Cynthia Hopkins by Annie-B Parson

Listen to an audio excerpt from this interview.

BOMB 112 Summer 2010
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Cynthia Hopkins in Must Don’t Whip ‘Um. Photo by Pavel Antonov.

I saw Cynthia Hopkins’s work for the first time in 1999; she was performing with her band Gloria Deluxe. As lead singer, she began by telling an obviously apocryphal story about her sister (she doesn’t have one) and how they were in a traveling tent show. She followed this with a few songs and told a bit more of this excessive story. Then she sang a few more of her great songs and continued to unravel this impossible biography. She was wearing a character very lightly, almost as if it would be too exposing to be on stage just singing. Was this the inception of the elaborate fictions that she later made into theater pieces?

Part Bob Dylan, part Louise Brooks, Hopkins trained as an actor and a musician, and both disciplines prevail in her work. She is never still on stage except to strap on her accordion or to sit at her piano, but at times even her piano moves around with her. She devises theater as a way to construct an imaginary, complicated, and very musical world that serves to chase away her devils. Video comes and goes, wrapping us around corners and doorways and alleys of images. And she might remind you of another Cindy as she tries on personas as disparate as an old Korean sage and an astronaut.

Her narratives seem purposefully hyperfictional, certainly beyond anything we could believe or follow. This elaborateness might serve as a rebuke to the dominance of so-called believable narrative in theater, or maybe she is just trying to hide inside a byzantine maze of fictions. Whatever her mysterious motivations, she holds her audience spellbound, as in the great tradition of the old time raconteurs.

With her collaborators Jeff Sugg, DJ Mendel, and Jim Findlay, in 2001 she embarked on Accidental Trilogy , a groundbreaking music/theater trilogy that spans eight years of work and many hours of finely wrought performance. In its three parts—Accidental NostalgiaMust Don’t Whip ’Um, and The Success of Failure (or, the Failure of Success)—she tells a crazily intricate yarn that wraps her, Cynthia, in a deep fiction and then spins and spits her out in the end to tell the real story of the mother she lost, the addictions she battles, and her roads to psychic survival.

Hopkins is often hard to discern up there on stage with her penchant for facing away from the audience, obstructed by objects and masks, scarves, mustaches, hats, noses. Personas and head wraps and wigs and glasses mitigate her face and head; layers and layers of clothes hide her small body. As you watch, it becomes increasingly apparent that she is successfully hiding in the spotlight, a fascinating contradiction. And then, at last, at the very end of an entire trilogy, there she is with her angelic face and clear, childlike voice. She suddenly has stripped off all the masking devices, to just jeans and a T-shirt, and she is playing the acoustic guitar and singing with no mic, and she has unwrapped all the crazy narratives to show us that she is Cynthia, a woman who wants to tell her own story straight out, and this story is true and honest and hard to hear, and she is generous, and we are grateful.

In early spring we met for breakfast and talked about The Truth: A Tragedy , the new work that she was about to open at Soho Rep. We talk fairly often, usually in the morning, but this was the first time we had a recorder on my kitchen table.

Annie-B Parson I got excited because I’ve never interviewed anybody, really. I created a series of unrelated questions, in the same way we would make a dance with random materials that, at a later date, we’d craft into something woven together.

Cynthia Hopkins It’s already about 10,000 times more interesting than interviews usually are.

ABP I’ll just roll the dice and choose a question from my list to start with.

CH It’s a chance operation. Have you ever seen the dice collection of the Museum of Jurassic Technology?

ABP No; when we, Big Dance Theater, were in LA they wouldn’t let us out of our cage.

CH You have to go when you’re in LA again. It’s based on some of the earliest museums in this country, before there was a clear demarcation between, say, a science, anthropology, or art museum. You see works of theater, science, fiction—elements of truth as well as outrageous fictional invention, all at once.

ABP That makes me wonder if when you make your work you are trying to separate fact from fiction in any way?

CH No, I’m trying to do the opposite. Weave them together and make some new form which is its own beast.

ABP Okay, let’s roll the dice.

