When writer, musician, and performer Cynthia Hopkins embarked on a three-week arctic voyage, she didn’t know she would return with a piece on the climate crisis. The resulting show, This Clement World, runs February 5-17 at St. Ann’s Warehouse and blends documentary footage from the voyage, Hopkins’s music, and characters from the past, present, and future. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg spoke with Hopkins about the origins of the piece, the use of documentary in theater, and how theater can influence climate change.
This interview was edited for length.
What drew you to write about the climate crisis?
I work from disturbance, so whatever is a pressing disturbance upon me at the moment is what I’m motivated to do research about and then write about. In the case of climate change, I was definitely disturbed by it, but it also kind of fell into my lap in that I was invited to a conference at Columbia University’s Earth Institute a couple of years ago for climate scientists and artists. It was organized by TippingPoint, which is a British organization whose mission is to foster dialogue about the climate crisis by holding conferences where artists can learn more about what’s happening in the sciences. The hope is that the artist might be inspired to make work about it and communicate in a different way than scientists or even journalists can do. I was inspired by a couple of speeches at that conference… And then just a couple of months after that I got invited to go on an arctic voyage by another British organization called Cape Farewell… And so the piece has developed into kind of a documentary storytelling of that boat voyage.
How does an artist get invited on these expeditions?
The way that it happened for me was really just that there’s a British dramaturge named Ruth Little who used to work for the Royal Court Theatre in London. She knew my work and she happened to be at the TippingPoint conference…. She started working for Cape Farewell shortly thereafter, and she invited me on that boat trip.
Had you already been thinking about doing a piece on climate change or did the piece stem from your experience on the voyage?
The piece really stems from my experience on the voyage. Previous to the conference and the voyage I was already aware of climate change and I was disturbed by it, but by the time I got invited I was in the middle of working on a piece about my father so I wasn’t actually thinking about what I might do next. So those two experiences, the conference and the voyage, brought an existing disturbance to the front burner of my consciousness in a really amazing way.
The description of the piece says you intertwine three forms of communication: Documentary, music, and performance. I’m curious how these forms begin and come together.
I originally thought, why don’t I make three different pieces--either totally separate pieces or segments of an evening--[for these] three different ways of communicating? One of them was going to be a visual art exhibit with tour guides. And then I thought there was going to be a whole separate piece about music because I thought music could kind of communicate in this vast and epic way…. And then of course there’s the documentary film…. So what ended up happening was, I started working on these pieces thinking they were going to be three separate pieces, and then I started showing little bits of them and I inter-spliced them and melded them together for logistical purposes, and that worked really well…. [Now], every time [the piece] goes back to the [documentary of the] arctic journey, you see it in a different way. Like when you put different colors next to each other they make the colors look different.
What attracts you to using the documentary element in your work?
I’m a total fanatic for documentaries…. I find that true stories tend to be way more bizarre and fascinating than fictional stories, real actual people more fascinating and bizarre than fictional characters. I like that as a viewer.
What was your process for creating this piece?
The process is in a lot of ways organic and kind of magical…. The challenge with this subject matter is to communicate something whose breadth and scope is really vast and stretches beyond my lifetime and the lifetimes of everyone else alive on the planet at the moment. And a lot of the science of it is invisible. It requires a pretty enthusiastic use of the imagination…. The medium of theater becomes a really great mode of communication for the subject matter because I can make use of things like fictional characters from 200 years ago and 200 years in the future and from outer space, and those fictional characters provide a perspective that’s way beyond my perspective.
There’s a line in the show description where you say that in this piece, “You may meet people you may never meet.” Theater seems like a good way to get people to meet those people.
When I went on the boat I didn’t know what I was going to say about the issue but because the people on the boat were so fascinating to me I became really excited about capturing them on video. I end up impersonating a bunch of them.
What are your hopes for this piece?
Mainly that people feel that their imaginations are sparked and… that the fragility [and] the clemency of this world we live in has become really palpable. It’s really, really hard to feel any kind of mortality. Like it’s hard for me to grasp that I’m not going to live forever. But it’s even harder to grasp that the way that things are right now in this world—this is a really comfortable world to live in right now—[won’t be forever]…. And it’s already being influenced by human activity. I hope that people will feel that in a really palpable way, but in a way that’s inspiring.
Shoshana Greenberg writes musicals, plays, and prose. Her musicals include Lightning Man (Ars Nova ANT Fest), Sophia Venetia Voyager, and Soon Never, and her work has been featured in concerts at Lincoln Center, The York Theatre Company, the Duplex Cabaret Theater, the TriArts Sharon Playhouse, the Goodspeed Opera House, and The Laurie Beechman Theatre. She earned her MFA from NYU’s Graduate Musical Theater Writing Program after graduating from Barnard College. She also blogs about theater for The Huffington Post.