Rick Foster took an a-typical path to becoming a playwright.
Playwright Rick Foster sits in the library of his Sonora-area home Wednesday afternoon. Maggie Beck/Union Democrat, copyright 2012
He did it by studying mathematics, realizing partway through graduate school that he liked poetry more, reading work by great writers, and writing plays for small California theater companies.
Foster, 73, estimates that he’s written 15 full-length plays and 10 shorter plays.
“I always lose count of them,” he said.
Some, such as “Heroes of Xochiquipa,” have been performed around the nation to critical acclaim.
In 1995, he began writing plays about California history that are performed in schools and museums to supplement the curriculum. In Sonora, he helped found a theater company, called Duende, that has education as its primary goal.
From his hilltop home near Columbia, he’s reworking a novel about Viking invasions that he drafted in 1971. He’s also penning a new one-person play, the details of which are a secret.
But Foster’s metaphorical way of speaking makes it clear how he fell into his profession and where he gets ideas for his work.
“I walk through life like a comb going through an animal’s fur,” he said. “Things stick to me. Some things radiate energy. Those things that radiate energy possess me. Eventually, they accumulate enough energy around them and I think, ‘Okay, maybe there’s a play here.’ ”
The subjects of Foster’s plays range from the Irish potato famine to Vivien Leigh to the Me-Wuk Indian tribe during the Gold Rush.
“The Heroes of Xochiquipa” is a Western epic for just one actor. In writing it, Foster took inspiration from the story of Agamemnon’s quest to retrieve Helen from Troy. (“My Agamemnon character runs for sheriff,” Foster explained.)
The work went on to earn five Bay Area Critics Circle nominations in 1984, co-winning with another play for best original script.
Much of Foster’s published work focuses on California and frontier history. It’s not overtly autobiographical, he said, though audiences could find parallels to his own adventurous life.
He’s spent most of his time in California, growing up in Santa Cruz. His father worked at a land title company and was civilian chief of supply at the Mather Field Army Air Corps Base in Sacramento during World War II.
Foster graduated from the California Institute of Technology in 1961. After working for AT&T and other telecommunications companies, he enrolled in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. He primarily studied metamathematics, the philosophy of math.
At that point, Foster said, he “fell out of love with mathematics” and in love with poetry. This was due in part to marital problems that had him thinking about emotions rather than equations.
“I was spending all my time in the stacks (at the library) reading poetry,” he explained. “At that time, I should have been up to my neck in mathematics.”
So he dropped out of his graduate program and chose a more unconventional career path.
“I just decided I wanted to be a playwright,” he recalled. “I educated myself by getting a job as a critic and writing about plays twice a week.”
Seeing his critiques published in newspapers was the adrenaline rush he needed to keep working.
His other first ventures into writing were a novel and a “self-administered poetry course” in which he imitated the work of major authors.
The novel “almost got published but didn’t,” Foster said. “Now I’m glad that it didn’t. … I didn’t know how to develop my characters and develop conflict. That was before I started writing plays.”
In 1992, Foster designed a house for himself and his late wife, Edith. One stunning split-level room is a library, with books filling shelves from floor to ceiling. A bust of Shakespeare presides over a writing desk that Foster built. Woodworking is one of his hobbies.
His bookshelves hold an eclectic collection of titles, including “Grey’s Anatomy,” “The Brother of Jesus,” “Aristotle to Zoos: A Philosophical Dictionary of Biology,” an edition of Guinness Book of Names, and “Beowulf” in the original Old English.
Then there’s the watercolor, charcoal, and pastel artwork, much of which was done by Foster’s friends. Foster said he hasn’t spent much time in the Southwest, but the colorful rugs and sculptures in his library evoke the region.
“This room gives pleasure to me every day,” he said.
He built the house and moved to Tuolumne County after visiting the area with his wife. She found the foothills peaceful and liked nature, falling in love with a property up the winding Covington Mine Road even though fog obscured the spectacular view on their first visit.
Foster established a connection with the Sierra Repertory Theatre when he was still living in the Bay Area. After moving to Sonora, he worked with the theater for several seasons.
He went on to co-found his own theater company, Duende, with principal actor Thomas Maguire. The 10-person company performs plays that center on historic figures, with a special focus on perspectives that are often excluded from conventional American history textbooks.
“I bought into the story about the Spanish converting the natives to Christianity,” Foster said, noting that there was no mention of contemporary Native Americans in his classes. “I began to realize that I’d been denied the truth.”
“I thought I’d like to tell young people, in ways that can be accepted, what it was really like to be a Me-Wuk in the Gold Rush, or what it was like to be a Chinese person who worked on the railroad in the 1860s,” Foster said.
His first historic play, “Friendly Fire,” tells the story of a gold seeker taken in by a Me-Wuk village in 1849. Foster estimated that in the past 20 years, it’s been performed about 700 times at various California schools.
Another historic play, “Gunpowder Man,” has seen around 100 performances. So has “Great Blight,” which focuses on the Irish potato famine. “Gunpowder Man” follows the story of Chinese people who fled the Taipeng Rebellion and helped build the transcontinental railroad.
A more recent play, “The Air We Share,” deals with eighteenth-century chemist Joseph Priestley and his discovery that plants produce oxygen. Foster said that performances of the play target sixth-graders, who study photosynthesis under California curriculum standards.
Duende takes its name from a Spanish word loosely translated as “ghost” or “spirit,” hinting at the fact that Foster’s history plays often utilize visits from the afterlife as a dramatic device.
At first, the company charged for each school or museum performance. Now, since school budgets are shrinking, grants and donations fund many performances for classes that wouldn’t be able to afford them.
Foster also spends time mentoring young people on a one-to-one basis. This year, he’s continued to coach competitors in the Central Sierra Arts Council’s Poetry Out Loud competition, which has students recite poems from memory.
One competitor, Sonora High School senior Jonathon Bermea, took third-place honors in the state contest in March.
Bermea said Foster opened his eyes to literature, encouraging him to read in a way he’d never read before.
“He was very informative on the details, a very sociable person,” Bermea said. “He instructed me to really understand what the poem was about and develop my own personal story for it.”