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Out of This World
Cynthia Hopkins’ The Success of Failure confronts ghosts in a far-distant future

By Julie Caniglia

In presenting the world premiere of The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success) at the Walker this April, Cynthia Hopkins completes a trilogy of music-theater journeys that have taken this singer/performer/director—and her devoted audiences—farther and farther afield. First there was the earthy, Southern-gothic road tale Accidental Nostalgia in 2005, whose narrator steals an identity and revisits her small-town past in an attempt to unravel a childhood murder mystery.Two years later its prequel, Must Don’t Whip ’Um, featured a 1970s American rocker (the one whose identity is later stolen) who renounces her career to join a Sufi brotherhood in Morocco, thus making a leap both geographically and thematically from Western pop culture to Eastern spiritual mysticism … even as it turned out to be a daughter’s story about her search for a mother she never knew.

Still following? Hopkins’ stories might seem bizarre on the surface, but fans of her work will tell you that onstage they are thoroughly riveting—not least because of the ways in which they mix pathos and pain with pleasure and humor. Now the artist goes literally far out with The Success of Failure, spinning what she calls an “ancient epic folktale” that takes place thousands of years into a “post-human” future. This culmination of the Accidental Trilogy is also a milestone in Hopkins’ own journey as an artist. She says her goals are to not only take risks—“in this case, by splitting the show into two acts, the first of which is an extreme of outlandish science fiction, the second of which is an extreme of prosaic autobiographical truth”—but also “to confront and wrestle with my demons, specifically my own mortality.”

“It’s interesting for an audience to follow the work of an artist who unfolds a series of new creations,” says Philip Bither, the Walker’s William and Nadine McGuire Senior Curator for the Performing Arts. He first took note of Hopkins when she appeared in Big Dance Theater’s Another Telepathic Thing during the 2002 Out There series. “There was something luminous, ethereal, transporting about her presence,” he recalls. “She added a mystery and magic to the show.” Later, he made a point of seeing Accidental Nostalgia in New York, Hopkins’ theatrical debut as both writer and performer, and was impressed by the way she walked a fine line between autobiographical/confessional theater and postmodern detached experimentation. “It didn’t fall into woe-is-me storytelling,” Bither says, “but reframed a personal story and made it about memory and loss and amnesia.”

Accidental Nostalgia was presented at the Walker as part of Out There 2005. Backed by her band, Gloria Deluxe, which traffics in an impressive array of rootsy styles ranging from folk, honky-tonk, and cabaret to alt-country, blues, and rock, Hopkins connected immediately with Twin Cities audiences. Bither believes her musical sensibility as “a kind of outsider, independent spirit” resonated locally. For her part, Hopkins has found that “Minneapolis audiences have tended to be friendlier than those elsewhere. Must Don’t Whip ’Um, for example, got more laughs in Minnesota than anywhere else.”

As it turned out, that show and its successor were already in the works, and Bither was quick to sign the Walker on as a commissioner. “I love supporting new work that is experimental and challenging, yet has elements that are also compelling to anyone in the general public, provided they come with curiosity and open-mindedness. Cynthia did that really well.”

As part of the Must Don’t Whip ’Um commission, the Walker provided Hopkins and her collaborators, video artist/theatrical designers Jeff Sugg and Jim Findlay (Wooster Group), with a two-week production residency in the then-new McGuire Theater. Sugg and Findlay have been hailed for their ingenuity in video, lighting, and stage design (many of the shows’ characters exist solely on screens). While their innovations are relatively low-tech, the staging and interplay with performers is quite complex. “For Must Don’t Whip ’Um, they needed to get out of the studio and onto the stage for more than just a couple days,” says Bither. After playing at 2007’s Out There series, the show got rave reviews and went on an eight-city tour, a considerable success for theater on this scale.

Though the Accidental Trilogy stories are linked thematically, each stands independently as well. “I conceive of the trilogy as concentric circles,” says Hopkins. “Part I (Nostalgia) being a little circle of neurology and personal memory loss, Part II being the next circle outward: oneself in relation to father and mother and society. Part III is the biggest circle: oneself in relation to the universe at large. Part I is the brain; Part II, the heart; and Part III, the spirit of the Trilogy.” The Success of Failure transports themes of memory, loss, and personal history from the first two shows to an intergalactic dimension. Told via a “live sci-fi film,” this tale involves a struggle over the fate of a dying sun and the possibility of new life in an alternative universe, reflecting the artist’s concern not just about her own mortality, but that of humankind.

Other departures are in order, too. Where the trilogy’s first two pieces are structured around songs performed by Hopkins and her band, she composed and recorded a continuous score for_ The Success of Failure_—an elaborate sound design that incorporates sparse, ethereal orchestration, choral arrangements, and soaring strings. And the set design entails nothing less than transforming the McGuire Theater into a “virtual planetarium” through a host of video, film, and animation techniques. To accomplish that, the company, along with director DJ Mendel and a design crew, will be crafting finishing touches for the piece onstage for almost two weeks before opening night.

As a commissioner of The Success of Failure, the Walker is fulfilling one of its ideals: supporting performers ready to make great leaps in their careers. “It’s a good use of this institution to help artists such as Hopkins have a safe home for creating their work,” says Bither. “At times it’s easier for artists to open a work in a city where they feel audiences are willing to go somewhere new with them.” Judging from the rapturous responses to her first two shows, those audiences will be eager to follow Hopkins all the way into the ether.

—Julie Caniglia, Walker Magazine March/April 2009