ACCORDIONS IN THE ARCTIC: Cynthia Hopkins Sails Aheadby Michelle Memran
On a Saturday afternoon in Williamsburg, I find Cynthia Hopkins perched on a piano bench in her studio, shuffling through compositions for a special musical celebration she’ll perform on May 4 at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, what will be the theater’s final (non-gala) concert in that space before it moves to nearby Jay Street. Cynthia is certainly no stranger to St. Ann’s, having staged three technically (and emotionally) expansive works there over the span of almost a decade. If you missed that trilogy—Accidental Nostalgia, Must Don’t Whip ‘Um, and The Success of Failure (or The Failure of Success)—you should know this: they are mind-blowing, multi-media explorations of Cynthia’s personal history, channeled through the lens of wildly fictional characters (’70s rock star Cameron Seymour, a pig-snouted, post-human astronaut, an amnesiac neurologist specializing in the memory function of the brain) all of whom are written and enacted by the artist herself. Oh, and they’re musicals; I should mention that, too. They’re musicals with songs she writes and performs with a voice that—no matter how many times I hear it—never ceases to send chills up my spine. And then there are the instruments. There’s not only a piano, but also an accordion, guitar, musical saw, and recently I watched her work wonders with a pair of spoons at BAM Harvey Theater. But enough about Cynthia, she tells me. These days, she’d much rather talk about what’s happening outside, particularly what’s happening with the earth’s dwindling resources, our carbon footprint, and its ensuing climate change. In her new musical work-in-progress, This Clement World, Cynthia takes on the climate crisis, adding a whole new host of characters (a German physicist overwintering in the Arctic, a ghost of a Native American slaughtered in 1864, an undercover alien from outer space) to an already abundant—and exuberant—repertoire.
Michelle Memran (Rail): I’d just assumed you majored in theater at college, but that’s actually not true.
Cynthia Hopkins: No, surprisingly enough, I wasn’t a theater major. I grew up surrounded by music—both my parents were amateur musicians—and I started performing when I was 12 at Andy’s Summer Playhouse in Wilton, New Hampshire. But after my mother became terminally ill with cancer and died when I was a sophomore in high school, I’d decided that going into the arts would be too self-indulgent. By the time I got to college, I thought what I really should do with my life is to try and be of service in some way. My plan was to study social issues and politics and to become a social worker or an activist. I said, “No more frivolous theater, no music, none of it!” Ultimately, I became an American Civilization major, but of course, the week I got to campus, I saw an audition notice for the Caryl Churchill play Mad Forest about the Romanian Revolution and the overthrow of Ceauşescu. I thought, “Well, that’s a social issue, and that’s relevant and meaningful.”So I auditioned and got cast, and a week after that closed, there was an audition notice for Saint Joan [about Joan of Arc, by George Bernard Shaw], yet another meaningful and relevant and feminist and empowering play. So by the end of my first semester at Brown, I had acted in three plays.
Rail: So in many ways, with This Clement World, you’ve returned to the mission you originally had when you left for college.
Hopkins: And the lesson I’ve learned, what I believe now, is that making art and raising social awareness don’t have to be separate paths. Some of my favorite writers and performers—Anna Deavere Smith, Laurie Anderson, Spalding Gray—found ways to fuse the two. This Clement World confronts climate change, but it took me a circuitous route to get here. For me, before I could really consider issues outside my own psychodrama, I had to make a few plays about my psychodrama [laughs]. It’s like Virginia Woolf’s essay, A Room of One’s Own. She talked about having to work through your own issues of life and death before even considering issues outside of yourself. In college, I was getting ahead of myself. At that age, I wanted to skip over my own issues because they were so painful. I wanted to go out and save the world because that’s a really good way to avoid dealing with your problems. Making plays became the way I worked through my own suffering [laughs]. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to anybody else.
Rail: Why climate change?
Hopkins: Well, in 2009, right at the moment when I was in the home stretch of making this piece about my father—The Truth: A Tragedy—which was kind of the final frontier of my personal issues, I got an invitation to go to a TippingPoint conference about climate change at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. The intent of that conference was to foster dialogue about the climate crisis by inspiring artists to make work about it so that the information can be disseminated in many different forms. The opening speech at the conference, by a climate scientist named Wallace S. Broecker, immediately hooked me in. He talked about the fact that we are at an unprecedented moment in human civilization, where what we choose to do next will determine the fate of our species. A man in his late 70s, Broecker said he wished he could live longer, to see which way the world will go at this pivotal moment in human history. And it’s pivotal directly in relation to this issue of climate.
