Richard Hopkins has no memory of Okinawa, but feels it in his blood. Born on the island where his father was stationed after World War II, the now-producing artistic director and CEO of Florida Studio Theatre retains only an ephemeral affinity for the culture, for the rhythms of its language and particular intonations of the people—likely passed on by the handful of local women who made up the Hopkins household, as part of an employment program during the rebuild. “That influences your brain when you’re an infant,” says Hopkins, an avid traveler who looks upon a life of globe-trotting and perspective-hopping as one of his greatest assets when determining each year of FST programming. 

HOPKINS AT THE ACROPOLIS IN ATHENS.

Relocations were frequent in the Hopkins household at this point, and Hopkins remembers only snapshots of San Francisco and some place in Utah, before a longer stint at Oklahoma’s Fort Sill and then landing in a whole other world in the university scene in Austin, TX. After that, a marathon trip through the Carolinas and formative high school years in Georgia. Graduation would mean New York City. But by then Hopkins had already learned the golden rule—that he didn’t know the rules. “It taught me to lay back and not assert myself too soon in a new culture,” he says. “Because there are a lot of different rules in a lot of different cultures.” Even a minor geographical shift could have massive cultural implications, and it was on young Hopkins to listen and learn before assuming and speaking. Offense in one culture could be praise in another. Silence welcome in one; participation preferred in another. “You learn pretty quickly to listen, pull back and watch,” he says. To travel as Hopkins does, wherein the traveler does not impose their perspective but instead seeks to understand the world in which they’ve landed, starts to look a lot like taking on a role.

“Because that’s what I’m doing all day,” says Hopkins. “I’m dealing with other worlds and other realities that are not my reality. They’re other peoples’ realities.” And the statement would be as fitting a description of his experience on both the FST and world stage. As his theater career took shape, finding work as an actor in New York, the commonalities between Hopkins’ passions only became clearer. “Being a military kid gave me an appreciation and joy in learning about other people and how different we are—and, at the same time, how similar we are,” he says. “I went into theater so I could see what it’s like to be the Prince of Denmark, to be the King of England. So I can see what it’s like to be a fireman, a woman. I can get inside all of those skins.”

And for those who haven’t had the opportunity to travel and experience another culture and all the challenges it brings to one’s assumptions and perspective, Hopkins can use the stage to bring the world to them. This season alone, audiences will head to the streets of Ireland with the eight-time Tony Award-winning musical Once, telling the story of a Dublin busker finding love at his moment of despair, and to Dubai with Honor Killing, seeing an American journalist from the New York Times remotely investigating the death of a young woman in Pakistan. Armed with the latest in communications technology as well as her own prejudices, she’s unprepared for the uncomfortable parallels back home that she unearths in the process. “Everybody,” says Hopkins, “Americans as well as Pakistanis—we all think our culture is best.”

HOPKINS AT THE BERLIN WALL.

Hopkins recalls his own trip to the Middle East in the 1970s as one of the first American civilians allowed back into Egypt after the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Running a theater in Washington DC, he went to teach theater technique and help rebuild the theater scene; a dangerous time, he traveled with protection from the US State Department. But even though Hopkins was supposed to be the teacher, he ended up learning a lot about his own approach to theater by looking at theirs. He could experiment how he wanted, because “edgy” in America (which can look a lot like simply nontraditional theater) was not edgy in Egypt, where there weren’t concerns about following the traditional rules of Western theater. He brushed shoulders with a national puppet theater touring Egypt, saw how they produced large-scale touring shows “on the cheap” and revamped his own approach upon his return to DC. “I was already in the arts when I went to Egypt,” says Hopkins. “But I came back and reworked my entire theater operation.” 

But while not everyone is looking for lessons so directly applicable to theater, it’s likely, given the increasingly interconnected world, that people of all sorts will find themselves confronted with a person or custom or culture that is Other to them. Immersing in another culture could be the best way to experience another’s perspective, but a well-written and performed play can go a long way towards bridging the gap of understanding—while still being entertaining. In January, Native Gardens presents a more lighthearted look at this clashing of cultures, with a comedy from Karen Zacarias about good neighbors gone bad. Pablo and Tania, a pair of up-and-coming professionals putting together their piece of the American Dream, move in next door to longstanding community members Virginia and Frank, a disagreement over an old fence ignites a greater feud—and one stemming from far more than a few old planks and posts. 

“The world is simply getting smaller,” says Hopkins, and though ideological bubbles remain, they require more and more effort to maintain in a modern world constantly bearing witness to the other side. This sort of optimism can also be hard to maintain, he admits, thoughts drifting to a trip he took to Istanbul two summers ago. Beautiful and fascinating, historic and modern—you take something away from every place, he says, but there he remembers the push and pull of these cultural forces writ large in battles between tradition and tolerance. It’s too dangerous for him to return at the moment, but he holds out hope that he’ll go again, and maybe before too long. And maybe it’ll be even better, after this last gasp of regressive nationalism in the face of diversity. “If we survive, it’s going to be fantastic. But we’ve got to survive it,” says Hopkins. “That’s why we go to the theater and why the theater is still alive today.”