CH The last time I was at the museum there was a collection of dice from Ricky Jay, a New York magician, on display. There were all kinds: ancient dice, dice with fur. The museum is like a maze that sucks you in: its walls are dark, its ceilings low, it has all these little rooms and hallways. There’ll be something like a little exhibit of a rain forest inside a glass case, which you’ll be able to see only partially. I discovered the museum through this great book by Lawrence Weschler: Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder.

ABP This mixing of fact and fiction sounds like your work …

CH Yes. My most recent work, The Truth: A Tragedy, which was up this past May at Soho Rep, has a component in the vein of the cabinet of curiosities influenced by the Museum of Jurassic Technology—it is made up of detritus from my father’s life, and it surrounds and accompanies the live performance. The piece is a portrait of and homage to my father. All of the work that I make is derived from some kind of disturbance. In this case, it’s my father, who is now immobilized by Parkinson’s disease and has been declining steadily for years. He’s a widower. A tragic figure. I’ve been through a lot of anguish surrounding his tragedy. My brother and I have had to move him many times into smaller and smaller places—from independent assisted-living places to nursing homes. Before that he was living in a huge farmhouse in the woods. He is an indiscriminate collector of objects and never throws anything away, even things that are broken and used up. He’ll throw a used Q-tip in a drawer! So there’s this mountain of junk that my brother and I have sifted through time and time again.

The last time I moved him was in the summer of 2009; I was already thinking of making a piece about him. I was looking through these drawers of junk and suddenly had an amazing feeling: instead of as a burden to me I was able to see the junk as something people should see. There are lemons that he left on the table so long that they preserved themselves into hardened objects—biological curiosities that should be put on display. I suddenly wanted to celebrate his oddity instead of being disgusted by it.

ABP Does he have an organizational system?

CH No. He’s anti-organizational. I actually say that in the show. Before I thought he was depressed, grief-stricken, a mess of a person. Then, when he finally moved into an assisted living facility, its staff kept things clean and organized, but he would deliberately anti-organize things almost by magic, overnight.

I had to move him myself into a nursing home. He didn’t want to leave when I broke the news to him. Out of compassion I said, “I can’t bring it all, what’s the one thing you want me to bring first?” And he said, “The middle drawer.” The middle drawer had five broken watches, with cracked faces and missing arms, another abused Q-tip, and maybe one half of a broken pencil.

ABP Did his chaos affect the way you structured your piece?

CH Unintentionally. All the pieces of the Accidental Trilogy were outlandish, but they were still narratives. Almost always a narrator figure is telling the story, which has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Truth: A Tragedy is structured more like a cabaret—it’s an impressionistic series of distinct pieces functioning like related “cabinets” in a museum. They inform one another and accumulate into a portrait.

ABP So how did you decide on sequencing it all?

CH Well, I learned that from you. Just trial and error.

ABP There’s no narrative logic?

CH This is true for me, and maybe for you too: a lot of times the logic reveals itself in retrospect. It’s like a science experiment where you end up putting things in order because it makes sense, and in the end you realize that the last section comes at the end because it’s a transformation, or pinnacle, or epiphany. I didn’t think the piece led to an epiphany until I saw everything together.

ABP Does putting it at the end make it an epiphany? Or is it some other kind of logic or dynamic you’re working with, some other rhythm or coloring?

CH Yeah, it’s more like a rhythmic or musical reasoning, I think. DJ Mendel, who works as director and editor for my shows, has a great ear. He’s a drummer; his perspective helps me a lot because it’s often so rhythmic. Another thing I learned is that you have to be able to throw things out even if—

ABP —you adore them.

CH That’s where working with other people really helps. I’m thinking about this impressionistic section at the beginning. There’s this piece of text that says, “Is God’s language science? Is gravity God’s palm?” DJ Mendel suggested I take it out. I love this text so much! But we took it out and the sequence worked better; the text was too poetic in the context of the performance, it was too filled with obvious meaning. Now it’s the “author’s note” in the program.

ABP You wrote it?

CH Yeah. It speaks about the whole piece and is the reason I was interested in digging around in Greek tragedy, because at its core there is always an existential concern: Do the gods care about us? Are they punishing us? Are they making fun of us?

