The 'It' Program
Musical theatre struts back onstage at Texas State to national raves
On Aug. 11 of this year, the Department of Theatre and Dance at Texas State University-San Marcos woke up to a nice surprise: an endorsement of its musical theatre program in The New York Times. In an Artsbeat blog post titled "Answers to Your Questions About College Theater Programs," the author of I Got In!: The Ultimate College Audition Guide for Acting and Musical Theatre touted the home of the Bobcats in the same breath as such established blue-ribbon musical theatre schools as Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Michigan, the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music, and Boston Conservatory.
The recommendation was all the more astonishing because the Texas State program has been in place only a year. But for Mary Anna Dennard, author of the Times piece and one of the country's top college theatre audition coaches, all it took was one visit to San Marcos and a sit-down with Kaitlin Hopkins, who heads up the musical theatre program, to be convinced it was a contender.
"She fell in love with the program," says John Fleming, chair of Texas State's Department of Theatre and Dance. Dennard interviewed Hopkins for a podcast series featuring leading figures in college theatre training, and then, says Hopkins, "she starting plugging us to her clients as the new up-and-coming program." Within weeks of Dennard posting the podcast at www.collegeauditioncoach.com, the interview received a record number of hits.
That may have had something to do with the fact that prior to training Texas State students to "sing out, Louise!" Hopkins had a busy career as a musical theatre performer herself, including original-cast appearances in three shows with cult status among late teens – Bat Boy: The Musical, Bare, and The Great American Trailer Park Musical – and people were drawn to her name. But whatever the cause, the effect bordered on the phenomenal: The Texas State musical theatre program, which had seen 40 students apply in 2009, suddenly had more than 400 applicants.
"If this was athletics, it would have been a Top 5 recruiting class," says Fleming. "We literally had students turn down the traditional top programs – Carnegie Mellon, Michigan, CCM – to come to Texas State. And students on our waiting list got into those programs."
Of those 400 applicants, the program took 14 incoming freshmen – seven from Texas, two from Tennessee, and one each from Michigan, Illinois, California, Missouri, and Pennsylvania – but that was more than Hopkins and Fleming had planned on. They'd expected at least a couple of students to turn them down. "We were told, 'You will never get 100 percent acceptance,'" says Fleming. "We did get 100 percent acceptance."
"People kept saying to me, 'There's no way everyone will say yes to you, because you're going after the top talent and you're an unproven program," adds Hopkins. "But I also worked really hard recruiting these students and parents." She tells of a meeting with Patti Harrison and Jerry Fields, two Texas State supporters with deep pockets and a love of the stage. "They said, 'What do you need to have this be a national-level program?' I said: 'Well, it's kind of like football. You have to be able to recruit the top quarterbacks, and you can't do that without money. I can't compete with schools that have had reputations for over 20 years unless I can offer that talent something that those schools can't.' Patti and Jerry wrote me checks so that I could go after that top talent. Now, I can offer out-of-state students in-state tuition by giving them a $1,000 scholarship a semester. That top talent wouldn't have given me the time of day, but [then] you say to the parents, 'By the way, Carnegie Mellon is $53,000 a year for out-of-state students, and I'm under 10.' I was able to speed things up because I had this money."
The degree to which Hopkins has hurled herself into this program's development is impressive for someone who 18 months ago was performing eight shows a week in the pre-Broadway tour of Dirty Dancing: The Classic Story on Stage, was already booked to jump into the Broadway revival of Bye Bye Birdie, and hadn't a clue where San Marcos was. "No offense, but I've never even heard of Texas State," she told Fleming when he called to pitch her the job. But Fleming was persistent – upon contacting a colleague at the American College Theater Festival about a lead for the job, he'd been told, "The person you want is Kaitlin Hopkins" – so Hopkins agreed to an interview, and on one of her Mondays off, she flew down to San Marcos with her husband, actor and playwright Jim Price.
It wasn't that the idea of a new career in academics didn't appeal to them – they'd both been coaching and teaching all over the country for years and loved it. It's just that they imagined a permanent move into the field to be five to 10 years away. To Hopkins, this felt like "an extraordinary opportunity at the wrong moment." But then Price observed that "sometimes you can't choose when you get pregnant," and when Hopkins' friends, including composer Andrew Lippa, counseled her to go for it, she decided to leave Broadway behind and take the job.
"I still have these surreal moments of 'What happened to my life? What am I doing?' But it's great," Hopkins says. "It was just a surprise. I didn't know it was going to happen, but when it did, well, sometimes you just gotta be brave. That's what I tell my students: Sometimes you just gotta be brave and trust that that's what you're meant to do."
Part of what sold Hopkins on the job was the chance to build a program from scratch. She had a vision of training young artists for the industry as it is at this moment, giving them the skill sets they need to actually compete on a professional level today. "What everybody was getting right at the university-training level was how to audition well," Hopkins says. "But who's telling them what to do when they get the job? And who's telling them what to expect? What's the difference when you walk into the room on a production contract? How do you go into a recording studio and record a cast album? You have to have that skill to work in New York. You have to! You're dealing with the current market, so how do you train them for what those demands are?
