ACTORS' DIALOGUE: Shirley Knight & Kaitlin Hopkins

"All women become like their mothers-that is their tragedy," goes the famous line from The Importance of Being Earnest, but Kaitlin Hopkins wouldn't call it tragic that she's followed in the footsteps of her mother, the great veteran stage and screen actress Shirley Knight. Frustrating, perhaps-but then, her mother could have warned her that such is the life of even the most successful actress.

A small-town Kansas girl, Knight started out in films with an Oscar-nominated role in The Dark at the Top of the Stairs, and later moved to New York to train with Lee Strasberg and appear on Broadway in his production of The Three Sisters. She went on to star in such stage successes as Landscape of the Body, A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur (written for her by Tennessee Williams), Kennedy's Children (for which she won a Tony), The Young Man From Atlanta, and several plays written by her late husband, playwright John R. Hopkins: Losing Time, Economic Necessity, and Absent Forever. Her stellar film work includes Sweet Bird of Youth, Petulia, Dutchman, The Group, The Rain People, Stuart Saves His Family, and As Good As It Gets, and her TV work has memorably included Playing for Time, thirtysomething, Law and Order, her Emmy-winning turn in Indictment: The McMartin Trial, and most recently Maggie Winters.

Hopkins may be best known to local theatre audiences for her work at the Pasadena Playhouse (Present Laughter, Only a Kingdom), the Matrix Theatre (Mad Forest, Habeas Corpus), and the Actors' Gang (Bat Boy: The Musical). A versatile performer who studied musical theatre at Carnegie-Mellon and theatre at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, she starred in the Lincoln Center world premiere and subsequent tour of John Adams' I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky under director Peter Sellars, and also appeared in the Naked Angels' Take Two and Playwrights Horizons' production of My Favorite Year. Her film and TV work includes several guest star and pilot roles.

Knight and Hopkins, who last worked together onstage in the Roundabout Theatre's production of Come Back, Little Sheba (unless you count a recent radio rendition of Mrs. Warren's Profession for L.A. Theatre Works), open at the Pasadena Playhouse this week as Lady Bracknell and Gwendolen, respectively, in Wilde's classic Earnest opposite Robert Curtis Brown and Patrick Dempsey, under director Sheldon Epps. They met before rehearsal recently to chat about life in the theatre and the importance of being trained.

Kaitlin Hopkins: You wanted me to do anything else but be an actress.

Shirley Knight: Well, when you know all the difficulties, even when you're successful-and I was very fortunate, I was successful from the beginning-even then, it's hell, it's difficult, it's disappointing.

Kaitlin: My feeling is: So are a lot of other things. I think that anything you do that you care about is going to be disappointing and difficult. I don't think that being an artist is any more painful or difficult than being a lawyer or doctor or anything else if you're passionate about it...

Shirley: And sometimes it's even a little more honorable.

Kaitlin: Well, the joke is that when people ask what you do, you don't want to say you're an actor. But I actually say it very proudly. Still, I've shed a lot of tears, and you didn't want me to enter not understanding how much work it was, what a commitment it is to be good at your craft. And it's not something you can ever stop studying; you have to keep working on it, like being an athlete or a musician-you have to practice it every day, otherwise you can get rusty and you have no idea what you're doing. So even though we live in L.A. and I do a lot of television, you have to keep doing theatre-you have to. Otherwise you don't get any better.

Shirley: I think it's unfortunate that young people sometimes have this na™ve assumption that acting is something you can just pick up and do, because basically it's a human being speaking, and they say, "Oh-I can talk, therefore I should be able to do this." They don't have any concept of how difficult it is, and how important it is that you work in a classical situation, where you take a play and work on that same play for six months until you get it right, because if it's a great play it takes at least six months, sometimes longer, to do it well.

That's why it's so essential if you're going to be an actor that you work in the theatre. If all you ever do is television and films, you don't get better. You reach a certain level of work, but it's impossible to get better, because you never go through the process of acting, which is a long process where you learn a little bit every day, and you say, "Oh, I got that bit."

Kaitlin: Well, it's the same process that you go through with living. That's why you don't get better doing films and television, because you're compartmentalizing it, you're breaking it down into little bits-you're not having to live through that character's life for an extended period of time, for two or three hours a night for a year or whatever.

There's a generation of contemporary actors who thinks or have been told that they don't need classical training. But it's sort of like being a dancer: You can't do jazz and you can't do modern dance if you haven't studied ballet.

Shirley: Good analogy.

Embracing Normality

Shirley: You really need to be very healthy to act. There's a kind of mystique about not being healthy-about being crazy or taking drugs or drinking or whatever.

Kaitlin: Like being an artist gives you permission to be insane.

Shirley: I mean, God knows we're all neurotic, but the truth is, you do need to have some hold on [reality]. Because if you act well, you enter a place where you're essentially tampering with your psyche; you're placing yourself inside another person all the time. And psychically it can be dangerous. So you have to say, OK, I know that I'm entering this zone, because if I don't enter this zone, I can't really do this well, but I also have to know that I have to let this go at the end of the day or the end of the film.

