North Shore News


One man writing machine finds the right mix

Playwright Norm Foster has found something that he loves to do


MAY 2, 2014 12:00 AM

Norm Foster

Patricia Vanstone and playwright Norm Foster will perform in the West Coast premiere of Fosterís 49th play On a First Name Basis at Kay

Meek Centre May 5-9 at 8 p.m.   Photo Mike Wakefield

On a good day, Norm Foster churns out seven pages. On an average day, it's three to four. And on a so-so day, he'll finish one.

"But at least I've written something," he says of his less-productive days.

Making writing an everyday priority is one reason Foster has 52 plays to his credit - including such hits as The Melville Boys, The Affections of May and The Foursome - and is the most-produced Canadian playwright in the world.

People always say to the prolific dramatist, "You must have great discipline." But Foster doesn't force himself to wake up and write every day.

"It's not a case of having great discipline, it's that I love doing that every morning. I love climbing into this world with these characters, so it's not discipline at all, it's just something I love to do - and that's why I do it."

Foster is describing his writing routine to a small audience inside a third-floor room at North Vancouver City Lbrary. The spectators have gathered to hear Foster talk about his life and work, particularly his 49th play, On a First Name Basis, which makes its West Coast debut May 5-9 at Kay Meek Centre in West Vancouver.

He tells the audience how he hosted a local morning radio show for many years in Fredericton, N.B. - a gig that meant waking up at 4:30 a.m. every morning.

"I did that for 20 years, so I couldn't break that habit," he says, explaining that he continues to wake up around 5 a.m. daily, begins writing at 6 a.m. and works for four hours or so. "I never write past noon."

Foster is joined at the library by Kay Meek's managing and artistic director Claude Giroux and his On a First Name Basis co-star Patricia Vanstone.

Foster first met Vanstone when she was cast in the original New Brunswick production of his 1984 play The Melville Boys. The two kept in touch over the years and Vanstone, being a fan of Foster's writing, often suggested he write a play called The Trish Show for her. While he never ended up writing The Trish Show, he did write On a First Name Basis with Vanstone in mind for the female lead. Foster plays opposite her in the two-handed show.

The dialogue-based comedy premiered in Bermuda three years ago and Foster and Vanstone have some 300 performances under their belts since then.

"It is a play about a world-renowned writer of espionage novels, David Kilbride, and his housekeeper of 28 years, Lucy Hopperstaad," Vanstone explains. "Over the course of the evening you realize that, despite 28 years in the same house, he knows absolutely nothing about her, including her first name, and she knows what she thinks is everything about him and the evening reveals that they both have a great deal to learn about each other."

Foster has performed in his own plays before and actually got his start in theatre as an actor. In 1979, while working in radio, one of his colleagues decided to audition for an amateur theatre production of Harvey and invited Foster to come along. At that point, Foster, then 29, knew next to nothing about theatre. At the end of the audition, the director turned to him in the auditorium and asked if he wanted to read.

"I said, 'No, I'm not interested, I'm just here with my friend,' and (the director) said, 'Well, you work in radio, you must know how to read, so come on up and read.'" On a whim he went for it and ended up landing the lead part.

"I fell in love with theatre right there," he says.

Foster started picking up acting work on the side while continuing to host his radio show.

"And then I thought maybe I could write one of these because I sit in a (radio) booth every morning and talk to myself, so I think I know something about dialogue."

His first professionally produced play was Sinners in 1983, but it was The Melville Boys a year later that really launched his career as a playwright. The story idea came to him while making the 14-hour drive from Fredericton to Toronto.

"A song came on the radio, Billy Joel's "Allentown," which is about factory workers, and I thought I should write a play about two brothers who work in a factory," he says. "By the time I got to Toronto I had the story all mapped out in my head."

Foster laughs as he recalls writing the script on his manual typewriter on his return to Fredericton.

"When I look back, I don't know how I ever did that. How does one write a play on a typewriter? You can't backspace."

Despite having established himself as a successful playwright, it wasn't until 1998 that Foster left the world of broadcast.

"I really loved the radio job and I'm from a bluecollar background and was always taught that if you have a good job, you hang onto it."

But theatre had taken over and Foster found himself needing to travel for one to two months at a time. He is still amazed, he says, when he considers that 150 productions of his plays are mounted every year in Canada, the U.S. and Europe.

"Anybody, whether they're from Abbotsford or whether they're from Toronto, if they want to do my show I'm extremely flattered."

The fact that he didn't take himself too seriously as a playwright to begin with may have had a hand in his eventual success, he adds.

"I didn't think this was going to be my life, so I really enjoyed what I was doing, writing, and I wasn't in a centre like Toronto or Vancouver or Montreal where I would be influenced by other writers or actors. I was just out there in Fredericton writing plays that I enjoyed, that I would go and see."

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