Kaitlin Hopkins; Part One
Kaitlin Hopkins is an award-winning actress, director, entrepreneur, educator, and an overall badass woman. In 2009, she created and became head of the BFA musical theatre program at Texas State University, which has been named one of the top 10 musical theatre programs in the country. Along with being an educator, Kaitlin Hopkins is a pioneer when it comes to research on mental wellness and performing artists. To hear more about the work she is doing, watch her TEDx Talk on the subject.
If you could conduct your own interview, what would you ask yourself?
I think I would ask myself how I got from performing into what I’m doing now, or how my upbringing influenced the choices I made along the way. It’s a hard question because I don’t find myself particularly interesting.
I think I would be interested in hearing about what it is that I love about teaching and working with young artists. One of the wonderful things about teaching is that you get to pass something on to the next generation, and that in turn gets passed on, and so on. Because of my upbringing growing up in show business and being around so many extraordinary artists including my parents, I feel a responsibility to pass those lessons on to the next generation of young artists, and to be there to support them, as so many people did for me along the way. If you’re lucky, as you go along you find your chosen family, your tribe, and that is such a gift.
My experience with educating is that you also learn so much from your students, and that makes you a better teacher — and it keeps you curious. I had gotten to a place in my work as an actor where I felt stuck, and I’d stopped asking the questions and peeling that onion to learn and grow in my work. When you have the opportunity to work with young artists, they are in a place in their lives where they’re hungry and curious — I wanted that back. I wanted to feel that way again. Sometimes, along the journey, you lose pieces of yourself. I was always somebody who much preferred rehearsal to performing; I was an actor who loved process. That 8-shows-a-week grind didn’t really interest me in the way the rehearsal process did.
I was lucky that I had a lot of opportunities to do a lot of new musical workshops and play readings. I never made any money doing that, but to me that was when I was most fulfilled and when I felt I was at my best as a collaborator in the room. The thing that makes me gravitate toward working with young artists is that you’re never not in the process part of the work. You’re always in process, you’re always in discovery, you’re always asking questions and seeking answers.
I love it when I don’t know the answer! I love it when students approach me with something and I actually don’t know the answer, and we get to just try stuff and figure it out together. I call it “throwing pasta at the wall and seeing what sticks.” I think the best work comes out of a willingness to play and try things. Some things you try will work better than others, and you can then build a character and the world they live in from there. Not settling is important in acting, continuing to stay present and making discoveries is where the good stuff lives. Being with my students in their process got me back to what I love and who I am as an artist.
There’s also just something so deeply gratifying about watching someone else’s achievement. When I watch my students have a light-bulb moment in class, or give an extraordinary performance, or make sense of something in a rehearsal, I’m just on cloud nine. That’s such a better feeling than performing was for me. I liked performing, but it never made me feel the way directing and teaching does. In retrospect, it feels like everything else I did before led me to what I was actually supposed to be doing, which was teaching. I think that is such a gift my journey as an actor gave me.
This was never the plan. Building a musical theatre program, being a teacher, and directing was never the plan. I had so many plans, and some of them panned out and some of them didn’t, but that led to other plans — but this was never anything we dreamed of. I love that life can surprise you and give you things you never imagined that were better than any of the things you thought you wanted. I think being open to what the universe sends you is so important, staying open to the things you didn’t even know were possible. Building this program was something that found me, and I thank God every day that I had the good sense to say yes and try it, because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I didn’t know what I was missing, I didn’t know that I hadn’t found my calling until I tried it, which goes back to what I just spoke about great acting requiring artists who are willing to play and try things and not settle, thinking they know the answer on the first try. I thought performing was my calling, and then when it stopped feeling fulfilling, I got confused. I didn’t know what that meant.
I think as you get older, you learn that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what you’re meant to do. Sometimes it’s simply that thing leading you to what you’re supposed to do. Your early life is all part of a foundation you’re building for what’s to come both personally and professionally.
Where were you born?
I was born in New York City, and I came early because my mom was walking off of a New York City bus, and the doors closed on her belly as she got off the bus, and it induced labor early. I was raised in the West Village. Years later, I ultimately ended up living on the upper west side when Jim (Kaitlin’s husband) and I bought a condo on 95th and Broadway but I’m a Greenwich Village girl thru and thru. I could take you on an incredible tour of the west village and where I grew up, it’s a special place.
What’s your favorite book right now, or ever?
