______________________Monday, August 4, 2003
 

'I tell ya, I'm lucky. . . I've

never had writer's block'

 
Canada's most prolific, most produced playwright fell into a theatre career by accident, MICHAEL POSNER writes. In fact, Norm Foster was 30 when he saw his first play.
 

If this year goes like last year, and like the year before, about 100 theatre companies in North America will mount a production of a Norm Foster play. Which probably means that virtually every day, somewhere in Canada or the United States, a Norm Foster play is on the boards or in rehearsal.

Already, according to Foster's Web site, 50 professional productions have been booked. Indeed, there are Foster plays scheduled into 2004. Directors have an extensive menu from which to choose: He has written 31 plays in the past 22 years, most of them comedies, and the well is not even close to dry.

These numbers, by a factor of several light-years, make former radio morning man Norman Clayton Foster, 54, Canada's mostprolific, most produced, and arguably most popular playwright.

He may not be a household name -- in fact, he isn't a household name -- but more power to anonymity. This year alone, two new world premieres of Foster plays will be presented: On July 17, the Bluewater Summer Playhouse in Kincardine, Ont., is staging Storm Warning, and this fall, the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, Ont., will put on The Love List. Next year, Theatre Orangeville in Orangeville, Ont., will mount another Foster world premiere -- Outlaw, a western about a Canadian cowboy accused of murder in the United States.

"I tell ya, I'm lucky, really lucky," Foster said the other day. Now living in Ancaster, Ont., he was in Toronto for a read-through of The Love List, which impresario David Mirvish is considering taking an option on. It's a three-hander about two guys who concoct a list of the features that constitute the perfect woman; when they find her, comic complications ensue.

"I've never had writer's block," Foster says, by way of explaining his extraordinary productivity. "I've always got something that I'm working on or getting set to work on."

Of course, despite his undeniable appeal, Foster is still far less well known in his own country that many foreign playwrights, such as Neil Simon, Alan Ayckbourn or Tom Stoppard. But he's not complaining.

"I don't feel unheralded," he insists. "I've been produced 100 times a year for the last few years. I'm produced in Canada and the United States. I have nothing to complain about." It might be nice, he allows, if his work were staged a little more frequently in Toronto, the perceived mecca of English-language theatre in Canada. "But it doesn't trouble me. I've done pretty well without it." Indeed, he's done so well that four years ago, he finally gave up the day job he'd held for 25 years -- as a radio DJ.

His plays, he says, spring from all sorts of sources -- even song lyrics. The idea for The Foursome, his play about four old college buddies playing 18 holes, actually originated on a golf course. It's become one of Foster's most produced works. Although Foster's plays have serious undercurrents, most of them are safe, crowd-pleasing light comedies that centre on relationships between the sexes.

He has no interest in writing issue-oriented scripts; the closest he has come in that direction was Self-Help, which lampooned the growing school of psychobabbling gurus.

You might think it odd that neither CBC Television nor any other network has ever asked the country's most commercially successful playwright to take a run at writing a home-grown sitcom. Nor has the Stratford Festival commissioned him, although Foster did write the book for the Shaw Festival-produced musical A Foggy Day. Some years back, the CBC optioned one of his earliest and most successful plays, The Melville Boys, and hired Foster to adapt it for TV. His first draft was rejected on the grounds that it was too funny, so he wrote a second draft. Still too funny, the CBC said. So he wrote a third draft. This one made it to the office of Ivan Fecan, then head of programming, where it was rejected. Not funny enough, Fecan said. Foster shakes his head at the memory of it.

Ironically, Foster's entire career in theatre is largely an accident. Raised in working-class Scarborough (then a Toronto suburb and now part of the city), the only son of a bookbinder and a hair-dressing-salon owner, he did not see his first play until he was 30.

Discouraged from writing for television because there were no jobs, he drifted into radio, working in Thunder Bay, Ont., Winnipeg, Kingston, Ont., and finally Fredericton. There, in 1980, a friend dragged him into an amateur theatre group and he was hooked. For his radio show, Foster had been writing short two-minute scripts involving characters he'd invented. It seemed a natural step to expand that concept into a full-length play.

Three months later, he produced Sinners, a sex farce about a furniture dealer discovered in the embrace of a minister's wife. Theatre New Brunswick artistic director Malcolm Black staged it and asked Foster for another one. That led to The Melville Boys, which has since been mounted dozens of times across the country and off-Broadway.

Foster is now married to actress Janet Monid, with whom he has two children. (He also has two grown sons from a first marriage.) He and Monid frequently perform together in his own two-hander, Here on the Flight Path, which is set on two balconies of a big-city high-rise. The show has taken them in recent years to stages in North Carolina and Bermuda.

Working four or five hours a day, five days a week, Foster usually finishes a draft in two or three months.

"Even if you only produce a page a day, in three months you have 90 pages," he once said. "Anyone who says it takes them two or three years to write a play, just isn't trying." However, he may feel differently now, because his newest work, The Love List, has gone through four rewrites and taken him two years to finish. Over the years, Foster has taken some heavy shots from critics.

One Toronto reviewer dismissed his work as "a waste of time." But Foster insists he earns just as many favourable notices and believes, after 30 plays and dozens of workshops, and scores of rewrites, "there's isn't a critic out there who knows more about writing a play than I do."

It used to bother Foster to be compared to Neil Simon, "because I was trying to find my place. Now, it's fine. Hell, he's the most successful playwright alive. If they want to compare me to him, I don't mind that at all."