Accidental Cynthia

cynthia hopkins photo by Scott Lapham Accidental Nostalgia, a genre-defying music/theater piece examining the pros and cons of amnesia, opens on March 26th at St. Ann’s Warehouse. Cynthia Hopkins, who wrote and performs the show with her band, took a break from rehearsals to talk with me about her life, her universe, and this show.

There are some people whose quiet, understated words lead you to believe that either there’s a whole lot going on inside their head or they’re just working hard to create that impression. Cynthia Hopkins is definitely one of the former. In conversation she seems shy, almost reticent, but her work reveals a complex and compelling vision – and I’m not the only one to think so. Cynthia has received two Obies and a Bessie for her work as a composer and performer and, along with her band Gloria Deluxe, has been delighting audiences with her unique music for the past five years.

Accidental Nostalgia, which is being called “an operetta about the pros and cons of amnesia”, had its beginnings in Cynthia’s personal experiences with the disease. When she was 15 years old her mother died of cancer. Over the next two years, she and her brother and father went to family therapy regularly, but Cynthia has no memory of any of these sessions.

Cynthia’s way of coping with her own psychogenic amnesia was not to return to the therapist’s office or try to recover her personal memories, but rather to write a performance piece about someone searching for a way to recover lost memory. That someone is heroine Cameron Seymour, a neurologist who uses herself as the case study for her book, How To Change Your Mind: A Self-Help Manual for Psychogenic Amnesiacs.

As the operetta unfolds we learn about Cameron Seymour’s ever-complicated past: sexual abuse, adoption, stage names, a mysterious trip to Morocco, and much more. The piece is multi-layered and complex, as is memory, and Hopkins’ music is perfectly suited to telling the story.

I got hooked on Gloria Deluxe after some forceful encouraging from my brother. Cynthia’s voice has a welcoming twang, which pulls the group’s quirky instrumentation together. And there is a certain acceptance in her music of what I can only call a universal sadness.

Since I’ve had such a hard time categorizing Gloria Deluxe’s sound, I asked Cynthia how she would describe it. Like a true experimental performer, she was silent for a moment (with an implied cringe)before she went on to cite influential musicians such as Tom Waits, Cat Power, Lou Reed, De La Soul and Nina Simone. She purposefully pointed out that this did not mean she thought she sounded like them: “I started saying it [Gloria Deluxe] was like a cross between Tom Waits and Cat Power, which I thought was a pretty good description. But the problem is then you have two people in mind and actually it doesn’t really sound like either one of them.”

The band formed in 1999 almost by accident. Cynthia was performing in a Big Dance Theater production of a Mac Wellman play when two composer quit in rapid succession. Knowing Cynthia wrote songs, the production team asked her to try and write one for the show. One song turned into the entire score and Cynthia relates that when BAM Cafe curator Limor Tomer saw the show, “She came up to me and asked me if I had a band, and I said no but I’d kind of like to start one.”

So Cynthia enlisted her brother and some friends (including current band member Philippa Thompson) to create Gloria Deluxe. The transition from theaters to clubs was a challenge, adjusting from attentive audiences to bar audiences who move around, order drinks and talk during sets. But now, returned to the theatrical stage, Cynthia and Gloria Deluxe are showing themselves at their best.

Accidental Nostalgia started with a few early workshops at Galapagos Arts Space and Dixon Place, eventually moving to Mass MoCA, the Whitney at Altria and a full production at AS220 in Providence, R.I., a couple months ago. For the production at St. Ann’s Cynthia has joined forces with Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg who are performing as well as designing the show; Jordana Che Toback as choreographer and DJ Mendel who directed and created video.

This is the first self-created piece Cynthia has made since she staged a short operetta, Bullseye, at HERE’s American Living Room Series in 1996, shortly after coming to NYC from Massachusetts. At the time she came to New York inspired by the theater of The Wooster Group and Spalding Gray. She began performing and working with groups such as Big Dance Theater, GAle GAtes and Transmission Projects, while her music writing stayed more or less as a hobby, or as Cynthia puts it, “a more private part of my life.”

I, for one, am glad she’s decided to go public.

Accidental Nostalgia plays at St. Ann’s Warehouse from March 26th – April 4th.
Tickets are $25

St. Ann’s Warehouse
38 Water Street, DUMBO
Brooklyn, NY

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