What started out as watching her mom’s love for David Letterman turned into the opportunity to teach a master class once a year in New York City. Now, the Department of Theatre and Dance has a 12-year relationship with actress Sutton Foster.
Most recently, the Tony-award winner was in Muncie from Feb. 19 to 23 to work with students on the production of “Shrek the Musical,” which she starred in as Fiona on Broadway.
“My mom really loved David Letterman and he went here, so I knew about Ball State from her,” Foster said. “And when I was looking for colleges Ball State was sort of on my radar, and when I dropped out of college, I was thinking about going back to school and Ball State again kind of came up as a possibility.”
Foster didn’t end up going back to school and began working professionally at 19. But that wasn’t the end of her relationship with the university — it was actually the beginning.
“I got a call from my agent saying there were some students from Ball State that were coming to New York, wondering if I would do a master class, and I was like, ‘I know Ball State, sure,’ and that’s how it started,” she said.
Foster continued doing a master class once a year when students made the trip to New York.
“I remember the fourth time I spoke to them I said, ‘You know, I would love to come to campus.’ I’d always been a performer but if I had to choose another profession I would want to be a teacher. I always used to dream of working with high school or college-age kids,” she said.
She made her first visit to campus in 2010, and has come back once a year since then, including 2012 when she co-directed “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
Foster said it’s been great to be back this year to revisit Shrek.
“It’s kind of a walk down memory lane for me. It happened such a long time ago so it’s been kind of like ‘wow’ just watching it all unfold,” she said. “They still have several weeks to go so they’re still very much in the process, but it’s really fun just to kind of come in and talk to everybody about what they’re doing.”
During her time in the show on Broadway, Foster said her favorite song was “I Think I Got You Beat,” which contains a section of Shrek and Fiona burping and farting in rhythm.
“When else do you get to do that on Broadway, or ever,” she said. “It’s wild because I can remember the creators wrote it, and when we did it for the first time. To see a whole new generation of people do it, it’s really cool.”
During the week, Foster worked with the actors on character development. Bill Jenkins, chairman of the Department of Theatre and Dance, had been directing up to her visit, and will continue until the show opens.
“I feel really lucky to have this relationship with Ball State and with [Jenkins], especially because my schedule is so erratic and so crazy. I’m able to sort of pop in and help here and there,” she said.
Foster said she has a new perspective directing “Shrek” than “The Drowsy Chaperone.”
“With ‘Drowsy’ it was more about sort of what I had done,” she said. “Sort of like, ‘well this is what we did when we did it on Broadway.’ I feel like with ‘Shrek’ the thing that is different in my point of view is it’s less about what we did and more about giving these guys permission to make it their own.”
Conor Korbisch, who plays Lord Farquaad in the production, said Foster’s willingness to let go came through when the cast worked with her.
“She really wanted to make sure we find our own way and the characters are coming from our own personalities,” the junior musical theater major said. “It was never [Foster] telling us to do anything, it was all very collaborative.”
He said Foster’s visit came faster than expected.
“It seemed so distant until the callbacks, but it was normal that she was coming by the senior cabaret,” he said. “She made the experience so easy. She established from the beginning that she’s just a normal person here to direct. It was a blast to work with her, she’s such a down-to-earth person.”
Korbisch likened Foster’s visit to summer camp.
“It’s fun and exciting, and you make this cool friend and then it’s over and they’re gone,” he said. “But it was really exciting to create that personal relationship with her. I could see her on the street and she would know me.”
Foster was able to give students more personal advice as well, relating to life and a career in the acting business. She told students things like, “Say yes to opportunities” and “Don’t limit yourself right out of the gate.” She said a lot of her success has come from saying yes.
“I always say the same things,” she said. “I always like to say be kind. I think kindness goes a long way. You know, people want to work with good people. You can have two equally talented people in a room but if one has a reputation of being a [jerk] you’re gonna want to work with the one that doesn’t, you know?"
Foster’s other advice is rooted in her interest in education.
“Never stop learning. It seems generic to say that but I truly believe it. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it,” she said. “If you’re stuck, work with a teacher. I still do that; I have an acting coach I work with, I reach out to people for help for if I feel stuck or I can’t figure something out. I always am trying to challenge myself with new projects and new things so I can grow as an artist. And as a person, ultimately.”
Due to her schedule, Foster will not be able to come and work on the show again before it opens on March 31. She also won’t be able to make it to any of the performances, though Jenkins told her she will get a video of the show.
In April, Foster will begin filming season four of her TV Land show “Younger.” She will also perform in concerts with symphonies in cities like New York, Atlanta and Boston.
Foster said she would love to come back to Ball State in the future and direct another show. Although she has starred in both shows she’s helped direct, that’s not a determining factor.
“I think [Jenkins] just thinks because I have done a lot of shows in New York it’s a great opportunity for the students for me to be able to bring my firsthand experience of what it was like doing it there, and being able to sort of translate it here,” Foster said. “So I think he sees that as an opportunity for the students, but I think it would be so great to work on something I had nothing to do with.”
Foster said she hopes to be affiliated with the university for a long time.
“You know it is weird, people are like, ‘Why Ball State?’ It feels meant to be in a weird way,” Foster said. “I know I didn’t grow up in Indiana but I grew up in Michigan, and there’s like a Midwestern sensibility. It’s a really important place for me. It’s been such a positive experience and such an amazing experience in my life.”