Kaitlin Hopkins; Part Two
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.
How do you define happiness?
So many things define happiness; I’m not sure I ever thought about “how do I define happy for myself?” I’m not sad, therefore I’m happy? To some degree that’s true. I think I spent the large majority of my life with profound sadness and a lot of emotional pain that no matter how fast I ran, or how much success I got and how many plates I spun, I couldn’t escape it. Jim said to me early in our relationship, “You’re like a shark. You’re scared that if you stop moving, you’ll die. But you’re not gonna die, you’re just going to feel what you have been avoiding and you won’t die from that— because you’re gonna have to feel it eventually. You have to be willing to feel it to get on the other side of it.” And he was right. It was terrifying but once I had the courage to do it, I was like, “Oh, I’m actually not going to die from feeling. I’m okay, I’m safe.” I used to have terrible anxiety attacks and they were a direct result of not being willing to just stop, and feel, and process the things that I was trying as hard as I could to avoid. I think being happy means not being in fight or flight to your life, which can become a constant state of being if that was how you grew up. Happy, can also mean-just not suffering anymore. Suffering is exhausting!
I think happy isn’t a constant state. And I think that as a young person I thought I was supposed to be happy all the time, and because I wasn’t, I felt like I was failing — because I was hiding a lot of depression, I didn’t understand that. And now I understand that happy isn’t a constant state. It’s just like, when I walk into this building (the theatre center at Texas State) and stop for a second and look at the turtles in the moat, it makes me happy for that moment or when the butterflies come visit our garden every year and for a few days it looks like the garden is constantly in motion. It’s magical and it makes me happy. It’s a moment, it’s not a constant state, it’s not hiding, it’s being me all the time and not compromising that. Snuggling with my two corgis and having my tea in the morning, that makes me happy. And if you have enough of those moments throughout the day, where you enjoy making your tea and you snuggle with your dogs and you actually have that moment, and you walk the dogs with your husband and you get to have a conversation about the things that are important to you on that walk — like I can’t tell you the conversations that Jim and I have on those walks; it’s a time we can just talk about anything — not school, not our students, which is what we talk about most of the time, but just other dreams and goals we have, other things we want, what do we want for ourselves now and later in our lives, what’s the next journey for us? You know, we daydream all the time together: sitting out on the deck having a cocktail, sitting in the pool, going for walks with the dogs. I think having somebody that you can daydream with is really magical, and that’s also what happy is. Happy is, I love sunflowers, and that I know what my favorite flower is. Happy is somebody in my life that I can make dreams with, that’s a powerful thing.
I think happy is having goals, having dreams, having something you’re pursuing every day that gives you joy— whether you fail at it that day or succeed, you did it! Happy is complicated and simply all at the same time. Happy is the fact that you actually did it, and you didn’t not do it because you were afraid. I’m much less afraid now than I used to be and far less afraid of failing, failure doesn’t scare me anymore, it empowers me. I don’t mind being wrong, I mind not having an opinion in the first place. I think the answer to how I define happy is being present for all my life experiences good and bad. That is a win, and that is happiness to me because I spent a lot of my life not feeling anything and just shutting down. Happy is feeling, for better or for worse, at least I’m present for the journey.
I liked that question. It made my brain want to make sense of it, and happy, what is happy? How do we define it? Love that. Thank you for that question.
What’s something outside of your work that you love?
I always envy people who have a definitive answer to this question. Normal people have hobbies and things that they do; my sister for example loves to knit and make jewelry. I don’t have that answer. My entire life I have looked for other things to do, but I never found anything I liked to do that you would consider a “hobby”. My husband plays golf, loves to garden and watches golf and football and tennis, those are his hobbies. My sister is one of those people who takes classes in something. If she wants to learn how to needlepoint or quilt, she’ll be like, “I’m doing a three-day weekend on needlepoint and embroidery or quilting”, and then she actually does it, loves it, does it beautifully, and it becomes a lifelong passion. The idea of that makes me want to get a root canal it just doesn’t appeal to me at all. I’m fascinated by people who have other things that they do. I have envied them more than once. I think it is a gift to have a hobby.
