October 7, 2015
Cynthia Hopkins’s Alcoholic Movie Musical: Working through the Creative Process
Layer by layer, performance artist Cynthia Hopkins weaves together her new show about alcoholism and making art. Created with frequent collaborator and video artist Jeff Suggs, The Alcoholic Movie Musical!: A musical comedy routine about alcoholism combines film, music, and performance in a live movie musical. Culturadar blogger Shoshana Greenberg talked to Hopkins about her many narratives, combining film and live performance, and working from disturbance.
Culturadar: You have said you work from disturbances. What was the disturbance that motivated this piece?
Cynthia Hopkins: The disturbance for this piece is two-fold. The main source was my ongoing struggle to write a screenplay that tells the semi-autobiographical story of my alcoholism bottoming out and then me getting sober. The other disturbance was that experience of being an alcoholic and wanting to tell that story. There are multiple narrative streams in the piece. The primary narrative is my wrestling with crafting this screenplay, which is something I’ve never done before--I’ve always done live performance work. Another is me wrangling autobiographical truth into narrative form and entertainment. A parallel narrative is the story I’m trying to turn into the film. Meanwhile, there’s a fourth story which is the making of this show. Instead of a screenplay, it is coming out as a performing piece. A question the show asks is, what form should this piece take? In a way it’s about the creative process or a version of writer’s block.
CR: Like if the film Adaptation were a show?
CH: Yes, there are so many layers in that film, and there’s another layer in this piece. This all started when I wanted to make something about the climate crisis. I had a whole bunch of different ideas of what form it might take. One idea was a movie about a performance artist trying to make a piece about the climate crisis who can’t manage to do it because she’s an alcoholic. That was the initial seed of the screenplay, and the story of the screenplay is the about me working on [my 2013 show] This Clement World. But it’s a big mess because I’m such a mess. One of the issues I come up against is that in my own life nothing was ever neat and tidy. In the screenplay, everything would fall apart, but my own reality was much messier than that, spread out over many years. Ups and downs and sideways. The narrative structure serves a very deep human need, the need to tell the stories of our own lives to make them more neat and tidy than they actually are.
CR: What was at the root of the need to tell the story of your alcoholism?
CH: In my conscious mind, I’m spinning this disturbance into hope. The idea is that the material can be of some use, a beacon of hope, to other suffering alcoholics like myself who might relate to the story.
CR: Why was the screenplay so difficult to write?
CH: I came up against a lot of resistance, or writer’s block, in working on it, so the result is that in the live performance piece we eventually do a live version. The audience ends up getting a version of this imaginary film through a bunch of different approaches. There’s a section inspired by Trapped in the Closet in the style of operatic first person narrative. There are other parts of the film that are montages with a voiceover, there are scenes we act out live, and there are other scenes that are more straightforward but the characters are projected onto the wall as if they’re standing there. There are other parts where I just talk to the audience about what I’m trying to do and voice my own confusion about it. In the way that Adaptation is a character study about a screenwriter, this is a character study of me as an alcoholic trying to grapple with a creative project. Alcoholism is its own form of mental illness with its own bedevilment. One of the first things in the piece is similar to the opening monologue in Adaptation—the voice of writer’s block. It’s the voice of my alcoholism, which is a very self-sabotaging voice and a crippling, paranoid voice that easily leads to paralysis.
CR: The piece is also inspired by the film Dancer in the Dark. In what way?
CH: One of the things I love about that film is the interplay between the raw intimacy of the documentary style—handheld shots and an extremely tragic main narrative—versus the wildly fictional choreographed musical numbers. We are trying to work with that as an inspiration for switching between the wildly divergent styles.
CH: The process that I use to make things is pretty organic, and with this piece in particular it’s been collaborative. There’s a balancing act between fetish and justification. The Trapped in the Closet sequence is because I love it so much, and I think it’s brilliant and funny and melodramatic in this really wonderful way. I just wanted to do part of it like that. I’ve seen shows recently that shift between different forms of storytelling, and I am really interested in exploring that or emulating that. With this piece, as opposed to This Clement World, I’m more interested in an experimental structure. One scene is in one style and that style is never in it again.
CR: How would you describe the musical style? Is it like a typical movie musical?
CH: I think what’s unique about this piece is that there are these long operatic sections where the story is being told in a song. They are of another world from what you think of as a musical number, which has come to mean kind of a well-made pop song with hooks. I guess what I’m doing in this piece is more like Trapped in the Closet or classical opera, but it doesn’t sound anything like those styles of music. There are a couple songs from the show free to download online. There’s a song called “The Long View,” and that’s the most satisfying and kind of a theater form. Another one is called “Science is Amazing.”
CR: How do you think film enhances live performances?
CH: One of the reasons that I choose to work in the live performance form is that it’s the art form that combines all art forms. It’s a multiplicity of languages all working in tandem with each other, so film or video can contribute an element that no other form can. It’s made of light and it’s ephemeral and larger than life. It has the ability to spark the imagination in a grandiose way. Music is another element. And dance. What I love about live performance is that you can use all of those elements at different times and all at once and in different combinations. You can create a language that’s unique and particular to the space and time with the audience.
The Alcoholic Movie Musical! Runs October 7 – 31 at The Bushwick Starr.
Posted at 12:52 PM