I’m so glad that I read Kate Sanderson Holly’s post about Cynthia Hopkins’ A Living Documentary before I began writing mine. One of the coolest things about people blogging during the festival is that you get to hear some of the thoughts that are happening in the theater with you. As Kate was wondering if this performance had meaning to someone who wasn’t an experimental theater artist, I was questioning what the experience of the piece was for its inner circle audience, those who could intimately relate to Cynthia’s story. I am not an experimental theater maker, but A Living Documentary still echoed with my experiences as a young person trying to figure out how to make my way in the world.
So many of the questions raised in this piece are questions I ask myself. Replace ‘theater’ with ‘writing’ or ‘poetry’ or even ‘queer,’ and it seems these spheres aren’t so distinct. These questions about art making may not be universal, but they are certainly relatable. There’s particularity in grant writing and theater lights, but in Cynthia’s work there’s also the applicability of how incongruent our desires are with our ability to make a living and survive.
I’d argue that Living Documentary’s ability to highlight these commonalities and parallels is fostered part and parcel by the humor and quiet with which Cynthia presents herself. Her piece was equal parts dark penciled eyebrows/wigs and naked guitar solos, getting me with both her ridiculous facial expressions and tranquil tones.
She spoke candidly (in her way, through recorded tape and characterization) of what it is like to move away from traditional ideas of artistic and financial success, to fold your nonprofit theater company, to stop paying unemployment tax on an enormous team of designers, and to envision a different freedom for yourself: freedom where artistic expression isn’t predicated on debt and fancy theater lobbies.
In humor and in nakedness, when some of the artifice of art is stripped away, when we’re just in a theater with one another, there’s a space of relatability. When Cynthia removed her makeup and clothes and stood with a guitar in low light, I was a wholly disarmed viewer. I was ready to hear her story and enjoy its intersections with my own.
I’m left wondering about the socioeconomic and biographical influences on the form of this work. Cynthia is the daughter of two English teachers, and she only very briefly experienced the spending power of financing extravagant works with her own money (which even then was tainted by its inheritance from her abusive grandfather), so when she speaks about survival, she is speaking about real survival, about how to make a living that is sustainable and safe. The intimate scale of Living Documentary amplifies the humor and honesty, but it also drew me in with its honesty about how much art costs and how much an artist needs to get by.
Olivia Mitchell is a Whitman College alum, cat-lover, and writer. Sometimes, she even writes about art. She lives in Portland, OR.