they combined this with Nathaniel West’s book Day of the Locust, which is about a young set-painter in Hollywood who becomes disillusioned with the American dream – and they combined these stories in a 1960s Hollywood, a place which provides a rich contrast between the glamour of film sets and the strange out-of-town deserts and forests. What they created is truly new, it didn’t exist before, but they did this through synthesising elements from three places.

So that’s what we’re going to do today.

You already have a pair of lists, one of things, the concepts from yesterday, and one of contexts from week 2, episode 5. You’re going to take elements from these lists and combine them, and see what you can come up with. So for each one, you’ll have two concepts, things from yesterday’s list, and one context, from week 2 episode 5.

We’re going to run this exercise five times. Each time you have to very quickly choose two concepts, and one context, write them down, and as quick as you can, write a brief synopsis of a story or scenario which unites the three.

I’ll give you an example to start. I’ve written my lists on bits of paper, and put them into two bowls, one for the contexts, one for the concepts.

Right, I’ll shuffle these about…and now, I’ll take two concepts. OK, so this one is

  • Thomas More’s Utopia - of course, prototypical sci-fi from the 1500s…
  • …mixed with the sitcom Friends
  • …in early 1990s English suburbia

Now I’ve got two minutes to devise a story…

Well that context is easy for me, that’s where I spent my childhood. I know what it looks like, what it smells like, how sticky the vending machines were, which part of the parks the big kids played in, the texture of the asphalt. Then, Utopia, that’s a classic, but there are two elements I think I could use in a story immediately. One is that the word is a Greek play on words, we think of it today as the ideal place, but it really means no place, somewhere that can’t exist. The other thing is that it was written as a travel journal, as if it was a real artefact from someone who went to this fictional place. So whatever story I write, I want it to be presented in the modern day equivalent of a found journal. Maybe it’s a documentary, or an audio diary, something like the Blair Witch Project.

Then there’s Friends. That’s a ten-year-long sitcom with what, hundreds of episodes? Let’s narrow it down a little. Perhaps it’s the episode where Ross gets his pet monkey Marcel. I think it’s a Christmas episode, it ends at new year, and the general theme is that one character gets a monkey to make up for his recent divorce, but is sad when it gets on better with his friend than himself. So it’s about wanting to be wanted, wanting to fit in, wanting to be needed.

So my synopsis is a story in which someone wants to make up for a lost relationship, but ends up making themselves more lonely – that’s also like the idea of utopia in a way, the idea that there is a fictional place where you’d be happy, but it’s also impossible to reach. But it’s set in the suburbia I grew up in, where shell suits were the coolest thing you could wear, and everyone had clackers from crisp packets on their luminous-coloured BMX bike wheels. It’s a story set in a playground, perhaps the monkey from Friends is played by a toy, or a kid who’s just moved to town.

I think that’s my two minutes up. Let’s do some other draws from my supply. I could write a story about:

  • King Midas, who turned everything he touched to gold, mixed with
  • JG Ballard’s book Kingdom Come, a book about violence in the suburbs – incidentally actually set where I grew up, all set in
  • My grandma’s bathroom – which was this strange room with peeling stripy wallpaper and carpet everywhere, which made me feel a bit sick

Or I could do one about:

  • Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey
  • …mixed with the Parallel Worlds podcast…
  • …n a budget bodybuilder’s gym in Tel Aviv in the 1970s

You see, we can go anywhere with this. We can conjure up imagery and strange scenarios and settings and make something new each time. Not necessarily good – that last one sounds awful – but strange and interesting.

So, it’s your turm. Each time you hear this noise:

noise

Take two concepts from your concept list – please choose them at random as much as you can – and also take one context from your context list. It doesn’t matter how well you think they’ll go together initially. You only have to spend two minutes living in this world, working this scenario out, it’s not very long.

You might put things together that really don’t seem to fit. If that’s the case, embrace it! Lean in! Think, what’s the worst I could make this, the most cheesy, the most inauthentic? What would upset fans of the original thing the most? Are there interesting characters or story arcs or modes of storytelling I can take from one of these things and mix it with another?

I’m hoping that as you go through this process, you’ll see that by taking elements of each concept, and placing them in a new context, you’re really creating something new, something you have developed.

Right, enough of my waffle. Let’s get going! Two minutes for synopsis one, let’s go!

2 minutes
noise

Synopsis two, go!

2 minutes
noise

It’s time for synopsis three~

2 minutes
noise

Hey – get ready for synopsis four!

2 minutes
noise

OK, last one, synopsis five!

2 minutes
noise

Alright, well done. How was that for you? Did you like recombining things? What weird and wonderful connections did you make? Anything you actually liked? The first time I did this I found that at least three quarters of the ideas were terrible, and had to be thrown away, but that somewhere in there was a little gold nugget waiting to be used, turned into something.

It also helped me identify which elements of things I like I actually like. Through doing this a few times, I’ve found similarities between different stories I hadn’t identified before. I like the idea that once these concepts are in your head, you can re-weave them as you like, build new contexts, think about very specific elements mixing with very specific elements.

I just want to clarify here - what this exercise is doing isn’t plagiarising, but rather remixing elements. It takes genuine creativity to mash one of these things into another and then smush that onto a place. It’s the sort of thing that has been done in storytelling for millenia.

Well, I hope that was fun for you. As ever, if you liked or hated this, if you came up with something you want to share, if there is a remixed concept that you think is so awful it should be avoided forever, please leave a voice message, there’s a link in the show notes.

Thanks for sticking with me to the end – I will be back tomorrow. See you then!

References

Exercises

  • Free-write / record / draw / reflection on the here and now. (5 minutes)
  • Combining two concepts (from yesterday’s exercise) and one context (from Week 2, Episode 5) into a new synposis or story