"The summer before I got here, I interviewed a lot of people to find out what they wanted – not just the parents and students who were looking at programs, but I went to New York and met with all the casting directors and interviewed a lot of my friends who have been on Broadway for at least five years and who graduated from the Top 6 or 7 programs. The types of questions I was asking were: When you started working professionally, when did you say, 'Thank God I learned that at school'? And where were the areas [where] you went, 'Oh dear God, why didn't someone tell me this?' For the most part, it was very consistent, the areas where everyone was getting helpful information in that transition onto the professional stage and where they weren't."
Hopkins was intent on filling in those information gaps – and reassuring parents that their kids were getting the skills to make a living. "What I was hearing before I took the job was: 'How do you help our child who has no connections whatsoever, no relationships in New York, transition into an industry where it's about who you know?' I don't care how good you are, if you're walking around and can't get a door open, who cares? A guest artist program is important because you're bringing casting directors and directors and actors into the process from the time they're freshmen. By the time they graduate, they're going to know half the Broadway casting directors, [who are then] going to know their work because they've watched them develop."
Already Hopkins has brought big names to San Marcos, including Broadway casting director Dave Clemmons, actor/director Austin Pendleton, and Brent Wagner, chair of the prestigious musical theatre program at Michigan. And in October, the school had its first visit from the program's composer-in-residence, Andrew Lippa, Hopkins' friend but more importantly the man behind the music for the current Broadway hit The Addams Family and the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle award-winning The Wild Party. He spent a week with the students, teaching performance classes, giving a recital, and working on his new show. He even finished a song and took nine students into the studio with him to record a demo of it.
The program aims for 10 to 12 students per grade level, small enough to allow a customized training approach. Each student will study with the program's lead teachers – Hopkins, Price, and choreographer Robin Lewis – from day one of the program and every semester along the way. The three assess a student's level and place him or her with students who might be at a different grade level but have comparable abilities. "We have freshmen and seniors in the advanced ballet class, because sometimes you have those kids who have been dancing since they were this big," says Hopkins. "Why are you going to waste their time and money in a beginning ballet class when they can outdance half my juniors? You wouldn't do it professionally, so why would you do it [here] if what we're trying to do is simulate [a professional environment]?"
But just as crucial as the training students receive in ball changes and power mixes is the instruction they receive in post-college survival. Hopkins recalls walking into a class last year and seeing a group of seniors who "were terrified of graduating," she says. "They had no idea what to do." So she told them they were going to plan the first six months after they graduated and the six months after that. She had them make workbooks with sections that dealt with living expenses, how to find an apartment, and how to get a day job. "The first six months, you're not going to worry about your career," Hopkins told them. "'You're just going to get a day job, set up your environment, get to know your city.' I broke it down in these little manageable pieces. 'After two months, you can start going on open calls. After four months, you can start sending letters to agents or casting directors.' So now I have this system. They have a workbook with their expense sheets and how much they're going to budget every month and how to do their taxes. We had a professional photographer come down and shoot all their head shots, and I taught them all the different formats they can do their résumé in. We created a database of all the major cities they could go to – Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Boston, New York – and where they could find the good dance classes, the good acting teachers, good voice teachers, good dentists, whatever they're going to need, and any alumni that happen to be in those cities. And all of a sudden, they're not so frightened."
What Hopkins is building, as much as anything, is a space in which students can develop, can grow. Over the course of Lippa's weeklong visit, she says, "I saw them change." First, they were "spastic puppies" slobbering over a famous person – a famous person who knows their idols (Kristin Chenoweth, Idina Menzel, Matthew Morrison, et al.). But as Lippa started sharing his experiences as an artist, "you saw them let go of that thing and see him be human." Then they sang his music for him and were able to understand what he wanted, how he approached the character through clues he'd embedded in the music. "And because Andrew's such an exceptional human in the world, he never, ever treated them as anything but his peers and colleagues. By the time they went into the recording studio with him, it was a whole new ball game."
The Texas State students will have many more opportunities to interact with Lippa, not just during his residency visits but as he develops a new musical to be premiered at Texas State. He's the first artist to receive the Harrison New Musical Works Commission – funded by and named for Patti Harrison, of course – through which two new musicals will be commissioned every three years from Broadway musical creators and developed through the Department of Theatre and Dance. Lippa's work is set to premiere in the spring of 2014 in the university's new $80 million performing arts center, which Harrison also supported with an $8 million gift. With this kind of growth and new faculty members such as Broadway lighting designer Sarah Maines and scenic artist Sara Lee Cely, Texas State's musical theatre program will only increase its attraction to all those Broadway babies across the country. In fact, here it is just two months into the school year, and Hopkins has already received some 350 applications for next fall.
But before she can think about that, Hopkins has a show to open: All Shook Up, a musical that manages the nifty trick of blending the songs of Elvis Presley with the plot of Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. The new musical theatre program head admits to being a little shook up herself these days: "It's a very powerful thing to be around young artists. It's very seductive, because their energy is so inspiring. It's the hardest thing I've ever done in my life, but it's also the most gratifying."