Chris Foster – In the Spotlight

Written by on December 4, 2023

Chris Foster – In the Spotlight – by J Hunter.

Some auditions stay with you – usually because of that moment at 3am when you sit bolt-upright in bed and snarl, “Why didn’t I do it THAT way???” But then there are the times that the audition stays with you because the words you were given to read hit you like a falling locomotive, and the short glimpse you got of what the play could be pinned your ears back and made your salivary glands downshift a few gears.

For me, Emily Mann’s Mrs. Packard stayed with me long after I’d left Harbinger’s auditions at Albany Barn a few months back. My initial interest in the play stemmed from my experience earlier in the year with Movers & Shakers, an original play by Grace Denious based on events that occurred at the Watervliet Shaker settlement in the early 1800s. Both Movers and Mrs. Packard take you back to those “good old days” conservatives dream about: When women had the same rights as a horse or a wagon and could be disposed of with equal ease.

The other thing that stayed with me was the quality of the performers I was auditioning with. Harbinger has been rocking it this year with devastating shows like Dig and The Motherfucker with The Hat, so that’s a natural draw for actors from around the region. In this case, at least three-quarters of the people auditioning with me were women, and all of them came to chew bubblegum and kick ass (theatrically speaking, of course). As I watched one group work through a scene, Imposter Syndrome was jumping on my head: “If you get cast with these people, that’s it for every drop of good luck you’ll ever have!”

I didn’t get cast. Life goes on. I was looking forward to seeing how Mrs. Packard came out, but the play I’m in now would be playing parallel to Harbinger’s run at Albany Barn. As such, I asked Chris Foster – an actor, director & educator in the Capital Region for over 35 years – to step In The Spotlight and talk about his labor of love:

RRX: When & how did Mrs. Packard cross your path?

CF: Mrs. Packard was one of many plays our stalwart little play-reading committee considered. We loved it, first because we were looking for some female-centric plays, and secondly it felt like a dirty little piece of history that none of us had heard about that was conveniently swept under the rug of patriarchy, no doubt by people who would be embarrassed if her story were to be told.

RRX: One of the many horrible things about Emily Mann’s play is that it’s based on a true story. Please talk about the story itself, as well as any thoughts you might have on what was done to her when she became “inconvenient” in her opinions.

CF: Emily Mann’s play is based on the true story of Elizabeth Parsons Ware Packard, who in 1861, had the misfortune of disagreeing with her Calvinist preacher spouse’s beliefs. At that time, Illinois law held a husband could commit his wife to an asylum on the grounds of insanity without her consent or having to produce any evidence at a public hearing.

She was hauled off to the Jacksonville Insane Asylum where she spent three years being pressured to admit that she was a lunatic and that, in order to be released, she would need to obey her husband in ALL things and deny her own beliefs and adhere to his.

While she was imprisoned in the institution, she witnessed many terrible practices and abuses in the “treatment” of patients that she began to document. When she tried to advocate changes from within the facility, she was punished and transferred to a ward where violent and seriously ill patients were kept and where she was attacked and harassed on a daily basis.

Eventually she was released but only because she was deemed incurable and she was returned to her husband where she was imprisoned in her own home. Packard finally succeeded in getting a court hearing – the results of which require your readers to attend the play to find out.

RRX: Another horrible thing is that, at that time in history, women could be “disposed of” like random property, and people just accepted it as an everyday thing.

CF: There was ample precedent for what happened to Elizabeth Packard in the chattel status and legal minority of women in most laws of this country at the time. While I was reading up, I learned about the medieval term “couverture”: The male literally covered the woman, eclipsing her personhood, her name, her rights with his own privilege as head of household. Countless laws allow him to beat, to chastise and correct his wife with the smug approval of church and state.

RRX: Mrs. Packard’s husband is the “natural” villain in the play because of how & why he has her declared insane, but there are plenty of other villains in this show, aren’t there?

CF: There are many villains in the play. They range from the obvious, her husband, but subtle others who urge her to “go along”, be quiet, don’t make waves, and lie.

RRX: The thing I loved the most about that audition was the number of strong women actors that was part of the group, and how hard I had to work to reach their performance level. Please talk about the women who auditioned and who make up this cast.

CF: I had the great good fortune to have many talented actors audition for this show – so many so (that) I could have cast with numerous different versions.  It was an embarrassment of riches. Shows like this are also hard to cast as there are various characters (other than Mrs. Packard) who may have a short speech in the court and need to create a complete dimensional character with 8 lines. I was looking for actors who could make broad strokes in a short speech. There were plenty of actors to choose from there, too.

RRX: What was it about Kathleen Carey that made you say, “She’s Mrs. Packard!”

CF: Kathleen is a smart actor who prepares before every rehearsal, makes choices I can edit if needed, and is good at responding to the stimulus she’s getting from the other actors around her. She’s great at finding the character’s urgency, which in turn grabs us, the audience, and compels our interest in her outcomes. I saw that on display in many of her readings at auditions.

RRX: What else can you tell us about what people will see at this show

CF: The play shifts between 1864 during her trial to prove her sanity and the earlier period from 1861 until 1864 when she was abducted to the asylum and had to figure a way to get herself out. I’m hoping that the audience will see and hear the things that happen and are said to her and have a good chew over how far things have come since then.

RRX: The FB ads for the show include quotes from various people about women’s empowerment and how it is still in danger, even in these times. Please talk about some of those quotes and how they relate to the show.

CF: The impetus behind choosing this show was definitely influenced by (the) overturning (of) Roe v. Wade. The ads for the show contain quotes from across history into today because the patriarchy is still writing off female behavior and claiming jurisdiction over their autonomy. That didn’t stop in the 19th century, nor did the attempt to silence and discredit women by claiming they were crazy. And that spirit of resistance is something women, and especially men, still need to hear.

Mrs. Packard plays at Albany Barn Thursday thru Saturday nights, 12/7 – 12/16, with a free preview on 12/6/23. Tickets available at the door for cash and Venmo, or pre-order at


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