My problem with books is that my favorite book is whatever I’m reading at the time. It changes all the time. A lot of my favorite books are the ones that I read when I was young, like Black Beauty and The Chronicles of Narnia. My all-time favorite books are the The Hobbit/ Lord of the Rings series. The books that have actually stay with me over the years are the ones I read when I was a child; those are the ones that had the deepest impact on me. I would sit for hours as a kid in the window seat in the house that I lived in growing up in England, and I would sit for hours and hours and hours just reading. It was a way to escape to somewhere that felt safe and real, I loved living in my imagination. That was really the only thing I was interested in doing. I wasn’t into sports; I was really into my imagination. That’s where I liked to live. My sister liked horses, and I liked pretending stuff. I was big on reading series of books. There was series about an English girls’ boarding school called Mallory Towers and The Nancy Drew books that were a massive part of my obsession with books as a young girl. That love for books has followed me my whole life.
What are your mornings like?
My mornings are about wet noses of corgis in my face. I wake up to two corgis: Lily Dale spoons with me or she likes to wrap herself around my head, and Barkley likes to come up and sit on my chest and snuffle in my ear. They both let me know it’s time to wake up; they lick my face and jump all over me. So, my mornings are actually kind of awesome, and I look forward to waking up in the morning because of how those dogs are with me. They’re different in the morning than they are at any other time in the day; it’s a special time that I have with the dogs.
Then I make my one cup of very strong English breakfast tea (with milk). It’s very much a ritual for me. I have a little teapot, and I brew my tea, and I sit and just drink my tea and contemplate life looking out at our view, we sort of live in a tree house, it’s very magical, we have an incredible view and my favorite thing is watching the sunrise in the morning with the dogs curled up with me on the sofa. Then I meditate, and then I go to my to-do list for the day.
But the precious part of the morning — where it’s like, I have to have this for my day to go well — are corgis, tea, and meditating. Then I’m like, OK, let’s see what the day has to offer. Jim and I also walk the dogs together every morning before we start our day, and that’s a precious part of my day, too, Jim and I starting and ending our day together.
What would you tell your 20-year-old self?
I would say to be fearless and brave, and not be as concerned about what people think, and to have the courage to spend time alone and not always feel like you have to be in a relationship to be whole. That’s what I would tell my 20-year-old self.
I think that at that age, I didn’t have a strong enough sense of self to feel OK on my own, and I always felt like I needed to have a boyfriend. I think the trajectory of my life would have been different had I had the courage to be on my own at that time. I don’t believe in focusing on regrets or mistakes; I think all of the choices we make end up defining us for better or for worse, and yes, those are things I could look back and say, “Oh, yeah, I wish I would’ve done this, or, I wish I would’ve told myself that” but then, at the same time, the lessons I learned from those mis-steps ultimately led me to understand how important it is to be on your own person, and to have a clear understanding of what you stand for, what is important to you, and what you want — and perhaps if I had just instinctively known that, I may not have ever found Jim, because I wouldn’t have known what I needed and what I wanted had it not been for all the mis-steps along the way. They were blessings, they made me who I am, so I try not to think of those things as mistakes or regrets, simply as life experiences that helped me fail forward.
Those early life experiences end up informing the choices that you make later, and you learn lessons that you’re supposed to learn. It’s one of the things that I try to instill in my students now, how to own who you are, how to build a strong sense of self, how to define who you are and live deliberately in the world. I don’t think I would’ve known how to teach it, if I hadn’t lived it.
When you were 20, how did you envision your life at the age you are now? Is it different?
The life I envisioned for myself at 20 was all about career. It was all about finding success in my chosen field. I cared very much that I was respected as an artist, I cared that I was earning a reputation as a great actress through dedication to my craft. I didn’t care about being a famous actress; I cared about being really good at it. So, I never stopped studying with great teachers. I was always in class while I was pursuing my career, I was always striving to get better, but all of it was in the pursuit of success in my career. I always loved learning from artists who were older and more experienced. I was lucky that early on I had opportunity to be around and learn from some of our greatest American playwrights, directors and actors. I was always the actor who sat in on rehearsals to watch, even if I wasn’t called to learn from those people. I was fascinated with the creative, process.
That influenced every choice I made, whether it was a relationship or where I lived, or how I spent my time. Everything was very, very career-driven, which I don’t think is a bad or good thing, it was just what was familiar. I knew what I wanted, and I was willing to work really hard to get it, and if it wasn’t going the way I wanted living in one place, I simply moved to another place. If it wasn’t happening in New York, I moved to L.A., and if it wasn’t happening in L.A., I moved back to New York. I went where the work was, and when doors opened, I dropped everything and just said “yes”.
So, that was kind of what I was about then. I think if I had grown up in a house with balance and with examples that career wasn’t everything, I would have approached it differently. I learned that the hard way later in my life and started making different choices later that supported my work, and the quality of my life. I would not recommend how I was at 20 to someone I love, it isn’t the healthiest approach to a happy successful life but I’m glad for what I learned along the way because of it.