Rail: So how did you get from that conference to the Arctic Ocean?
Hopkins: At the conference I met a fabulous woman named Ruth Little, who sent me an e-mail a few months later saying she was working for Cape Farewell—a British organization that brings artists, educators, and climate scientists together to the Arctic. She said, “Do you want to go on a trip to the Arctic?”And I said, “Yes!”
Rail: And of course you couldn’t set sail without your accordion.
Hopkins: I took an accordion that I didn’t mind losing if it fell into the Arctic Ocean! We were on the water for three weeks, and I wrote songs as I was lying on my back, with my accordion, in my little cabin. There were 22 people on a double-masted schooner, and we were sailing into completely uninhabited areas with no human civilization at all. So if you ran out of any supplies, including water, there was nowhere to go get more. What I started to realize on this trip was that the boat became this great metaphor for what’s happening to the earth and our resources due to global warming. That metaphor’s certainly not new. Buckminster Fuller talks about Spaceship Earth and the idea of our planet being a ship—a finite habitat—that we’re all riding on. So if we run out of water on the earth, for example, there’s no other place to get it. And at the rate we’re going, we very well might run out of clean water. So that was a transformative experience, and, of course, something I was absolutely terrified to do.
Rail: But you lived to tell and have since found a way to process that experience through your own personal history.
Hopkins: One of the major factors, or ingredients, of my idiosyncratic perspective on the world is that I’m an alcoholic and a drug addict who’s now sober. So I have had an experience of being addicted to something, being seemingly unable to live without that thing, and then going through a process of living completely without it. And I’ve watched my life get infinitely better, partly as a result of that. Basically, my daily experience is infused with that perspective. It’s something I’m kind of stuck with, for better or for worse. That’s the lens through which I view the climate crisis as well. In the same way that the boat became this little metaphor for the world, my own alcoholism became a metaphor for this society’s relationship to fossil fuels.
Rail: I remember seeing The Success of Failure (Or The Failure of Success) at St. Ann’s Warehouse in 2009, and there being an incredibly elaborate set for the first act, with multiple projection panels, streaming video, even a spaceship. Will the set for This Clement World have the same scope?
Hopkins: One of my great dreams for this show is that I want there to be no architecture. It’s been really important for each piece I’ve done, that everything about the structure supports the content. In this case, the show should have as small a carbon footprint as possible, right? I’d love to use L.E.D.s for all the lighting. I’m talking with my collaborators Jeff Sugg [video designer] and D. J. Mendel [director] about maybe even using video projection to actually light the piece, which would be far more energy efficient. If you don’t know, theater lighting has to be the least energy efficient lighting ever invented by man. Also, if you make a piece that requires a 40-foot storage container, like I’ve done in the past, every time the show travels it’s chugging out all this CO2 and creating a pretty big carbon footprint. I wanted everything to be very lightweight. And I want to support the mobility of the piece, so that it can travel to high schools and be played by local musicians.
Rail: Can you give us some details about your upcoming concert?
Hopkins: Well, St. Ann’s Warehouse, which has been on Water Street for 11 years, is moving. That building will no longer be a performance space, and this concert is a big fat “Thank You” to the space itself and to the people who run St. Ann’s, who, over several years, let us perform all these crazy things there. I’ll sing pieces from The Accidental Trilogy, a few songs from The Truth: A Tragedy, which happened at Soho Rep, and then all the music from This Clement World, with video filmed aboard the boat on the Arctic. For This Clement World, part of my branching out has been to include a choir, an ensemble of eight voices. Growing up, I sang in the church choir and that energy of everybody singing together has always moved me. It’s also something I realize, in retrospect, can be applied to this issue of climate change. This is a communal issue. Whether you like it or not—if you’re a human being—it’s your issue. Having a choir is a beautiful way to represent people coming together and making a sum that is greater than its parts. Not to mention, it’s just uplifting.
Cynthia Hopkins will perform May 4 at 8 p.m. at St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO, Brooklyn. For tickets and further info, visit www.stannswarehouse.org. For more information about the work of Cynthia Hopkins, please visit www.cynthiahopkins.com.
MICHELLE MEMRAN is a freelance writer and filmmaker living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.