The Synopsis Clinic: Before & After

[Note: this post is primarily aimed at my fellow playwrights who are wrestling with the task of writing synopses.]

One of the most useful sessions I attended at the recent national conference of the Dramatists Guild was The Synopsis Clinic conducted by Roland Tec. My most important take-away from the clinic was that everyone struggles with writing a clear, focused, engaging synopsis.

Also:

~write in a tone reflecting the tone of the play

~use verbs expressing the actions of the character, not the playwright

~put the bacon first

I was lucky enough to be one of a dozen or so playwrights whose synopsis was critiqued in the clinic. My Before & After versions follow.

Before:

What’s even scarier than confronting your stereotypes? Facing up to your wishes and dreams.
Set in the present in an American city divided by race and class, Gap follows three teenagers as they navigate the perils of “doing school.” Aaron blames homework for ruining his life but still he plugs away. Zeta cheats. A little. Will, on the other hand, could breeze through school if he chose to. And he always goes to class when there’s a good reason. But usually there’s not, so he’s flunking out. Over the course of the school year, Aaron, Zeta, and Will bump up against other members of the high school community: stressed-out teachers and hovering parents, athletes, musicians, academic super-stars, and chronic low-achievers. Ultimately, their paths converge, and their unexpected friendship sets them moving in new directions.
Gap is designed to be performed by a multiracial ensemble of three women and two men. Running time is about 80 minutes. Set requirements are minimal.

After:

In a community divided by race and class, Aaron, Zeta, and Will cope as best they can with the pressures of “doing school.” Aaron is terrified of failure. He blames homework for ruining his life, but he wants to please his parents, so he plugs away. Zeta has set her sights on admission to an elite college, so she piles on the AP and Honors courses. And she cheats. A little. Seriously, what sensible person would write every English paper from scratch or fail to bring a cheat sheet to a French exam? Will, on the other hand, worries about whether he is “black enough,” or, maybe, too black. He loves to write. But he doesn’t go to class—it’s way too boring—so he’s flunking out, and when he turns in an essay that doesn’t “sound” like him, his English teacher assumes he’s plagiarizing. Over the course of the school year, Aaron, Zeta, and Will bump up against other stressed-out members of the high school community—overworked teachers and hovering parents, academic super-stars and chronic low-achievers—but they rarely connect. In their own ways, they are each lost in the quest to meet other people’s expectations. Until they find each other. Only then do they stop to consider what they really want for themselves.

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DESIRE AND THE FEMALE PLAYWRIGHT

Or, laying claim to wanting it all.

While I was at a meeting of a playwrights’ workshop in Berkeley last week, my husband was at home watching the movie “A Late Quartet” (2012).  I came in on a scene of a daughter confronting her mother.  The daughter, an aspiring and talented musician, berates the mother, an accomplished musician, for having always been on tour when she was growing up.  Her father was also on tour with the same string quartet but—unsurprisingly in a Hollywood movie—the daughter does not blame the father for parental negligence.  When the mother protests that she and her husband did their best to balance work and family, the daughter retorts bitterly that in her mother’s situation, she would have had an abortion.  Her message to her mother seems to be: You should not have wanted to have it all.  Fine, be an artist but don’t desire to be a parent too.

On the subject of having it all, I recommend an article by family history professor Stephanie Coontz, published in the Sunday NY Times to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” (“Why Gender Equality Stalled,” February 17, 2013). Coontz cites research showing that a large majority of young women and men want to share financial and family responsibilities equally.  But “our political and economic institutions lag way behind our personal ideals.”  So, what happens when we want it all but cannot have it all? According to Coontz: “When you can’t change what’s bothering you, one typical response is to convince yourself that it doesn’t actually bother you.”  In other words, faced with the impediments to gender equality, women adjust their desires.

Which brings me to the subject of the female playwright.  If women form the habit of censoring their desires in their personal lives, will the habit spill over into their writing? Plays are driven by the wants and ambitions of their protagonists. Without desire confronting obstacle, there is no conflict.  Without conflict, no drama. In a much-forwarded blog post http://bittergertrude.com/2013/01/22/, Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, complains that female (but not male) playwrights too often create insufficiently active central characters. She posits that “as women, we’re  taught to be reactive” and suggests that this is bad for our writing.  She urges women playwrights to “claim their own stories.”  I agree.  We should.  And we can’t do that without claiming our own desires and ambitions too.  So as playwrights, as theatre artists, as women, let’s celebrate the anniversary of “The Feminine Mystique” by laying claim to wanting it all. And then let’s move on to getting it all: equality in our lives and on the boards.