Having said that, I love cooking and Art, going to museums, any kind and Jim and I love working on projects in our home. That is what I do outside of work. Going back to the cooking, I love collecting recipes. I probably still have easily 50 cookbooks; I used to have well over a hundred. I like reading cookbooks, I like reading recipes, I like being creative in the kitchen, I like grocery shopping for a dish I’m going to make, I like going to farmers markets, I like the act of making a decision about something I’m going to make, and then with intent, and not rushing, I love going and getting all of the ingredients. I love baking the cake or making the pasta. I love cooking, and it’s something that I’m really, really, really good at, and I’ve always loved it. For years I thought, Oh, I’ll have a restaurant someday — which, when you’re young, sounds terribly romantic. And then when you actually know what it takes to have a restaurant, you decide that’s a terrible idea. I always loved the idea of nourishing people, of making food for people, it is a creative and joyful and meditative act for me. I had a catering company that specialized in baby and bridal showers for quite a few years as my day job when I was living out in LA pursuing film and television, and I was very proud of that, and I loved doing it.
I also like problem-solving. Give me problem to solve and I’m happy, literally. Coming up with solutions to anything and I’m totally jazzed. I guess the same way people are obsessed with crossword puzzles, I love coming up with creative solutions to problems. I love what I do every day at work so much, it’s hard to want to do something other than that. Why waste time on a hobby? I often think why would I want to do something else today when I could work on curriculum, or a concept for a musical I want to direct? And I don’t know — like, that’s what I want to do! Other than spending time with my husband, that’s how I want to spend my time.
How do you best take care of yourself?
I try to get enough sleep, I hydrate a lot, I try to eat well, I meditate, and I try to laugh a lot-a sense of humor is everything. I think the best way I take care of myself is I don’t take things personally. In the past, when I’ve done that, I’ve done myself and others damage. I also take care of myself by practicing being kinder to myself, especially when I fail, because I think being a perfectionist is one of the most damaging things you can do to yourself.
Part of self-care for me is also prioritizing my time, which means scheduling time to be alone, taking care of our home and lives, spending time with my husband, spending time with my friends and my family, going swimming, and doing nothing. And every now and then I treat myself to a pedicure. All of those things are part of taking care of myself.
What inspires you?
Kindness. Art. Nature. Children, especially between the ages of 2-6. I don’t know why, but I find them absolutely brilliant. I don’t know what it is about that age demographic, but there’s something that really intrigues me and that I find so inspiring. I think it’s the way they see the world; I love the way they see the world. It is pure and simple and so logical. I love it. Nature is a real big inspiration, nature in any form. One of the best experiences I ever had was going to Alaska. I had no idea how that place was going to make me feel but it was inspiring. And my husband, because he’s brilliant, and funny and he inspires me and has for almost 20 years to be a better person, to dream big and to believe in myself.
Who do you consider to be another badass in the industry/who would you want in your circle of badass women?
The first women who came into my brain are the ones that I’m going to offer you. The first person that came into my head was Molly Smith, who is the artistic director at Arena Stage in Washington. I’ve followed her career from the very, very beginning, and I just think she’s a badass. She inspires me. I would love to be her when I grow up. I heard her give a keynote speech once, and I literally stood in the back and wept, because I think she’s a brilliant woman. I had the good fortune to work with her once, when I played Heidi in “The Heidi Chronicles” for the radio and she directed it. That was one of the highlights of my entire life, meeting that woman and then working with her.
Other women who come to mind are Lynne Meadow, who’s the artistic director at Manhattan Theatre Club and has been for, I don’t even know how long, decades, and Emily Mann, who’s the artistic director at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton. She’s been there for decades, too. As long as I can remember, those two women have been in those positions of power and brilliance, and I admire them because they’re doing something that I care very strongly about — supporting playwrights, supporting new work, directing, producing, helping to define theatre. And, all of them have been responsible for producing so many of our great playwrights’ work. So, yeah, I think they’re pretty badass.
