About halfway through Cynthia Hopkins’s show A Living Documentary the fire, fury, and humor kick in something fierce, and it’s a rollicking ride from there on out. In this one-woman show, told in a nonlinear fashion using fictional characters, personal biography, and songs, Hopkins shares a lot of hard truth about the emotional and financial grind of being an artist in New York City in the 21st century.
It’s a show all young artists should see (well, there’s nudity so young adult artists). On an aesthetic level, she uses her low budget tools (cassette tapes for back-up music, and she is her own dresser and make-up artist) in inventive ways and shows off her multidimensional skills as an actor, performance artist, singer, and musician. But young artists should see it for a more practical reason: she addresses tough topics artists don’t talk about and she does so in a transparent and unromantic way. She digs into the messiness of money, dreams, financial hardship, running a theater company, and becoming disillusioned.
It’s a rare message to artists: you can have your dreams but it might require reevaluating what those dreams are because you might not be living them after a while. She finds herself struggling with managing a nonprofit theater company and becoming “a bitter administrator.” That wasn’t what she set out to do. Covering creative success, financial ruin, family ghosts, domineering old playwrights, and all that in a musical format, she demonstrates that sometimes failure can be the launching pad for your freedom.
The piece starts off slow; it took me a while to adjust to the characters she created—the elderly playwright and the musical performer—and I strained at times to hear her rough and tumble audio cassette recordings, which narrated certain autobiographical segments. But what felt meandering comes into sharp focus with her “fired waitress” character and, soon after, when she strips down to nothing and confronts the idea that maybe she needs to shed everything to move forward.
Her no-nonsense career development character kicks the audience into gear (with a little audience interaction) and reminds us that artists must respect themselves first for anyone else to do the same. Anecdotes from working artists being exploited and the paltry figures for a contemporary actor’s pay are difficult to hear. But all of this is delivered by a Southern, sassy motivational speaker (sort of the brunette Dolly Parton) and her telling of these stories is both funny and biting. Her encouragement that artists need to grow “spiritual testicles” sums it up well.
I found a raw bravery in Hopkins telling the audience, and herself, that while dreams can be the thing you work towards you shouldn’t let them become the thing that stands in the way of your happiness. That’s an important lesson for artists and non-artists alike. It doesn’t come from a place of despair either. She expresses it as a rebirth of sorts–growing into a new aspect of adulthood.
As the final show I saw in the January theatre festivals, A Living Documentary felt like a meaningful coda. Artistic work such as this one comes at a very human cost which we need to appreciate.