- Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
In 2009, John Fleming had reached the end of his rope.
As head of the theater and dance department at Texas State University, he needed just the right talent to lead a new musical theater training program.
Fleming cold-called Broadway veteran Kaitlin Hopkins, who had recently gone on tour with “Dirty Dancing” and had signed up to return to Broadway in “Bye Bye Birdie.”
“You don’t know me,” Fleming said. “I’m the chairman of the theater program in San Marcos, and I’m calling because your name keeps coming up. We are looking for someone who has been in the industry for at least 20 years and has producing, performing, directing and fundraising experience. All three of the people we contacted mentioned you. Will you fly out here next week for an interview?”
Hopkins did not know Fleming. She hadn’t heard of Texas State University or San Marcos.
“I have to go do a matinee,” she replied. “I’ll call you later.”
She told her husband — actor and playwright Jim Price — to Google the place and figure out what Fleming was talking about. She concluded there was no way a university would hire her without the requisite advanced degrees, despite all her teaching and private coaching experience.
Hopkins’ response: “Look, no. I don’t think you really want me to get on a plane.”
Fleming: “Please just get on the plane. I have a feeling you are the right person for this job.”
It was a job that the daughter of lifelong theater pros didn’t know she wanted.
“There was the challenge and promise of creating the training program I wished I’d had,” Hopkins says. “I liked the idea, too, of condensing my 40 years of life experience. It wasn’t just my career, it was the life I had led — that my family created for me — that made me uniquely qualified. This would be really exciting: a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something from scratch and build a program. I’ll hear them out.”
She swiftly wrote up a 32-page prospectus with one-year, five-year and 10-year plans to present in San Marcos.
“On the plane ride back to Boston, we were both speechless,” Hopkins recalls. “Jim turned to me: ‘Are we moving to Texas?’ Me: ‘I don’t know, I think we might be.’”
That was in March 2009. She had a four-year program up and running by August. She hired fellow veterans — also expert teachers — like herself who knew exactly what was expected of artists today in the field.
And now a lot people in show business know about San Marcos. The program is still a bit of a secret to audiences in Austin and San Antonio, despite raves from theater insiders, who will make the drive down to see any musical the school produces, including the upcoming world premiere of “The World According to Snoopy.”
In eight short years, an already-good school is showing up near the top of national polls.
Best-Art-Colleges.com recently ranked Texas State No. 9 and in the country and No. 1 in the state for performing arts training.
PerformingArtsSchools.com ranked it No. 8 in the nation.
CollegeMagazine.com ranked the musical theater program No. 7 out of the top 10 in the country.
“Kaitlin Hopkins is a great teacher precisely because she is also a great artist,” says Broadway composer, lyricist, author, performer and producer Andrew Lippa, who has spent a good deal of time in San Marcos since her arrival. “Her abilities to communicate — whether as an actor, teacher or mentor — are unsurpassed.”
Born in a trunk
Kaitlin Hopkins, 53, grew up in New York and London. Her deceased father, Gene Persson, was a theater producer from San Diego, involved in, among other things, staging the plays of Tennessee Williams. Her deceased stepfather, John R. Hopkins, was a playwright and screenwriter prominent in the British film, stage and TV business.
Her mother — very much alive and living in Los Angeles — is the incredible actress Shirley Knight. She earned two Oscar nomination for performances in “Sweet Bird of Youth” and “The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.” On Broadway she took home one Tony Award from two nods. She has been a member of the famed Actors Studio and appeared in more than 50 films and TV series, as well as plays on both coasts.
“I was exposed to every aspect of the industry between the three of them, on the sets, in rehearsal and performances, traveling,” Hopkins recalls. “My weekends were always interesting, spending time, say, with Tennessee Williams. He was amazing. Almost always tipsy. Very passionate. Very kind to me as a young person.”
Her parents have donated their Williams material — the great playwright fashioned roles explicitly for Knight — to Austin’s Ransom Center.
“I was in boarding school and came home one weekend,” she says. “It was Tennessee’s sister Rose’s birthday — Laura in ‘The Glass Menagerie’ is based on her — she lived in an institution as her mother had approved her lobotomy years before, and I don’t think he ever forgave himself for that. We were at Harry’s Bar in New York. I was 14. It was a little fancy for me. At the end of dinner, Rose wanted vanilla ice cream. Tennessee pulled out a really large bill and said to the waiter, ‘Excuse me, young man, can I trouble you to run to the corner bodega and get my sister vanilla ice cream?’ I loved him for that.”
Hopkins can share a million theater stories like that. Remember, it was not just her 40 years of direct experience in the theater that led her to San Marcos. It was her life as well.
“I loved to observe my parents working,” she says. “That was the thing I liked best. I read a lot. I kept journals. I also took care of my mom and my half-sister, Sophie Jacks, who wrote for TV and then became a schoolteacher in Los Angeles. I’m an only child, but I have two half-brothers and a half-sister and a stepsister.”
She got the theatrical itch at age 3 1/2. “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” — the predecessor to the upcoming Snoopy musical — was playing at the same time as the rock musical “Hair.” She saw them repeatedly.
“To this day, I know both scores backward and forward,” she says with a smile. “It was not a good day when I was turned down to be a replacement. I was 5 at the time. But Dad used to let me go up on stage during the last number in ‘Hair.’ I consider ‘Hair’ to be my Broadway debut at age 4.”
Time to train
Hopkins’ boarding school in Massachusetts came with a terrific fine arts program.