Kaitlin: That's the hardest thing. I think it's harder to do that than it is to play the character. One of the reasons I'm an actor is because I have a facility for going into the zone you're talking about, but I find it much more difficult to turn that off-to actually get skilled at saying, "OK, the curtain's down, so now I can't be this crazy, unhappy, depressed person-I've got to go home and be a daughter, a wife, a sister, a friend, and do that equally as well." It's hard, because you don't even realize what you are bringing home.

After I did the Peter Sellars opera-I played that role for a year of my life-and afterward, every night between 8 and 11, I had this really weird emotional void, because I wasn't doing this heightened drama, so I was sort of wanting to have that heightened drama at home. You've got to figure out a way to let it go and just be in your life and embrace normality.

Shirley: It gets easier the more confidence you have in your ability. Another reason people don't let go is because they're afraid they won't get it again, and essentially acting is understanding that everything is available to you all the time, so you don't have to worry about it going anywhere, it's always there.

Kaitlin: You used to tell me that a lot when I'd call, flipping out about a part.

Shirley: Geraldine Page is the one who said that to me. We were doing Three Sisters, and I had a performance that I didn't think was as good as it had been-I didn't cry in the right place or whatever, and I was upset; I was very young. And Geraldine said, "You got frightened that it wasn't going to be there, so it wasn't there, because your concentration was in the wrong place. Just make the assumption that it's always there." And that's really a tremendous key: You make the assumption that everything's available to you, and it is always there. That gives you extraordinary confidence.

Kaitlin: When I'd call and say, "Mom, I can't get emotionally to the same place that I got last night, I don't know what to do," you'd say, "Where exactly do you think your emotions went-Bermuda? Why would you think that your emotions aren't available to you onstage every night? They're available to you every minute of your day in your life, so where is it that you think they go?"

Shirley: There is only one pure state of acting, and you have to arrive at that place every time you do it, and that is: You don't know what you're going to say or do, you don't know what the other person is going to say or do. Of course, you do know, because you've read the play and worked on the play, but the state that you have to be in is that you don't. It's like a pianist playing a concerto, working months and months on the notes, the dynamics, the rhythm, and when they play the piece, they forget all of that-they're feeling the music and allowing the music to speak to them. And that's what acting is, too-trusting and allowing the playwright to speak to you and inspire you.

I also think it's essential-and this is actually one of the most difficult things about acting-that you forget about yourself, that you allow yourself to give yourself up to the other actors you're working with. This takes a lot of courage, because maybe you don't think the other actor is wonderful or you don't even respect the other actor. But that is what creates drama onstage; it's what creates the anticipation of the audience. You literally allow yourself, genuinely, to be affected by what the other person is saying, because you're so committed to hearing what the other person is saying.

It's very difficult. I catch myself in the early stages of the rehearsal process, when I'm still looking at my lines, sometimes not listening.

Kaitlin: You're thinking about what you're doing, how you're saying it.

Shirley: But the truth is, all that will come out of listening. You have to constantly say to yourself: It's not important that I don't know these lines yet, it's not important that I don't know who the character is yet-what is important is that I really listen to what Robert Curtis Brown is saying and react.

Kaitlin: Which is easy to do, 'cause he's so damn funny.

Into the Woods

Kaitlin: The last couple of pilot seasons knocked the wind out of me. It's very easy to get so caught up in working on your career that you stop working on your craft. And you get in a lot of pain, and you get really crazy; you feel like, I'm really good at this, and I've worked really hard, so why isn't this happening? I finally thought, This is crazy: I'm making getting a TV series into such a huge cookie, such a big prize-that's the big prize in Hollywood. If you get a pilot, you've made it; and certainly an aspect of that is true, but I'd gotten so caught up in achieving that goal that for a year I was working harder at my career than I was at my craft.

I'm a member of the Matrix Theatre Company, and Joe Stern called me and said, "Come do Mad Forest," the Caryl Churchill play; so I dropped everything and went and did this play, and through that process was reminded, Oh, right-this is what I'm supposed to be doing, working on my craft, and perhaps through working on my craft and getting better at it, my career will come. I finally got to a place where I felt, I have to take pride in my work as an actor, and those things may come or they may not come, but I'm a working actor, and that has become more important to me again. That whole Mad Forest experience was so fulfilling for me; I got my joy back.

Shirley: I tell my students that before they go out into the world, they have to decide what their "food" is. If their food is fame and money and Academy Awards, they shouldn't do it-they should stop doing it right now. Because that food, even if you get that food, is transitory. It comes, it goes: You've got money, next year you've got no money, you won the Emmy last year, this year nobody wants to hire you. I mean, that's the way it is. So you have to decide that what your food is is getting better at doing this every time you do it: "Oh, I did that scene a little better today than I did yesterday."

The other death for an actor is comparing yourself to other people: Why did they get that part when I'm better? Forget someone else's path; concentrate on your path. Otherwise you get lost, and if you don't have joy in the work, forget it. BSW