By Web Behrens
"We met in 1996, when I was house manager for
Chicago Shakespeare, then Shakespeare Rep," director
Sean Graney recalls of Joe Foust. "Joe was an actor,
and he molested me over a merchandise case."
When asked for his recollection about initially meeting
Graney, Foust chuckles. "He reminded me of that
story, and I said, 'I don't remember, but that sounds
like me!' He was the house manager at Chicago Shakespeare
in their old Ruth Page space, and he said he was bent
over, cleaning some glass, and I came up and just popped
my crotch against his ass. It was like, oop! He claims
I didn't know him at the time."
The mercurial Foust has always had a mischievous side.
It's a quality he put to excellent artistic use in the
aptly named (but sadly defunct) Defiant Theatre, which
he cofounded upon arriving in Chicago in the early '90s.
That same quality is still serving him well, under Graney's
direction (they've never collaborated before), in Court
Theatre's current production of What the Butler
Saw. Set in a psychiatric ward, the outrageous
Joe Orton farce reportedly enraged London audiences
in its 1969 debut.
Had he been there, Foust would have been delighted (as
others surely were) by the play's rampant sexuality
and its irreverence toward church and state. But while
Orton's final play was cementing a minor revolution
in the theater, Foust was an infant in Monmouth, a small
farming town that he locates on a map, "in that
breastlike protrusion of Illinois." (In other words,
not far from the Quad Cities.) His science aptitude
earned him a choice of several college scholarships,
including one to an infamous military academy ("Imagine
how different my life would be if I went to West Point!").
He opted instead to attend the University of Illinois
at Urbana-Champaign, where, in characteristically subversive
style, he betrayed the cause of reason after one year,
deserting chemical engineering to study acting. Happily,
the full scholarship still bankrolled his B.F.A.
Even while performing on the university's stages, Foust
was striking out on his own. Along with a number of
collaborators—including his future life partner,
actor/director Linda Gillum—Foust and company
produced their own shows. "We probably called ourselves
the 10-Inch Players or something stupid," he snorts—but
it led to a good long run as Defiant Theatre after they
all moved north.
While performing, writing and/or directing a number
of raw, frenetic shows with Defiant—most notably,
the highly successful Action Movie: The Play,
which co-opted the physicality of summer blockbusters
for the stage—he also built up an impressive resumé
of classics over the years. His first Chicago credit
was Kabuki Medea, directed by Japanese visionary
Shozo Sato; he's also acted the Bard at Chicago Shakespeare,
Brecht at Steppenwolf and Shaw with Remy Bumppo. In
addition, Foust spends a few months each year outside
of Chicago, often acting or directing at Peninsula Players
in Door County, Wisconsin.
Now 38, he's lived with Gillum in the same Andersonville
apartment for more than a decade, and he's also happily
settled professionally, with no "day job"
to distract him. "I've basically made my living
in some form of theater, television or film," he
That doesn't mean there aren't new challenges to explore.
The chance to act in an Orton play, with Graney at the
helm, was enough to lure Foust away from a planned third
appearance in Theater Wit's annual mounting of The
Santaland Diaries. "I've never seen [a production
of What the Butler Saw] that fully succeeded,"
Foust says, hoping to defy that legacy with Graney.
"It's an odd duck. It's difficult to make it what
it used to be."
Even if homosexuality and cross-dressing aren't shocking
to audiences today like they were almost 40 years ago,
Butler "is still such a well-constructed
farce," says Graney. "We are trusting the
language, and aggressively not shying away from the
fringe situations Orton set in motion."
Foust enjoys the idea of "pushing societal edges"
like Orton did. And he probably wishes he could've been
there in 1969, when "people were standing up and
ripping up their programs and yelling 'Filth!' Almost
nothing we could do today would make a crowd stand up
and react like that. Unless I'm shitting on a baby."
What the Butler Saw is in previews at Court