Memory loss and murder in the American South. A vanished ’70s rock star and Moroccan Sufism. Evolution—with pigs!—in outer space. Cynthia Hopkins’ trilogy of previous Walker performances had audiences enthralled by her signature brand of music theater, merging outlandish, psychologically charged storytelling with original avant-folk songs that can—and do—stand on their own. While those pieces (Accidental Nostalgia, Must Don’t Whip ’Um, The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success) originated in Hopkins’ personal history, this charismatic talent widens the scope considerably in a new work, This Clement World, coming to the Walker in March 2013, that is set partially in the Arctic. She traveled there with Cape Farewell, a London- and Toronto-based nonprofit that leads artists, scientists, educators, and others on expeditions exploring the effects of climate change, as a way to help spur a cultural shift and build a sustainable future. Hopkins performed in-progress version of the piece—which she calls a “love song for the miraculous clemency of our world”—at Ballroom Marfa in Marfa, Texas, where she also talked with Tom Michael of KRTS Public Radio; this is an edited version of their conversation.
Your addressing the global climate crisis started with this expedition with Cape Farewell to the Arctic—what a strange part of the world: icebergs and glaciers, these enormous floating mountains. How did that inform the piece?
I really fell in love with that part of the world; I had never been anywhere like that before. I also fell in love with sailing and the boat we were on. And so the very first song of the piece—it’s essentially a musical, interspersed with songs I’ve written—is actually a love song for the boat that we were on, and kind of a love song for the miraculous clemency of our world.
You know, the amazing thing about the Arctic—well there are a lot of amazing things about it—but it’s rather desolate and seems as if it would be difficult to survive there. And yet there’s a menagerie of bizarre creatures, from the very large to the very small: These gigantic polar bears, and many many birds, and little tiny arctic foxes that are the size of large cats. It’s just amazing to be in this very forbidding environment and to realize that life can thrive there. It made me appreciate the resilience of life on this planet.
Often with musical theater performances you see a critical emphasis on one rather than the other, but all advance press about you says that you have the gift for both: singing and musicianship as well as theatricality. I imagine both are very important.
The music is the through-line and definitely one of the major delights of the piece. Although the footage of the Arctic is so gorgeous, it’s another reason in itself to see it. Some of it is shot by David Buckland [director of Cape Farewell] and some by the videographer on the boat, Matt Wainwright. And then there’s the story: there were these fascinating people on the boat with me, so they become kind of characters in the piece.
That more prosaic tale of the boat trip is interspliced with live performances of kind of wildly fictional characters that are portrayed by me. One is a ghost from a hundred and fifty years ago, a Native American who was murdered at Sand Creek in 1864. She was inspired by my reading about the massacre of the native people in this country. Another is from a couple hundred years in the future, visiting the present, and one is from the present, but from outer space. So they have these much wider perspectives on our situation on this planet.
So there are a lot of elements working together. In general my work springs from a disturbance that inspires research, and in this case it’s the climate crisis. And part of the research for this piece was the expedition, which was also just a very lucky, life-transforming experience for me. So whatever that information is that I find, or whatever that curiosity is that sparks it, it kind of spins itself out in all these different forms.
For me what’s exciting about a live, time-based art form, is that it does interweave all these different forms of communication together into kind of a tapestry. So the music is crucial, but the visual element and the story and characters are also interwoven in a crucial way.
In the radio world, it’s almost as if, if we haven’t recorded it—say, a news report—it never happened. For you, is there a sense of loss after a live performance, meaning it’s gone forever?
That’s true. I think that’s also the magic, though, of live performance. In this particular case we’re going to create a recorded document [of This Clement World] that is then going to live with the Carbon 13 exhibit [another project of Cape Farewell]. And also since the show has such a prominent video element, it’s actually been very satisfying for me, who’s used to working in the live form, to have those segments that are the same every time—they have that more immortal quality.
I’m sure everyone struggles with this, but it seems with the global climate crisis, the two things are time and scale. One, to get the urgency of this issue, it’s very difficult to grasp. And two, the enormous scope of it. Through the characters you chose, were you able to share either of these things, the urgency or the scale?
I agree with you that those are really difficult to grasp and difficult to communicate or convey. Part of the gift of traveling to the Arctic was that it was a real lesson in scale and perspective: how tiny and fragile we are as human beings, and how tiny and fragile I am. There aren’t any known markers for size except for occasional birds, so you can look at a glacier and think you’re right next to it and then sail and sail and sail and realize that you were always far away—it’s so huge.
So with the piece I’m trying to pass along that sense, through the footage but also through these characters. For me what’s so great about fictional storytelling is you can have a character from hundreds of years ago and a character from another planet and a character from many hundreds of years in the future, and what that hopefully offers is this widened perspective. And the piece shuttles back and forth between that and this very tiny perspective which is mine, my lifetime and my view.
For me, I’m an alcoholic and drug addict in recovery, and so that’s my perspective on the world. So I make a metaphor—this has been made before, I’m not the first one to do it—between my own personal recovery and the potential recovery of my species, or my society or my civilization, and our addiction to fossil fuels. We have this dependence on a way of life that started with the whole Industrial Revolution being dependent on the burning of fossil fuels, which we have come to recognize is poisoning our environment. It’s difficult to grasp—even on an individual scale—when some kind of behavior has urgency, or there is a crisis.
It’s interesting that you make that comparison between the personal and the public, which makes me think of that line that the only thing we can really change is ourselves. Is this a hopeful piece?
I think it’s a very hopeful piece. For one thing, part of my motivation for making it is I really am in love with and in awe of the natural world, so in the piece there’s a very palpable sense of its beauty and fragility—I think it’s there. And for me, as an addict in recovery I have a lot of hope because I myself have been able to transform my behavior in ways that I really did not believe were possible, do you know what I mean? So I’ve had a very personal experience of a miraculous transformation occurring.
And going back to how you addressed the idea of scope in this piece—maybe like a recovering addict, it’s a series of small steps, it’s a plan forward.
That’s a good way of putting it. I think the difficulty with this issue is it can feel so overwhelming to an individual, like why bother? And so I think it’s important to bring it back to that personal level and recognize that each day I have a choice to live in a more sustainable way.
“Part of the gift of traveling to the Arctic was that it was a real lesson in scale and perspective: how tiny and fragile we are as human beings, and how tiny and fragile I am.”
Cynthia Hopkins performs in the Arctic while doing research for This Clement World
Courtesy the artist