I was somebody who, in my 20s, simply said “yes” to any and every opportunity, in an effort to see where it would lead. Actually, I’m still that person, that part of me never changed. I sort of innately understood that work leads to more work and broadening my network and my circle of friends and my community would ultimately lead to other adventures and opportunities. I like change, and challenges. I did then and do still think of my life as an opportunity for new adventures.
And, yes, I had expectations. I had expectations that I’d be very successful, that I would make money, that I would fall in love and have a great relationship, and that I would get married someday. I think I had really big dreams that are very common. I don’t think there’s anything particularly unique about what I wanted for myself. I didn’t mention having kids as part of my expectations because that was not something I ever wanted. Not because of my career but because of my childhood. I had a stepbrother who was killed by a drunk driver when I was 7 years old, he was 9, and let’s just say that destroyed our families in more ways than you can imagine, and none of us ever recovered. And, as is true for many people, I came from a broken family. I was an only child, but I had two dads, two moms, two half-brothers, a half-sister, and step brother and step sister, and their mom, who was also someone I loved and was part of my life as a third mom, and a “partridge in a pear tree” (said while singing the melody of “12 Days of Christmas”). Kids were not high on my list of good ideas.
And by the way, all of those expectations I had, I failed at, and succeeded at, and failed at again, and succeeded, and so on. I just kept getting back up and I would re-assess and change something if that part of my life wasn’t moving forward in a positive way. I would just make a change and try again. Sometimes that meant letting go of something and working toward something new.
From the time I was little, I always wanted to make a difference. I’m not sure I knew what that meant at 20, but I knew that I really, really wanted to make a difference in the world. I wasn’t really sure how being an actress was gonna do that, but I think that I thought through celebrity, I would be able to have influence in areas that I cared about, as many celebrities do. I mean, you see them do it all the time — they support gun control, or they support breast cancer research. I sort of always felt that I would be able to make a difference through my craft, and that was really important to me. As I got older, that changed, as I started to identify what that feeling actually was versus what I thought it was.
Then your life happens, and you have a lot of wins and a lot of losses, and you either pick yourself back up and keep moving forward, or you change direction a little to see if that’s less ouchy, and more successful. I did both many times over, as I think everyone does, but the last decade of my life, which brought me to Texas State and this job, made it not just about me anymore — and I realized that the place I was supposed to make a difference was in helping people one-on-one; that my success and my celebrity, although you can achieve things there, wasn’t actually how I was going to make a difference. How I was gonna actually make a difference was through one-on-one relationships, not on a big global scale, which is what I had thought I was gonna do. I thought I was gonna be Oprah Winfrey, but that’s not what I was supposed to do. Greatness is anyone who commits to anything that’s important to them and makes a difference in the environment that they’re in, and you don’t need celebrity or money to do that.
I guess the way I changed is that I didn’t care about my own success anymore, I cared about my students’ success and I cared about the success of the program and about the well-being of students and faculty under my care. I saw needs that needed to be met, and I knew that I could fill those needs through creativity and hard work and solution-based thinking. For example, coming up with the mental wellness curriculum for the program, I realized that’s where my gift was — in recognizing a need, and then having the creativity and the ability to execute an idea and bring it to fruition to address those needs. Ultimately, that became much more fulfilling to me than any performance I ever gave.
So how is my life different? I guess instead of trying to do something grand; I just trying, every day to bring integrity and excellence to whatever I do. I used to think more was better. Now I think quality is better than quantity, and I’m much more deliberate in how I live in the world than I was when I was younger. I used to just shoot out of bed, go make my tea and drink it, and I’d just start my day with no intension other than to survive it and win. But now I very deliberately spend time with the corgis and Jim, even if it’s a few minutes, and I’m present with that. And then, when I make my tea, I’m actually present with making my tea and I have an experience with that, with myself. It’s alone time. It’s me time. It’s something I really love, and I really enjoy my little teapot and exactly how much milk I put in my tea, using my favorite corgi mug. It sounds silly, but I’m present with that.
God, I keep talking about my damn tea, but it represents something so important to me. It was something I did on autopilot for the majority of my life, and it was the first thing, when I made a change to be more present and actually experience my life, it began there, with something small and manageable and I knew I could build on that. It was one of the first things I could identify that I actually liked that was just for me and wasn’t about taking care of someone else. My life is different because I’m more present and not always in a rush to win, with the only goal to achieve, achieve, achieve, that’s the best way I can describe it. Living in the process is the win now, not the result. All those small victories we have throughout the day that move us forward, not the prize at the end that can be so elusive. That is where the joy and sense of accomplishment lives for me, the journey. Otherwise you miss out on your life.