ABP Did you figure out why you don’t like Greek tragedy? (laughter)

CH I talk about how I hate the melodrama in the piece that I’m making. It’s so removed from experience. The action in Greek drama is always extreme: someone gouges his own eyes out because he realizes he had sex with his mother, some mother is about to slit the throats of her own children. I prefer extreme existential crises in the face of mundane tragedy, like my father dying so very slowly. That’s the modern version of tragedy I can relate to.

(Paul Lazar, who’s in the room, says, “Can I say one thing about the gods ’cause it’s just driving me crazy?”)

CH Say it!

(PL says, “The gods are, I believe, profoundly jealous of the human condition because humans die. And because of this, the stakes in what humans do are so high. The gods are ultimately condemned to be comedic figures because they don’t exist against the backdrop of termination.”)

CH That’s true, Greek mythology is an argument for mortality.

(PL adds, “As the years go by you want that argument to be more and more convincing.”)

ABP I haven’t rolled the dice in a while … (Rolls.) Okay. Here’s a question: Are you superstitious?

CH I’m deeply superstitious. Here’s a funny one. I don’t know if I read about this or if I just made it up, but I had this idea that if I saw a dead bird it was bad luck. That was all right when I lived in Massachusetts and I didn’t see that many dead birds, but when I moved to New York …

The other thing about Greek tragedies is that they are great at demonstrating self-fulfilling prophecies. If you think you’re going to have bad luck, you’re probably going to be nervous and worried, and invariably you’ll have bad luck.

ABP That was one of my questions. But you haven’t rolled the dice yet. First you roll to see how many dice to use.

(Cynthia rolls dice.)

ABP It’s a five, so I’m going to roll five dice and then we’ll add it up. (Adds dice.) Thirteen! Okay, so the question is: Do you read poetry?

CH Not very often, I used to read more poetry.

ABP Are there any poets who you used to read who might be in your head when you write?

CH I used to read Anne Sexton. Then for a while I was reading “the woman in white.” You guys should do a piece about her, one of the great figures in American literature: “I heard a Fly buzz—when I died.”

ABP Emily Dickinson?

CH Yes. And my favorite poet is Rumi, of course!

ABP “Run Anne flee on your donkey, flee this sad hotel.” That’s Anne Sexton. Sort of—I may remember it strangely …

CH I’ve been going back to poetry because of The Truth. My father taught poetry and his favorite poems are quoted in it: Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “God’s Grandeur,” for instance. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. / It will flame out, like shining from shook foil; / It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil …” And from Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” the line: “Rage rage against the dying of the light.” And also the Tennyson poem “Ulysses” which my father started quoting when I was videotaping him for the piece because it captures his frustration so perfectly. After his long journey, Ulysses has been home only three days and he’s restless and irritated. He just wants to get back out on the water again.

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Cynthia Hopkins in The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success). Photo by Paula Court.

ABP There’s a sense of poetry in your writing; it sounds like you read poetry. I’ll roll again. (Rolls five dice again, adds.) Fifteen: If you could create a fictional lineage for yourself, say, four of five fictional grandparents, who would they be?

CH Brecht would have to be one of them. And the Russian guy who would move people around onstage. Is it Meyerhold?

(PL butts in, “Kantor?”)

CH Kantor!

ABP I think he’s Polish.

CH Polish, yeah. Pina Bausch and some filmmakers too: Tarkovsky, Fellini. How many is that? And the Wooster Group and Big Dance Theatre by entanglement.

ABP Could you add a performer or a film actor?

CH Kate Valk is a huge influence. She’s very Brechtian, she does not allow the distance between what she’s performing and herself to be swept away. And Richard Foreman, for the same reason. I don’t want to make Foreman pieces, but I love his theory! His way of describing the distancing from the audience: that performers might conceive of the audience as a dangerous enemy to be guarded against rather than pleased, so as to heighten the tension in the room. Laurie Anderson was a huge influence on me too, since I was a teenager—

ABP O Superman.

CH That a woman could make a work that’s so intellectually stimulating, viscerally satisfying, and emotionally intriguing. Spalding Gray too; his storytelling and the way he brought his biography into his work. And also Anna Deveare Smith, the way she uses documentary elements in live performance.

ABP Are there any other musicians you could include in that lineage?

CH Yeah, Tom Waits. Nina Simone and Hank Williams; singers who are not so precise or perfect.