There are two women producers who I really respect, and I think are pretty badass — Daryl Roth and Robyn Goodman. I’ve had a chance to work for both of those women and, again, I would love to be them when I grow up. I just look at what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished in their careers at a time when it has been — and still is — a predominantly male-driven industry, and they’ve done it at the highest level very successfully for a very, very long time. I really respect longevity in any career, because it’s hard to do something well for that long. All those women inspired me along the way to believe that anything was possible.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
Don’t take things personally. Also, you lose nothing by being kind, don’t stay angry and practice forgiveness. Those are things that people have said along the way that I’m glad I listened to, because they’ve served me in every area of my life. The only person you hurt by staying angry is yourself because to stay angry means your relieving that negative experience over and over again. So, finding your way to forgiveness is important. I was told once, by a woman who I really respected and helped me very much in my life, something along the lines of, “Why do you keep doing the same thing over and over again, and expecting the outcome to be different?” And when I actually understood what that meant, I realized she was right — if something or someone isn’t making you happy and you keep trying to make them change to make you happy, but nothing changes and you keep expecting the outcome to be different, then who’s at fault? Why are you expecting the outcome to be different? Maybe you should take responsibility and change something in you. That was a really good piece of advice.
What’s the best lesson you had to learn during your career as a performer?
The best lesson I ever learned is that being the lead in a show doesn’t make you special, and to practice gratitude. Being the lead in a show doesn’t mean you’re more important than anybody else. It takes everybody to make a successful show — every dresser, every usher, or PR person, every person writing a check in an office who works for the producers that you may not ever meet or know their name, but they’re making sure you get your payroll check and that things run smoothly. It takes a lot of people to make a successful show and it is a business. It is a business. It is called show business, not show art. it isn’t just about you, and just because your name is on the marquee, it doesn’t make you fancier or any more valuable than anybody else.
I think once you understand where you fit in the larger picture, and that you are part of something bigger, and how you can be of service to that larger idea, it makes you better at what you do. It also makes you grateful to be there and be part of it. It makes you more of an asset when you understand that being a leading man or a leading lady, you’re also there to lead and support the company, not to just be the star of the show. I saw a lot of bad behavior by people in leading roles, and I saw a lot of inspiring behavior by people in leading roles, and I think I did both along the way. I made mistakes that I learned from, and at some point, you have to decide who you want to be. Having a fancy job doesn’t makes you fancy it just makes you lucky. I think you’re a better artist and a better professional when you can have that perspective.
I learned that careers have ups and downs, my whole family was in show business and I saw so many people over the years go thru ebbs and flows in their careers. You might be on Broadway starring in a show and then, six months later, be doing dinner theatre in a Christmas show somewhere regionally. It’s all relative. You have to make art because you want to make art, because you need to be an artist, not for validation or recognition, and certainly not for money. Don’t take things for granted be grateful. Try not to judge and label things in ways that don’t serve you or the producers that are trusting you with their show. Biggest lesson, every show deserves your best, regardless of how you feel about it, Broadway or Dinner Theatre, Equity or non- Equity, everything has to have to same value. That’s your job as a professional. Oh, and don’t hang out with the people who are trash talking and negative and have forgotten to be decent, professional humans.
As a woman in 2019, how do you navigate, deal with, and/or associate with politics?
I’m a little obsessed with CNN. That’s what’s on in my car, so whenever I’m in my car it’s how I keep up with what’s happening, and I read the New York Times. I mean, how do I interact with politics? How I interact with politics is kind of a complicated question and I’m not even sure I understand what that means but I try to live through example; I don’t think you can change people who have a different belief system than you but you can come to a mutual place of respect and understanding. I have friends who aren’t friends any more with people who believe differently from them politically or religiously, and that doesn’t make sense to me. I mean if you “un-friend” everyone who has a different opinion how do we ever find compromise and understanding and compassion, how do we live together with differences? We must find a way, and that way is always thru listening. Same is true for great acting yes? You must listen before you respond.
The way I interact with politics is to try to listen to and be accepting of different points of view, at the very least be open to understanding where they are coming from even if I don’t agree. Just because people have different political views doesn’t mean that I can’t love them or have them in my life— we just have different belief systems. Now that is of course not including evil or crazy. I’m talking about reasonable humans who vote differently or think about issues differently than I do.
The great gift of theatre is that you can put people of any color, creed, religion, sexual identity or political party in the same room and they can make great art. That has the power to heal differences and grow understanding and compassion, even if people’s core value system stays the same, acceptance and love happens, I see it every day. Now, if you only put liberals in a room together, that’s going to be a very narrow vision of that piece of art; (the same goes) if you put a bunch of right-wing Republicans in a room together to create a piece of art. The great thing about theatre is that anyone and everyone is welcome, and together we’re going to make great art, and put those things aside. You can heal the world with great art; you can’t heal the world with political bias.