Foster-ing a new desire

Playwright is moving from stage to screen

October 15, 2008

Gary Smith

The Hamilton Spectator

Showtime

Who: Norm Foster

What: Mending Fences

Where: Theatre Aquarius, 190 King William St.

When: Oct. 22 through Nov. 8 Tickets: 905-522-7529

Norm Foster is a roll-your-sleeves-up kind of guy. No pretensions. You'd hardly know he's Canada's most prolific playwright with 42 plays to his portfolio. In most years there are 100 to 150 Foster shows performed somewhere in the world.

"It boggles my mind," Foster says. A big man with a shock of grey hair, Foster folds up his legs and tries to get comfortable in a too-small metal chair. Foster's comedy, The Love List, was a big hit in Mexico. Drinking Alone, another Foster play, is being done at the Moscow Drama Theatre in Russia.

"They'll do it for five years," he says. "Four performances a month. Go figure, eh?"

A blue-collar playwright, Foster began writing after a stint as an amateur actor.

"I thought, 'I can write shows like this.'"

It took him a long time to feel he could make a living from this hobby. Many think of Foster as a kind of laugh machine. He sets a comedy going and the laughs pour out at regular intervals.

"It's something to do with the rhythm," Foster says. "The characters get on a roll. They think up funny things to say. And I write them down."

Never experiencing writer's block, Foster just keeps on going. "I'm very disciplined when it comes to my work," he says. "I spend so many hours a day working on various projects. And, yes, laughter is certainly part of the mix. "I guess it's my age," Foster says. "Perhaps I see things differently now."

Mending Fences, Foster's play about a father-and-son relationship and about the way present tensions can spiral out of the past is a play with a darker spirit. "It has nothing to do with my own life," Foster is quick to point out. "I got along well with my dad. We never said, 'I love you,' to each other, but we always knew that love was there. We were guys, and we somehow stayed at arm's length. That's just how it was in Scarborough in the 1950s. Guys weren't lovey-dovey. They just weren't."

Mending Fences had its premiere at Port Mansion Theatre in Port Dalhousie. It then played Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover as well as having a stint in Barrie. The director for the play at Theatre Aquarius is Chris McHarge, who has helmed Foster's comedy in every one of its previous outings. "The play seems to touch a chord with people, When we did it in Port Dover, they would come up to the actors and they'd be in tears. Of course, there is a lot of humour, but underneath there is tension, and things aren't wrapped up in a neat little ending. In many ways this is the most complete play I've ever written."

Foster has three new plays opening in the next few months, but he's thinking of taking a sabbatical from playwriting. "I'm working on a screenplay," he says. "This is a new direction for me and something I've wanted to do for a long time."

As well as writing Mending Fences, Foster has starred in the play each time it's been performed. He admits there are problems appearing in his own play. "When I'm acting in someone else's play I don't feel so responsible. I mean I'm not standing there onstage wondering why a laugh didn't come. "I think Mending Fences will surprise people. I think they'll come out feeling touched. They'll have empathy for the three characters onstage. In some way, they may even see themselves."

Gary Smith has written on theatre for The Spectator for more than 25 years. He has seen most of Norm Foster's 40-odd plays.