ABP You like the crack in the pot.

CH Yeah, I like the flaw. Billie Holiday, Skip James, John Lee Hooker.

(Annie-B rolls the dice.)

ABP More of a comment than a question: your subject matter is very intimate and astral, both big and small at the same time.

CH We’re in these finite, mortal bodies, but then we have these brains that can encompass … What’s that Emily Dickinson line? “The Brain is just the weight of God.” Our brains can conceive of realms beyond the physical, probably because those realms beyond the physical exist, which seems obvious to me.

ABP Do you think that the brain is the receiver or the creator of consciousness?

CH A little bit of both, right? That dynamic is a struggle that is represented so well in the live performance. I have an incredible envy of filmmakers who do the hard work once and then, when they’re done, can transfer their work to a million theaters. You can’t contain what happens with live bodies on stage. The energy is visceral, much stronger than something that’s recorded. The work is evaporating before the audience’s very eyes, so there’s an immediate sense of the ephemeral and the concrete at the same time.

ABP (Rolls dice again.) Do you feel your work is most in harmony with your sense of the future, your past, or the present moment?

CH It’s most in harmony with the present probably, though my work, so far, has been a lot about grappling with the past and trying to come to peace with its disturbances, with those tragedies that I feel are unjust or impossible to accept: illness, and death, and loss, and on and on.

The next-to-last show I made, The Success of Failure (or, The Failure of Success), was also about coming to peace with the future, with our impending mortality.

ABP Does that have anything to do with how the scale of your work has changed? The first piece in the trilogy seemed, in my memory, to be the grandest, and the last to be the most intimate.

CH Right. I didn’t intend to make a monumental piece when I made Accidental Nostalgia. By the organic process of making a work, a one-woman monologue spiraled into this enormous thing. In retrospect it makes sense because what I wanted to express, the transformation of self through the investigation and then shedding of the past, was best communicated through a multilayered structure. The second piece of the trilogy, Must Don’t Whip ’Um, was intended to be a blowout because of the material: a last dance before running off into the hills. It needed to be colorful, with big sounds and lots of people. It’d be a kind of desperate celebration because the main figure, Cameron Seymour—a surrogate for me, of course—yearns to devote herself to a spiritual journey but knows that her decision requires a rejection of the material world, the realm of music and dance and commercialism and family and love and sex to which she is infuriatingly addicted.

I knew I wanted the third piece to be futuristic, but even that was accidental. I was talking to my father on the phone. He said, “Are you working on part three?” I said I had just finished part two and I didn’t know what I was going to do next. He said, “Well, is it going to take place in the future? The first one was about the past, wasn’t it?” He had a good point; he’s like an idiot savant.

For me there’s this total unknown at the beginning, then there’s this range of possibles, some of which settle into being these knowns. Everything has to adjust to whatever becomes a known. After that conversation with my father I knew part three would take place in the future.

ABP Some of your work’s subject matter turns out to be about how the relationship between the past and future informs and changes them both at the same time. Your past informs your future, and the way you see the future fictionalizes the past. I like that.

CH That’s like this article I just read in Discover magazine about these scientists who are trying to figure out how the future influences the present. They’re doing these tests on particles, and then half an hour later they’ll measure the results, but in-between the beginning and the end they’ll do a test to see if the middle is affected by the end. Way beyond what I’m thinking! (laughter)

ABP One of the fun things about your work is that you’re doing that very overtly—there is no truth, we’recreating it. It’s completely Rashomon. Is Kurosawa another person in the lineage?

CH Yeah, everybody should see his films. And Agnès Varda, whom you introduced me to.

ABP Did you see The Beaches of Agnès?

CH Last July. I was sitting in rehearsal thinking, I don’t want to make anything, I just want to look at empty space. Then I went to see one of her movies and went, I want to make a documentary about my father.

ABP I can see you two aligning. She’s part clown, part performance artist—

CH And documentarian. The Gleaners and I is such a great movie. She inserts herself but doesn’t try to control what’s happening. Neither does she pretend there’s some objectivity: she’s the opposite of invisible.

ABP (Rolls dice.) Seventeen. What do you do right before you go on stage?

