Performer, director, and fight choreographer Joe Foust is well-known in off-Loop theater circles for the intense physicality of his shows. Less well-known is the fact that when Foust was born he was so severely disabled his doctors doubted he would ever walk.

“I had two club feet,” Foust says. “This one”–he points to his right foot–“went straight in. This one”–he raises the other–“was backwards.”

He had major surgery before he was two. “They cut all in here,” he gestures along one foot, “and reversed all the tendons. I had only just learned how to talk. I have vague memories of being able to say ‘Ow!’ about the stitches.”

Then came eight years of treatment. Every night until the fifth grade he had to do excruciating exercises–leg lifts using sandbags–and during the day he had to wear leg braces and big wooden shoes. A strap around his waist held up cables that ran to his shoes to keep his feet facing forward. For a time Foust also needed crutches to walk. “My whole self-perception was as the crippled kid at school.”

As he grew up in Monmouth, Illinois, kids made fun of him, though they quickly learned Foust was no one to mess with. “I could be the badass if I needed to be. Wearing wooden shoes is like having a baseball bat on each leg.” Also the cables could be quickly detached and whipped around like a pair of chains.

Still, Foust wanted nothing more than to be rid of the braces once and for all. When he was ten “it all came off.”

In high school he threw himself into sports. “I played basketball. I sucked. I was in cross-country. I blew. I was always like the second to last or the last.” But Foust kept at it, remembering that he wasn’t even supposed to be walking.

Off the field he pushed himself just as hard. He had a rebellious streak–embracing punk culture (such as it was in Monmouth)–but he was still at the top of his class, particularly in science and math. Some of his work on cell regeneration was even published in a science journal; that led to some scholarship money when he went to college at the University of Illinois. But once he got to Champaign he found he had trouble fitting in with the science crowd: “I was the guy with the red dyed Mohawk.”

Instead Foust gravitated toward college dramatics, where his punk attitude didn’t seem as out of place. Foust switched his major and was soon drawn to the most physically demanding aspects of theater–movement and fight choreography, disciplines that didn’t come naturally to him. “I had a very awkward style of moving,” he says. But he loved the challenge, the athleticism appealed to him, and over time he found he could teach his body to do just about anything. The fact that he could twist his left foot almost all the way around was even an advantage of sorts, earning him instant laughs in slapstick shtick and gasps of horror in choreographed fights.

Foust also became fascinated with Kabuki, a physically rigorous form of theater. “What I loved best about it was that you’re always tangibly striving for a goal you cannot reach,” he explains. The Kabuki master Shozo Sato was then an artist in residence at the U. of I.; after studying under him Foust joined a troupe of American Kabuki performers Sato was assembling to tour Europe and Japan.

In 1992 Foust moved to Chicago to perform in Wisdom Bridge Theatre’s production of Kabuki Medea. After the show closed he and a group of fellow U. of I. alums stayed on and formed the Defiant Theatre, where, over the years, Foust has been developing a new style of physical theater combining the three varieties of theatrical movement he loves the most–Kabuki, clownish slapstick, and straightforward fight choreography. It was this synthesis that made Defiant’s 1996 adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s 1896 black comedy Ubu Roi, renamed Ubu Raw, so wonderfully subversive.

In his latest project, Action Movie, Foust is striving for an even tighter mix of the sublime and the ridiculous. At once a spoof of and an homage to mindless movie violence, the show explores the strengths and limitations of live performance in much the same way that Foust has explored his own limits.

Action Movie opens Wednesday at 8 (and runs through August 23) at the American Theater Company, 3855 N. Lincoln. Tickets are $10 to $15; call 312-409-0585.

–Jack Helbig

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo by J.B. Spector.