In praise of amnesia
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., September 25, 2003) – Freud might have believed that the only good memory is a consciously-remembered one. But in practice, at least to Cynthia Hopkins, some things are better left repressed.

“Amnesia is one of those amazing abilities the mind has of protecting itself,” said Hopkins, a singer and songwriter best known as the leader of the band Gloria Deluxe, who unveils “Accidental Nostalgia,” a work-in-progress operetta, tomorrow at 8 at Mass MoCA.

Having experienced some vaguely-remembered traumas of her own, Hopkins spoke from personally experience when in a recent e-mail interview she said, “We should be thankful that we’re not burdened by the past and that therefore we can exist in the present.”

It is this theme – the delicate balance between remembering and forgetting – that fuels the drama of “Accidental Nostalgia,” which has been two years in the making and which was first developed in a residency at AS220, an interdisciplinary arts venue in Providence, R.I., not unlike Mass MoCA .

“I had ‘psychogenic amnesia’ -- memory loss due to psychological trauma -- surrounding a period of time following the death of my mother, actually for a specific series of events around that time,” said Hopkins. “So I became interested in memory and memory loss.”

In the meantime, when she wasn’t leading her rock band, Hopkins -- who studied theater, writing and music at Brown University -- had been performing in works of others, in collaboration with Big Dance Theater (she had a starring role in “Shunkin,” seen at Jacob’s Pillow in July 2002), GAle GAtes et al, and the Ridge Theater’s production of Mac Wellman’s “at jennie richee,” based on the work of Henry Darger, for which she won an Obie Award as part of the collaborative team.

With one foot in the rock ‘n’ roll world and the other in experimental theater, Hopkins found herself wanting to merge the two.

“For years I had wanted to make an operetta, a concert structured around a narrative with the story being told between and through the songs,” she said.

“I wanted to make a story with music, and this subject matter seemed to fit with that structure because you need the words to advance the narrative and to talk about the science of memory, but you also need the songs to really express what’s going on.”

The story itself, which is fictional, involves a neurologist specializing in the study of memory. Using herself as an experimental case study, she accidentally plunges herself into a dizzying world of intrigue, revealing an extraordinary past about which she had no previous clue.

“I wanted to investigate the question of whether it is possible to have control over how your past affects who you are,” said Hopkins, who wrote the entire show, which includes spoken-word monologue and about 15 songs. Hopkins portrays the neurologist, who has two assistants, played by set and lighting designers, Jim Findlay and Jeff Sugg, respectively. There are several other characters played by other actors on video.

In addition to earlier versions at AS220, “Accidental Nostalgia” has been seen at the Whitney Museum and at Joe’s Pub in New York. The show, co-directed by Vanessa Gilbert, will have its official opening at the Perishable Theater in Providence in December. It is also slated to be produced at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn next April, and at On the Boards in Seattle next June.

Hopkins is no stranger to Mass MoCA audiences. She warmed up the crowd for the legendary Patti Smith concert in the outdoor courtyard several years ago – her band’s first performance outside New York – and she returned later that year to perform her original composition for Tim Hawkinson’s football-field-sized, site-specific “Uberorgan.”

“Mass MoCA is a great place because there are wonderful people working there who genuinely support the work they curate and enjoy their work, and they support a wide variety of different types of art, and I think that makes it a vibrant and invigorating atmosphere,” she said.

Hopkins’ music is a unique blend of French chansons, Hank Williams-influenced country, and Laurie Anderson-style cabaret-rock. She plays accordion and guitar. In addition to her work with Gloria Deluxe, she performs with Dan Zanes and Bonnie Prince Billy. Members of Gloria Deluxe provide musical accompaniment for “Accidental Nostalgia.” The production also includes video by D.J. Mendel, and choreography by Hopkins and Jordana Toback.

Working on “Accidental Nostalgia” has been more than just creating and staging a piece of experimental theater for Hopkins. In some ways – perhaps like a lot of art – it has been an intensely personal psychological exploration into the hidden recesses of the artist’s own memory.

“I think the trick is finding the balance, and the mystery of that balance is what this show hopefully investigates: what should you keep in mind and understand about the past, and what it would really behoove you to completely eradicate,” said Hopkins.

“Some of that is beyond conscious control, but some of it is very much in any person’s power. I haven’t figured it out, which is why I’m spending all this time writing and singing about it! It’s a vast mystery, but thank God for mystery.”

For reservations, call 413-622-2111. The production includes some nudity

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on September 26, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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