CH I burp. I stretch and meditate. I suffer from stage fright.

ABP You’re also a glutton for being on stage.

CH I love it so much. I used to get sick and nauseous. I’d have diarrhea and be like, Why do I do this? I had to answer that question. I realized I suffer from serious depression. Going on stage lights me on fire; it goes against the bad energy. It’s like ayurvedic practice. For me going on stage counteracts my depressive state.

(PL, “Do you find that the anxiety dissipates once you’re into the performance?”)

CH Yeah, it transforms into this incredible energy. The other thing is that I’m incredibly shy and feel really uncomfortable around people.

ABP Yet you love performing?

CH Ironically, I can communicate and connect to other human beings the best when I’m on stage because they’re over there in the dark and I can’t really see them. (laughter)

ABP That makes me want to ask about all the masks, noses, wraps, and mitigations onstage interfering with actually seeing you.

CH I love to hide myself in costumes and wigs and veils and fake noses and such. They’re ultimately about stage fright. You know, I have to wear masks to face people. I’ve partly investigated my wig fetish. It’s from my mom. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was ten and she suffered through it for years. The chemotherapy made her hair come out in clumps multiple times. She wore head-wraps and had a wig made that looked like her real hair. That filled me with a very deep fear, so I made a preemptive strike so I’d be prepared for potential future baldness with my arsenal of awesome wigs!

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Cynthia Hopkins in The Truth: A Tragedy. Photo by Paula Court.

ABP (Rolls dice.) Why do you dance in your work?

CH I love to dance. If I’m trying to tell a story I’m going to use everything I can; if I became paralyzed from the neck down or something, then I would make pieces where I just sing songs.

ABP So you dance because you have a body.

CH I have a body and I can dance, and I love to do it. I’m trying to tell stories that have all of these conflicting elements, and the most powerful way to transmit them is by using all these forms at once. It’s crazy to me to think about people like Mike Daisey, who is in the lineage of Spalding Gray. Both are amazing storytellers. I have this intense envy; I wish that I could make stories where I just sit at a table and go blah blah blah.

ABP What stops you from doing that?

CH I love making things that have these different ways of communication. You can express something through dance that you can’t express through text, or music, or any other form.

ABP (Rolls dice again.) What is your Achilles’ heel?

CH I have so many Achilles’ heels that I’d need 300 feet on me to fit them all.

ABP That’s a great image.

CH A good friend and I were talking about how people can’t see their own faults; I said, “Well, please tell me what mine is!” And he said, “You thrive on drama.” That’s not one I would’ve come up with. (laughter)

ABP But you’re trying to control real-life drama and make it go away through drama on stage?

CH I’m a control freak.

ABP Every director is a control freak.

CH That’s an Achilles’ heel, because a) if you try to control things too much you destroy them, and, b) there’s almost nothing you can control, so it’s a really frustrating way of existing.

ABP Amen on that.

CH Also my pride. I’m easily offended too it turns out, and I’m incredibly impatient. I’ve come to see that as a strength and a weakness. If I weren’t so impatient I would never have made those ridiculously outsized pieces that I didn’t have the money to make. I would have waited until I had the proper funding, but I’m so impatient, I couldn’t wait! I went into debt. Fiscal irresponsibility, I’ll add.

ABP What about your theatrical Achilles’ heel?

CH Probably my most dangerous weakness is that there is no separation at all between my work and my personal life. And also that I have to have a million lights and a million collaborators; a lot of people that I can’t really afford to pay. Maybe I could make a piece that doesn’t cost anything, but I’d feel like, Oh no! It’ll never be interesting enough.

ABP I wouldn’t want you to do that either. Part of your gift is playing with multiple forms and putting yourself in them. That’s what you do to the people you work with; you ask them to do something they wouldn’t normally do. Okay, I’m rolling.

CH While you’re rolling I should mention my collaborators: DJ Mendel has been a great influence. And you, Annie-B Parson, as a directorial eye in general, but also as a choreographer. Jeff Sugg and Jim Findlay have worked as a design team on all the Trilogy pieces.

ABP You guys have sort of grown up artistically together.

