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The San Francisco Bay Area theater community received a shock this week when it was announced that Lee Foster would be leaving Hillbarn Theatre in Foster City, and moving to Georgia.
But the bad news was immediately ameliorated by the news that Dan Demers a much-loved and respected actor, director and theater management professional would be taking over at what has become one of the most interesting and brave theater companies on the San Francisco Peninsula.
Foster whose grandfather created Foster City came to Hillbarn in 1997, when it was struggling and in danger of going under. In her 16 years with Hillbarn she took it from being a undistinguished community theater with a $300,000 budget to an amazingly ambitious operation with a $900,000 budget, a Children's Conservatory for training children year-around, and a reputation for fearless and effective programming.
"Understand that when I got to Hillbarn, I knew nothing about theater," Foster said during a phone interview on Friday. "I was a singer, in a lot of a cappella singing groups. And I'd had an 18-year career in the cruise line business, in marketing, where my job, in effect, was putting people in seats.
"When I moved three blocks from Hillbarn, with my children, my brother Jack, as president of the Hillbarn Theatre board, asked me to help. He said, 'Lee, this thing is going to go under. I don't know what to do. I am a businessman, I don't know how to market.'
"Diane Griest (another board member) and I started to sort of pay attention. I was still working for the cruise line. I thought, 'This is great, I do know how to market, how to put people in seats."
Foster agreed to be executive director for two years, unpaid, while she worked on her master's degree at the University of San Francisco, if the board would hire a fulltime and exceptional artistic director.
"They said yes," Foster said, "And we put every penny into production, marketing and building the artistic product."
Kay Kleinerman became artistic director for "about nine months," and when she left, Toni Tomei took the post for ten years.
Foster, meanwhile, continued to build the board and relationships with the Peninsula business and education communities. She actually left Hillbarn for a little while, but was asked back in 2009, to become both executive and artistic director, with the title executive producing director.
Her success at building the theater, with its modest 179 seats, truly is a triumph of marketing, and a sign of what works, these days, in the arts. Hillbarn is located between the two major Bay Area newspapers the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News and seldom, if ever, gets attention from either.
There are more than 400 theater companies in the Bay Area, and both major newspapers, chronically short-staffed, mostly concentrate on the really big theater operations, such as A.C.T., Berkeley Rep, TheatreWorks and San Jose Rep.
So Hillbarn has made do with strong communication with its board and subscribers, and coverage in nearby, smaller newspapers.
During her time at Hillbarn, in addition to earning the MBA from USF, Foster earned an MFA from Notre Dame de Namur University. She also married Hillbarn's resident music director, Greg Sudmeier. "Between us," Foster said, "We have four children," David, Claire, Jeff and Lucie.
Foster and Sudmeier are moving to Serenbe, Georgia, a planned community that puts an emphasis on sustainability and the arts. They bought a house there "eight or nine years ago." Foster says she will look for an opportunity in the arts in that area. Sudmeier will fly back to California several times a year for his gigs as music director of the Diablo Ballet and at Fremont Symphony. But not for Hillbarn rehearsal demands would take too much time.
The artistic life in the San Francisco Bay Area has gotten more difficult. There are all these rich tech companies in the area, and while some of them have contributed to theater companies in various ways (Applied Materials, for instance, has helped at Hillbarn), it's tougher and tougher for creative people such as actors, directors and designers to live in the Bay Area. They are being pushed out by the tech workers, who can afford the skyrocketing rents and mortgages in the area.
"We chose this life," Foster said. "We embrace it, but it's hard to survive. We have worked so hard. Now, we're just working all the time, just to make ends meet. It's been great, it's been awesome, but we want a new community, where we can make some artistic impact while we're still young enough."
And, Foster is very happy about her successor, Dan Demers, and the shape in which she is leaving Hillbarn.
"Dan is absolutely perfect," she said. "And we have the best board we've ever had. More resources, better people, better choices, better artistic, dramatic choices. The board has been with us.
"I never wanted to stay beyond the moment when I was doing great work ... it's the show business adage: Leave 'em wanting more."
Demers was born and raised in San Mateo (the same city where Hillbarn itself was born, long before him, in 1941), and earned a bachelor's degree in theater arts and direction at Sacramento State University. He worked at Palo Alto Players before coming to Hillbarn, and for the past eight years has also been the director of the Tri-School Theatre Program for Serra, Notre Dame and Mercy high schools.
As an actor, he was a hit in "The Producers" at Hillbarn as Max Bialystock, and as a director staged a completely fun "Legally Blonde the Musical" at Palo Alto Players and a brilliant "Spamalot!" at Hillbarn.
When Russ Bohard, the king, had a sudden medical emergency, Demers stepped in on 23 hours notice and took over the role, and was fabulous.
Sounding kind of tired over the phone on Friday, Demers said he was actually "Overly excited. It's always been a dream of mine. I'm looking forward to the next six months, working with Lee, working with the community, our group of production friends and family."
Demers and Foster will be working together to plan the coming season, which will be announced at the theater on February 18, 2014.
"The theater is doing amazing," Demers said, thanks to Foster's "progressive programming, her foresight in choosing shows, tying seasons together that resonate with the audience, her relationship with the donors she knows each and every one of them.
"it's all very exciting, knowing our patron base is behind us ... I am sad to see her and Greg depart, but excited for the things I bring to the table.
"It's very humbling, very surreal, for me personally. I am still reeling over the positive response about it."
Demers' hopes for Hillbarn are that it "will continue to grow, increase its artistic level, production level, get more people invovled in the theater company, and solidfy our place on the Peninsula."
A larger building, perhaps?
"Dream of dreams? We'd love to create an arts center, if you will," Demers said. "The board is very interested in the facility. And working toward updating the facility. Creating a more artistically versatile space."
Foster, who accomplished so much, is very sure of the choice of Demers to succeed her.
"The biggest thing is not who it is artistically, not just that, but the nature of personality, the willingness to do for people, the kindness," Foster said. "To me, that's the nature of Hillbarn. We worked so hard to keep the drama on the stage, to not let the drama permeate our working world.
"I wanted someone of like mind. Dan has the ethic we've been looking for.
"You have to set a tone with a theater company. The organizational tone is clear ... and my tone and legacy, Dan has that, even more than me."