Wednesday, November 8, 2006
 
Pulse Niagara
Constructing Fences
 
"It'll make you laugh and I guarantee it will make you cry," said Norm Foster a few days before the world première of his fortieth play, Mending Fences. Pulse sat down with the prolific writer/ actor after a technical rehearsal at Port Mansion Theatre. "This will be the first time I've acted in the first performance of any of my plays and also the first time I've worked in Port Dalhousie." But Foster's works are well-known to Niagara. Here on the Flight Path touched down in 2003; later that year Outlaw rode into town; 2004 saw Storm Warning delight audiences with its wit and wisdom; Port Colborne enjoyed a different production of the same play last summer. Almost anywhere you look, there's a Foster play lurking on the boards. With such an experienced playwright at hand, Pulse gently probed into his methodology for theatrical creation.
 
Norm Foster as Harry Sullivan
in Mending Fences
 

To generate ideas, Foster often turns to music. (In Mending Fences, he uses tracks from Bruce Cockburn's instrumental CD, Speechless. Without lyrics, the songs can better support the action, scene shifts and drama.) Sometimes the germ of a play comes from colleagues. "Chris McHarge (who directs the show) suggested the father/son relationship. I added a neighbour the next range over. She's the father's girlfriend. From there I developed situations and wrote some background scenes using flashbacks. I knew the beginning and the end right away - the fun part is always how it gets there," he laughed as he recalled the six-month incubation.

Foster can usually pen a play in half that time. "This took the longest to write. Being father and a son, it wasn't always fun. It became a very emotional process. I sent forty pages to Chris in June. When the first draft was completed we got together to workshop it. After reading aloud, I went back and began tweaking the script - a process I continue right up until opening night," he explained. Foster had two luxuries that beginning playwrights can only dream about. He was to be in his play so had no difficulty writing his own dialogue. It's a snap for writer to ask himself as actor, "Would I say that?" Knowing the venue is also a huge plus. As Mending Fences moves about to other communities, it will always look different, but there will be less compromise needed for these initial performances due to the physical or technical limitations of an unknown theatre space. "I just put in the props requirements, then let the designers build the set and plan the lighting. Of course, it's a very tight space, but we'll make that work for us - even the two scenes in front of the stage with the audience right beside us," he laughed in remembrance of the first preview.

The job of writing is never as easy as it seems to the uninitiated. When stuck, Foster puts on some music and "let it take me" out of the problem. On other occasions, the characters take over and solve the dilemmas themselves. For the first time, Foster won't have the luxury of watching the première and seeing what the complete show. "There are always some surprises - usually I'm sitting with the crowd. Chris has become my eyes. Last night we had an unexpected laugh, but it was based on relationships so no changes were required. It takes an audience reaction to show us what works and what might need tweaking. We're fortunate to have a week of previews to help us through that process. Then it's great to do it for a two-month run. In many other experiences, the show just hits its stride after a couple of weeks and it's suddenly closing night," he said.

If forced to choose, Foster would rather write than act because "it's more satisfying." But the lure of the stage is never far. "There's a lot of fun doing the show every night. The cast is great. I've worked with Derek Ritschel before and Heather Hodgson is terrific." Like the play itself, acting is all about relationships. The craft is for Foster to take the literal meaning of Mending Fences (social action to improve poor relations) and mold that into two hours of entertainment-with-a-message. Aspiring playwrights need this lesson most. Before following Foster's method of finding the idea, putting the words down on paper, tidying them up then sending around to "every artistic director you can," take the time to reflect and determine if you have the special ingredient that is key to Foster's art and public success: an intimate understanding of the human experience.

[James Wegg]

Mending Fences @ Theatre In Port (905)934-0575

Opening Night Gala November 10, 2006

Running through December 31, 2006 www.portmansion.com