CH We’ve mutually expanded one another’s horizons. For the performances of The Truth: A Tragedy, which opened in France this past March, we brought an old friend of ours, Tom Fruin, a great artist, to fabricate the museum/cabinet of curiosities. I met both Jeff and Tom through Gale Gates, the first company I ever worked with in New York.

Tom was great to have in France. The hallway where we put the museum belongs to the city of Lyon; we couldn’t defile it in any way. He was the perfect person to bring on; he makes his own work mostly out of stuff he finds in the trash. We displayed my father’s junk in a beautiful situation very much in keeping with my father’s aesthetic. All of his drawings are on the back of medical bills or whatever—things that could be thought of as trash.

ABP Did your dad know you were making a piece about him?

CH Oh yeah. I started taking footage since I thought I was going to make a documentary on him after seeing the Agnès Varda film. He played a part in an earlier show of mine, so at one point he said, “Is this an extension of the part I played in the last movie?” I said, “No, you’re the star. It’s all about you.”

ABP I just rolled a 20. I’m going to ask you some definitions.

CH Okay.

ABP Can you define a few words? Could you define the word “irony”?

CH Inherent contradiction. Often two opposite things are true at the same time.

ABP Is there irony in your work?

CH There is this modern version of irony, which is saying something and meaning the opposite, but mine—

ABP Yours is more like Flaubert’s irony. One side is shedding light on the other side. I’ve heard it described as one eye is crying and the other eye is watching the tear fall.

Could you define what theater is?

CH (laughter) Hmm.

ABP How about why is theater?

CH Theater is designed to promote reflection. I love the French word for rehearsal: répétition. You do this thing over and over, and you perform it over and over—it’s a ritual.

If there’s any arc or thread in the The Truth it’s these voiceovers, my internal voice. DJ Mendel actually does the voice—he sounds more like what my internal voice really sounds like. It’s the voice of a dark, bitter 95-year-old man saying: “I love the theater because everyone has to sit down and shut up.” And also “Ritual. Reflection. Repetition.”

ABP Did you read any Greek drama to make this piece?

CH Four Plays by Euripides translated by Anne Carson; my favorite part was actually her introduction to that book, where she sums up the reason I hate and love Greek tragedies: Is there suffering? Yeah. Why? Who the hell knows. We don’t know why we have to suffer, therefore human suffering could be viewed as a kind of doom. We’re not any closer to understanding our existence today; but that’s also exactly why life is so thrilling.

Also Edith Hamilton’s Greek Mythology, which I love because she discusses the context of the myths. Before some of them became written dramas, they were told and retold thousands of times over this incredibly long time span. Hamilton discusses how the stories shifted according to how the worldview was shifting. It’s fascinating. These same stories have totally different outcomes.

ABP It’s like different shrinks. (laughter) Plays were like the Greek’s version of going to psychoanalysis.

CH Trying to make meaning out of life.

ABP So do you have more respect for Greek plays now?

CH Their fate-driven worldview frustrates me. You go to the oracle to see what’s going to happen because you have no control. Being a control freak myself, I want to believe I have control over everything. I’ve come to have a holistic outlook. It’s not nature or nurture, fate or agency—it’s both. There’s a huge degree over which I don’t have control, but there are things that I can change.

ABP You can wrestle with the gods?

CH Yeah.

ABP Maybe this is a good place to end. The dice are tired.

Listen to a podcast of Cynthia Hopkins in conversation with playwright Craig Lucas.

Annie-B Parson is artistic director of Big Dance Theater, creating pieces seen at DTW, The Kitchen, The American Dance Festival, Jacob’s Pillow, Spoleto Festival, The Walker, Classic Stage Company, and in festivals in Brazil, Italy, France, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands. Her company has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Jacob’s Pillow Creativity Award, an Obie Award, and a Bessie. Her next piece is a commission from the Anticodes Festival, France, and will premiere in Paris and at BAM in New York.

Cynthia Hopkins by Craig Lucas
Cynthia Hopkins collage

Originally published in

BOMB 112, Summer 2010

Featuring interviews with Dan Asher, Elizabeth Streb and A.M Homes, Jessica Jackson Hutchins, Alain Mabanckou, Jennifer Egan, Edward Droste, Cynthia Hopkins, and Joan Jonas.

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