At 20, you just want to win all the time. I wanted to win all the time. I hustled, and I ran as fast as I could, and you’re throwing the net wide and you’re juggling so many plates but you’re not feeling anything or experiencing your life because you’re too busy comparing yourself to other people instead of focusing on how to be the best you. I’m still a plate-spinner but now I’m like, OK, today’s plate is- I’m going to go teach this class well, and I’m going to be present with these 14 students. I’ve never shook the part of my personality that needs to do a lot all the time; I’m always going to take on a lot. I’m never going to be the person who doesn’t want to have a lot of fingers in a lot of things. But what has changed is how I do those things, and how I choose to live in the world. I challenge myself to do one thing at a time with intention, attention to details and quality, instead of doing a lot of things mediocre. “Less is more” they say when it comes to acting…its true in life as well.
Did you always have the world view of looking at something and being able to say, I know I can do that?
As a young woman, I was afraid I couldn’t do things — but I also knew I had the potential in me to be a great actress. I had an inner knowledge that I was a great singer and a great actress before I actually knew how to do those things. I knew that I had the ability inside me to do that really well, and I knew what I had to do to get there. No one else knew I was a singer, but I did. Then I spent years practicing and learning that craft, to do it at the level I wanted. It took decades to do it at the skill level I wanted to achieve. I didn’t do musicals until much later in my career, that wasn’t by choice, I simply didn’t have the vocal ability when I first started working professionally to compete. Once I did, I was able to start getting work as a singer, not just as an actress. I will never forget when after almost 10 years of working on my voice, I was able to belt a C and power mix up to a G because before that, I could only belt a B, and well, there were no roles for belters where just belting a B was going to cut it. The next 10 years was spent trying to build my head voice because I didn’t have access to that either, but I knew I could, I just had to find the right teachers who could help me get there.
It’s an odd thing, having an innate sense of confidence and a sense of knowing what you’re supposed to do with your life, but having massive insecurities too. I wasn’t always confident in singing and acting but I knew I would get there eventually if I worked hard. I wasn’t always confident in doing it, but I knew I could; I was just going to have to practice and work really hard, and study with a lot of great people to get there. I was very hungry to do it well, and that motivated me.
Other areas were much harder. I don’t think I ever thought that I was particularly smart. Both my sisters were the smart ones, so I was always treated like the pretty, talented but not smart one. I couldn’t spell and I was a little dyslexic, while my sisters were both brilliantly, academically book-smart, and that was very valued in my family. I was street smart. I had great common sense, and interesting, creative ideas, but I didn’t have the confidence at that time to do anything with them.
I had a lot of really great ideas in my 20s and 30s that I gave away to other people because I didn’t think I deserved to have them. I think it took me until the last 10 years — I mean, I’m 55 now, and it took me until my 40s before I actually believed that I was smart and I could be successful as a businesswoman, that I could and should be taken seriously. It’s funny that you can get to that late in your life before you actually believe that you’re worthy, that you’re smart enough, intelligent enough to hold your own. Because you always sort of think, well, everybody else knows how to do that, I don’t know how to do that. Other people would do that better so I’m just going to keep my mouth shut. I gave my power away to other people, especially men, for a long time.
I don’t know how many times I needed the universe to tell me that I was smart, and that I had good ideas before I believed it, a lot, I guess. I just gave them away for years and years and years. When I created Fontus (which is a dry throat lozenge for singers) that was a big turning point for me. It was one of the first ideas I didn’t let someone else have. I owned it as my own, and whether it was successful or not, was not the point. It was mine. I was able to make that happen because I believed in myself and I knew it was a good idea. It took collaboration and three other amazing people including my husband to ultimately make it a reality, but it wouldn’t exist if I hadn’t come up with it. It’s one of the reasons why I have my sophomores create an original devised piece together, so they can know what it is like to feel that confidence and experience their inherent value in the world when they make something that didn’t exist until they manifested it.
Somebody told me once that you have to believe in your product to sell it. It’s so much easier to believe in my students than it is to believe in myself. They are extraordinary and I have been given a gift to serve their journeys. I believe in my ability to serve my students, nobody’s gonna do that better, nobody, I know that. But don’t ask me to do it for myself; it’s much harder. I think some of that’s the way you’re raised and some of it’s the things that happen to you along the way that knock the wind out of you, that take away the things that make you feel confident and good about yourself. I think a lot of women have sexual assault stories and things that have defined them in a way that changes who they are, you know? I have mine, as well. I think the two sexual experiences I had that were not consensual, took something away that I never got back, and it’s very hard to recover from those things. I have learned not to let them continue to define me. I love what I do so much, and I have found a happiness I never had before. I wasn’t always happy in my life. It was hard. I struggled with terrible depression that was always hovering in the background and that was debilitating at times, and now I get to be happy, even on hard days, even when challenges arise, I get to be happy, no one gets to take that away from me. I earned every moment of that.