Also in the house is the company’s new artistic director, Hunter Foster.
On just his fifth day on the job — Friday, Dec. 14 — Foster already appears “at work,” or so he chuckles, standing with Executive Director Samara Hannah in the Redhouse’s new Austin Allyn Theater, in what any quick Google search of his name would reveal to be his trademark get-up: a slick suit jacket over a dress shirt, undone at the third button to form a holster for his glasses. When the time comes for his picture to be taken, Hannah asks Foster if he wants to lose the specs.
“Yeah, probably,” Foster says, then thinks again. “I don’t know, though. It makes me look very studious.”
He laughs, but he’s already doing something of a study, amid his search for a Syracuse apartment and stops at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que. Tasked with programming the Redhouse’s 2019-2020 season, Foster has begun surveying patrons about their taste in plays and musicals. The Austin Allyn — “Theater 1” in the Redhouse’s new $10 million, 40,000 square-foot facility — is set for “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” and on the seat of every vibrant, red chair in the audience is a questionnaire that seeks to understand how Central New York consumes theater.
What shows do you enjoy seeing? What usually brings you to the theater? Of the following shows, which would you like to see produced at the Redhouse next season? That’s what Foster is wondering, and he offers up some cues — genres, occasions and show titles — to jog respondents’ memories. It’s simple science; a natural first step.
“It’s like the SAT, right?” Hannah jokes.
“Yes, it asks the same question, just in different ways,” Foster says, then puts on an artiste character: “I write some stuff on SurveyMonkey.”
Foster, at 49, is a veteran Broadway performer, noted for having originated the lead role of Bobby Strong in the satirical musical “Urinetown” in 2001 and for his Tony-nominated turn as plant-loving nebbish Seymour Krelborn in the 2003 revival of “Little Shop of Horrors.” Since the early 1990s, Foster has also starred in Broadway productions of “Grease,” “Footloose,” “The Producers,” “Million Dollar Quartet” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” In addition to these credits, he has acted in several off-Broadway and regional productions.
These days, though, Foster touts himself as a writer-director. As a librettist, he’s penned the off-Broadway “Jasper in Deadland” and “Summer of ’42,” among other books that have been produced regionally. It was not until 2013, at the Bucks County Playhouse in New Hope, Pennsylvania, that Foster became a proper director. A production of his “Summer of ’42” had lost its leader, and Foster was offered the job — one he’d never thought he’d take.
“I never had any dreams of being a director,” Foster said in a phone interview last month. “I think a lot of people direct for the wrong reasons, whether it’s a power thing or about ego. That cannot come into play when you’re directing. It can’t be about you. It’s got to be about the show. It’s got to be about the story.”
After a healthy amount of thought, Foster accepted the gig, discovered that directing was his “true passion” and stayed on at Bucks County Playhouse as an artistic associate. There, he’s gone on to direct productions of “42nd Street,” “Clue,” “Guys and Dolls,” “The Buddy Holly Story” and “The Rocky Horror Show,” among other favorites.
Foster has directed a litany of other shows at companies across the nation, including the world premieres of the musicals “One Hit Wonder” at his alma mater, the University of Michigan, and this year’s “A Connecticut Christmas Carol” for Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, Connecticut. The Wall Street Journal’s Terry Teachout recently called Foster one of the best theater directors of 2018, writing “he’s a wonder-worker who belongs on Broadway.”
“I get very emotional about directing; I get almost like a proud parent,” Foster said. “I love performing, but there’s nothing like putting a show together and seeing it come to life on stage, knowing you had a hand in it all. Being the captain of the ship, basically — there’s something really wonderful about that.”
Technically, Foster’s first directing credit was in the third grade, when he wrote, directed and starred in a four-page play (“Eight pages, front-to-back”) about Dracula, for a class project he barely remembers. In fact, when asked to recount what specifically brought him to theater in the first place, Foster comes up empty, noting he somehow made a play before he even knew what a play was.
He grew up in a household that “didn’t have show tunes playing” in it, in rural Augusta, Georgia. His mom stayed at home while his dad worked for General Motors. His younger sister, Sutton Foster, would also curiously go on to make a living in musical theater — she’s a two-time Tony-winning actress.