“I spent my four years there in the theater,” she says. “Did crew work, stage-managed, performed. Created my own projects, such as a two-woman cabaret act. I talked my stepfather into writing a play based on the suicide of a student that was produced there. Being around playwrights my whole life — Jerome Lawrence, Theresa Rebeck, Christopher Durang, Wendy Wasserstein — has been a significant influence. It shaped me as an actor and made me want to direct and focus on new works.”
Along the way, she learned all about contracts and producing.
“My dad was pushing me to take responsibility for the artistic world I lived in,” she says. “He admired my acting, but he would never let me settle for just that.”
She spent two years training in the highly rated theater program at Carnegie Mellon University.
“I ultimately felt that college was not the right place for me at the time,” she says. “The theory was that you had to break down an artist to build them up — if you can’t make it here, you can’t make it out there. At the time, it was what I call fear-based training. It isn’t anymore, that was years ago, but it deeply influenced how I built this program, why I created another culture here. With that approach, you don’t end up with artists who are willing to take risks, because failing is a bad word. You have to be willing to be messy and then put it back together to grow as an artist.”
Her first big break was to land in a play opposite Christopher Walken. She also studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts’ summer program in London.
Her early career was based in New York, but she bounced back and forth between the coasts. In the East, she worked with the Roundabout Theatre Company doing revivals; in the West, she got deeply involved with LA Theatreworks. It was a momentous time in a California city dominated by film and TV.
“A lot of new work was being developed by Equity Waiver theaters,” an arrangement that allowed union artists to do smaller shows at lower pay, she says. “There was a lot of edgy, interesting theater in LA at the time. You could make a living in film and television, but you could do a lot of theater. Back in New York, I made a living in soap opera during the day — ‘Another World’ — then theater at night.”
Several key shows came out of the LA scene at the time, including “Bat Boy,” a riff on tabloid headlines that played a major part in Hopkins’ career as one of its stars and also served as her directorial debut show in Los Angeles.
“It started in a 45-seat house making $12 a week,” she says with a laugh. “Theater in LA was not driven by commercial theater. Nobody was making money, nor was that its intent.”
The ultimate success of “Bat Boy,” however, brought her back to New York for its healthy off-Broadway run. She was nominated for a Drama Desk Award for best actress.
“I had intended to go back to LA,” she says. “But all these other jobs — ‘Noises Off,’ ‘Bare’ — came from ‘Bat Boy.’”
Musicals are different
“Musical theater is its own art form,” Hopkins says firmly. “As it is usually taught, it’s as three separate disciplines — music, dance and theater — with three different methodologies because it is housed in three different schools at universities that are not able to fully integrate their curriculum. Here, everything is taught under one umbrella so the training can be approached in an interdisciplinary way.”
So with the help of Fleming — now dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communication — and other collaborators, she brought it all under one roof of the theater department. Singing, dancing and acting — as well as directing, designing and other skills — all aimed at a career in musical theater, the most popular of the traditional performing arts.
The curriculum is meshed: If Cassie Abate, who heads the musical theater dance program, is teaching Bob Fosse’s style one semester, it is reinforced in the voice, musical theater history and musical theater performance classes.
Her husband, Jim Price, applies a similar strategy to the school’s master’s program in dramatic writing. Price, who appeared in the first national tour of “Les Miserables,” worked for 15 years as a professional music theater actor and is also a classical guitarist, composer, songwriter and playwright.
“We met during ‘Bat Boy,’” Hopkins says. “He was in the ensemble; I was playing Meredith, the mom.”
Hopkins started in 2009 with three teachers. Now there are 10 for the 52 or so students in the program. As proud as she is of their combined work, Hopkins was a little taken aback by Texas State’s quick climb in the rankings — despite all the success of students right out of school.
“I think we were the flashy new thing that got a lot of national attention,” she says. “Which brought attention to what was always happening for years before we got here, which was a top-notch theater department that was not tooting its own horn. I was clearly surrounded by incredibly gifted educators and artists.”
For the musical theater program, Texas State recruits from all over — 42 of the 52 last year hailed from out of state — talents discovered at auditions in New York, Chicago and California. Hopkins, who has given TED Talks on the subject, emphasizes mental and emotional preparation for what can be a brutal business.
“Part of being a professional is being able to take care of yourself,” she says. “So we are not just giving them technique, but preparing their vocal, physical and mental health. It’s a component largely missing from other performing arts training. We are giving young artists life skills for success and longevity.”
No self-respecting theater program would be without a mechanism to create new works. Texas State hosts a long-standing Black and Latino Playwrights Conference, which showcases new work from around the country. It has also produced scripts from area playwrights, going back to the time when Ramsey Yelvington contributed regional plays as writer in residence.
With Hopkins at the helm, Texas State premiered the licensed version of Andrew Lippa’s “A Little Princess,” and he is back to help with “The World According to Snoopy.” The project traces its roots to the 1967 show “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” which Hopkins saw repeatedly as a child. The first production ran for 1,597 performances off-Broadway, then it returned in 1999 for a Broadway revival that ran 149 performances and pretty much launched Kristin Chenoweth’s career (she won a Tony).
Any hit screams for a sequel, and in the 1980s two versions of a show called “Snoopy: The Musical” were produced. It has been produced widely — no surprise, given it’s “Peanuts” — but not to the degree its predecessor, “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” did.
Lippa has teamed with Larry Grossman to write a new song for Sally, and a few other essential things have changed for this world premiere, which follows a Texas State workshop version in 2015. After the San Marcos performances, “The World According to Snoopy” is headed to other markets, including Houston. The New York theater media is already reporting on its progress.
“We knew there was a show in there,” Hopkins says of the original “Snoopy.” “It just needed some reimagining and new orchestrations. And that’s just what we’ve given it.”