COCA’s Summer Musical is returning to the stage—and for the first time in the new Catherine B. Berges Theatre—with Billy Elliot! The production features COCA’s leading performers, local apprentice actors, and other regional professional performers under the direction of Nancy Bell and choreography of Christopher Page-Sanders.
The role of Billy’s Dad is played by Duane Martin Foster, a St. Louis native and professionally trained Broadway performer and Head of the Fine Arts Department at Normandy High School. We went backstage with Foster to hear about his involvement:
COCA: How did you get involved with COCA’s production of Billy Elliot?
FOSTER: I was previously involved with the COCA Summer Musical on the creative side as the director for its 2016 production of Memphis. I’m also a choir and drama teacher, and in 2019, I was approaching a burn-out moment—and on top of that, my mother transitioned in May of 2019. I knew that returning to the stage as a performer was just the medicine I needed to not only heal, but it was a way of honoring my mother. She loved to see her baby boy perform! By the end of January 2020, I had landed three major shows for the year, including COCA’s production of Billy Elliot. And then…well, you know the rest!
COCA: What appealed to you about this experience?
FOSTER: I’m drawn to the work ethic of the COCA Summer Musical. Working with Chris Page-Sanders on Memphis was magical. The rehearsal process that includes a “bootcamp” for the students makes it a unique, powerful, and very memorable experience.
COCA: Billy Elliot is an inspirational story. What message(s) do you hope audiences leave with after seeing the production?
FOSTER: I was Billy Elliot. I believe there are MANY Billy Elliot’s out in this world. No matter your gender, race, economic condition—there is something planted inside of us that, when cultivated, blossoms into something beautiful and purposeful.
COCA: What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
FOSTER: Everyone’s pathway is so unique. So, generally speaking: Be gracious to those with whom you share the stage. Talent is essential, but it’s not the end-all in this profession. How you speak to a lighting designer or the sound engineer is just as important as how you relate to a scene partner.
To those aspiring artists who don’t have the support from family, reach out to your music and theatre teachers at school.
Don’t avoid any chance to develop your talent due to lack of financial resources. There are many amazing people out in this world who are ready, willing, and able to support young aspiring artists.
And last, Believe in YOURSELF, even when it seems like no one else does.
ABOUT DUANE MARTIN FOSTER
Foster is a native of St. Louis and a proud alumnus of Normandy High School. He went on to receive his B.A. in Vocal Music from Morehouse College in Atlanta and continued graduate studies at New York and Northwestern Universities. His career spans from musical theatre and opera to dance and film, having accomplished the highest level of excellence in each discipline. He received his dance training from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. On Broadway, Foster originated the role of famed African American Explorer Matthew Henson and served as the understudy for the role of Coalhouse Walker, Jr. in the Tony Award-winning musical Ragtime. Other NYC credits include A Christmas Carol (dir. Susan Stroman), Purlie, House of Flowers, and Porgy and Bess. Foster has appeared in regional theatres around the country, including Hartford Stage, Alliance Theatre, Pioneer Theatre, Paper Mill Playhouse, and The Muny.
Foster was named Arts Educator of the Year by the Arts and Education Council of St. Louis in 2013. He teaches choir and serves as Fine Arts Coordinator for the Normandy Schools Collaborative and Minister of Music for the Washington Metropolitan AME Zion Church.