“It’s weird, no one ever really encouraged us [to pursue theater] because they just thought it was another fun thing that kids do,” Foster said. “In Georgia, especially as a boy, you play football, you play baseball, you play basketball. Sports, sports, sports. The arts were not really something that anyone in my family or community thought about as being that important.”
Good stories, in general, Foster says, have always resonated with him. His appreciation for storytelling started at the movies, with 1972’s “The Poseidon Adventure,” “Jaws” in 1975 (“It may be the best third act of any movie,” he adds) and the film that more or less pushed him into acting classes, “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” A love for movies turned into a love for reading, which the present-day Foster still feels today. He tries to make time in his busy schedule to read the Pulitzer Prize winner each year.
“I’m a storyteller first,” Foster said. “Wanting to tell stories is something that has helped me as an actor, helped me as a writer and is now helping me as a director.”
It should help him now, too, as he takes up the full-time artistic director mantle at the Redhouse.
Samara Hannah said that, from a pool of 70-plus resumes, Foster’s was an immediate standout. It wasn’t until she met him, though, that Hannah knew Foster was the man for the job.
“Besides his professional credentials, it was his personality and demeanor that fit us,” Hannah said. “Theater is an intense thing, but he’s even-keeled, he’s fun, he’s friendly. He’s just got this way about him that’s completely approachable. You just don’t find someone who is that easygoing.”
Already, Hannah said, Foster is a hit at corporate events.
“People are just so excited that he’s down-to-earth and he’s tangible,” she added.
Hannah said that much of Foster’s charm comes from his already understanding Upstate New York — his wife, the Broadway actress Jennifer Cody, is from the Rochester area, and he’s spent a good deal of time there with her family.
“We’re not New York City and we don’t want somebody trying to turn us into that,” Hannah said. “We want somebody to appreciate who we are as a community. Hunter fits that.”
And taking Syracuse’s artistic temperature, Foster said, has already proven rewarding.
“I like these people and I like this town already. I don’t feel that way about a lot of towns, because I play a lot of towns where I’m like, ‘Get me the hell out of here,'” Foster laughed. “You can go to other places and they don’t want anything outside of the box. They want their ‘Pajama Game,’ their ‘Music Man.’ If you did ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch,’ they’d revolt. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar?’ They’d revolt. They just want their Golden Age musicals and that’s it, and if you don’t give it to them, they get angry. It feels like people here want something a little bit different.”
One patron, Foster said, recently told him that he’d like to sit down at a show having no idea what it is. Foster said the trick to curating a successful first season will be catering to the needs of an audience member like that while also satisfying an equally valid desire for classics.
“I want to be brave, but I also want to be smart. Art is a wonderful thing, but how do you balance that with making sure you keep the lights on?” Foster said. “You can’t just do dark art pieces. You’ve got to do your ’42nd Streets,’ too. Audiences’ appetites change. Do they want meatloaf and mashed potatoes or do they want sushi?”
Whatever the community wants, Foster said, the Redhouse will be able to deliver it. The amount of potential in the new facility is what inspired him to vie for this position.
“When I walked in the space, I realized that this is what other theaters strive to be,” he said. “The Redhouse has a scene shop and a costume shop. There are tons of different places to rehearse and do things. And to be centrally located, it’s a wonderful playground that anyone would want to have. Not only are we going to be providing entertainment for the community, we’re going to take care of the community.”
To the Redhouse’s Director of Education, Marguerite Mitchell, taking care of the community could mean leveraging Foster’s connections in the larger theater industry to inspire and provide opportunities to young artists in Central New York.
“It’s always been Redhouse’s mission to have people from all over the country come and work here while engaging local artists, so that no matter what you’re doing here, connections are being made,” Mitchell said. “With Hunter in the seat that he’s in now, with all his experiences and connections, we can really make good on that.”
For Hannah, Foster’s hiring was the final piece in launching the new Redhouse Arts Center into its next phase of development.
“Our programming is elevating, our audience is building and the demand for rental space is more than we anticipated,” she said. “I really feel like we’re there. It’s where Redhouse has been striving to get and we got there.”
As for Phase Two, Foster seems more than ready.
“We’re big boys now, and so we have to act like big boys,” he said. “The theater itself has to live up to the building it’s in. It could be the focal point of downtown.”