“Pride mixed with nostalgia… at the opening of the new Hillbarn Little Theatre…” wrote the theater critic for the San Mateo Times in 1968 about the Hillbarn Theatre’s 28th consecutive season in its new permanent home in Foster City, California.
The Hillbarn Theatre was an outgrowth of the Peninsula Little Theatre that was founded at the College of San Mateo in 1936 by Robert Brauns and Sam Rolph. The Hillbarn Summer Theatre was conceived by Brauns in 1940 and, with the help of Rolph and Ralph Schram, he searched for a barn and located the Pingrey Barn in San Mateo for the Hillbarn’s first home. Hillbarn had two more homes before its permanent move to Foster City. It spent 17 years in a derelict chapel on the Borel estate in San Mateo. A few years after the theatre was remodeled, the building was condemned to build the Highway 92 overpass. The Carlmont Shopping Center in Belmont became the home of the Hillbarn Theatre from 1962 to 1968, and then the Hillbarn moved to its fourth and final location in the then-new Foster City. The T. Jack Foster family donated the land on which the Hillbarn Theatre sits. Many people participated in the fund-raising effort to construct the new theatre.
In 1978, the founders, Brauns and Rolf, were contemplating retirement from the College of San Mateo. Proposition 13 was also passed in 1978 which led to reductions in theatre offerings by CSM. The salaries of Brauns, Rolf and their Box Office Manager were eliminated. Many talented artistic and managing directors came and went between 1978 and 1998, but this proved to be a difficult time for the Hillbarn Theatre. It had lost its founders and the support of CSM.
Foster City resident T. Jack Foster III, son of T. Jack Foster, Jr., who had donated the land to the Hillbarn Theatre, brought in two new board members: his sister, Lee Foster, and Diane Griest. Together with the Board of Directors, they developed new guiding initiatives that began the revitalization of the Hillbarn. Within two years, Lee Foster was appointed the Executive Director. She recruited some very talented people and got the Theater back on its feet before leaving in 2010. In 2008, Lee Foster received the 2008 BRAVO! Award from Congresswoman Jackie Speier.
Dan Demers, the current Executive Artistic Director, joined the Hillbarn in 2012 and has applied his creative ideas and passion for theater to continue building the outstanding quality and variety of productions. Under his tenure, Hillbarn has been nominated for countless Bay Area Theatre Critic Circle Awards, Theatre Bay Area Awards, created a strong relationship with the Actors Equity Association along with the neighboring theatre companies, and continues to look to the future. The company has won TBA Awards for the Color Purple, Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, and Anything Goes. In the early 2000s, the Hillbarn Conservatory was created for the purpose of training children year-round in theater arts and building performers and audiences of the future.
In 2018, Randy O’Hara joined the amazing Hillbarn staff as the Conservatory Director. After spending many years performing and educating on the East Coast, he looks forward to applying his talents at the Hillbarn Conservatory. By obtaining grants from organizations such as the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, the Danford Foundation, Swinerton Foundation, San Mateo County and successful fund-raising efforts, Hillbarn has made several improvements since 2000, including air conditioning, new landscaping, new bathrooms, new lobby, and a new roof. Generous corporate donors over the years include Gilead and Wells Fargo Bank. Local groups such as the Lions Club, Rotary Club and Peninsula Jewish Community Center of Foster City have also been loyal supporters of Hillbarn.
The Board of Directors works strategically with the staff to ensure Hillbarn Theatre is the best that it can possibly be. This has been accomplished under the capable leadership of the current chair, Lisa WolfKlain, the former chair, Paul Regan, Gary Harris, and several others in the past. Hillbarn is the sixth oldest continuously operating amateur theater company in the nation and is the oldest company in San Mateo County. Since 1995, Hillbarn has won a Theater Critics Circle Award, was accepted at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, was honored with several mayoral proclamations for excellence in theatrical production and education, three Dean Goodman Awards for Artistic Excellence, and a Foster City Honors Award for the Executive Director in 2003. In an interview, former Artistic Director Scott Williams said: “Hillbarn is an idea. Hillbarn began as a vision of Bob and Sam, essentially, and it has stayed coalesced around their vision. People who came here understood they had the vision, and it was an extraordinary one…They created a good feeling, a great viable organization, and they had a marvelous ability to bring people into the process.” Hillbarn is more than just a place, it’s a community that will remain forever a legacy to their memories and a benefit to the cultural life of not only the citizens of Foster City, but all who share in its community ideals.