The following excerpt is from 'Strategies the Business of Being a Playwright in Canada', by Caroline Russell-King and Rose Scollard, Playwrights Canada Press, 1999
Since his first productions "Sinners" and "The
Melville Boys", actor and playwright Norm Foster has written over twenty successful
plays and is one of Canada's most produced playwrights. He is currently touring
with his wife Janet Monid in his play "Here on the Flight Path".
We were reading about how you got your first break, at Theatre NB. Did you know Malcolm Black before he directed your play?
No I didn't. When I wrote my first play--the very, very first play for this amateur theatre group--I didn't know much about theatre at all. I hadn't been to many plays, didn't know anybody in theatre. It was just by luck that Malcolm came to see the show He introduced himself and said "If you write something else show it to me first." And so I wrote something else, that was Sinners, and he liked it and he put it on.
Do you have any strategies you would recommend to other playwrights.
As far as getting the plays done? It's hard to say because I've been really lucky. After Malcolm did Sinners, I wrote The Melville Boys and that one really took off for me. John Dolan who was in that first production took The Melville Boys to his agency, Christopher Banks, and said that they should take me on, and they did.
You got an agent on your first time out! We hate you!
I've been so lucky along this whole road. By accident, or whatever, I seem to have stepped in the right places.
Have there been other people in your career who have helped you besides your agent Patti Ney, and Malcolm?
Michael Shamata, when he was the artistic Director at TNB, helped me a lot. He premiered The Affections of May, The Motor Trade and Wrong For Each Other. When I wrote a play I'd show it to him first. We'd sit down for an hour or so and he'd tell me what he thought worked and what didn't work. He had some really great insights into it; he helped me a lot there.
And so have you used dramaturgy and workshops a lot in your play development?
Umm, that's a touchy thing with me There are only a few people that I really trust, who I've worked with and know my work. I listen to them and to what they have to say. I enjoy the workshop process but I don't like it if it goes on too long. Half a day or a day is good enough for me. Just to hear it read, hear the actors' and the dramaturge's initial comments I think is really helpful. But if a workshop goes on for any longer, like two or three days, I get the feeling that the people involved feel they have to contribute something and a lot of the stuff after that first day isn't really that valuable.
How do you balance being the playwright with being the entrepreneur. The business side of things.
You know what? I don't do any of the business at all. I hate the business end of things. That's why it's so great to have my agent, Patti Ney. I don't do the business end of things at all. Even with Here on the Flight Path, which is the show my wife Janet and I do together, Janet does all the business.
So it sounds like you pretty much have a formula for yourself: you write it; you have people you trust, they read it; you maybe workshop it for one day; then you turn it over to Patti and then you make lots of money.
This is Canada don't forget. But yeah that's basically it. For instance when you say people I trust, yes. There's M. Shamata, Chris McHarge who runs Theatre on the Grand in Fergus, Jerry Franken who's done a lot of work at Blyth, three guys who know my work really well and who are going to give me an honest opinion about what works and what doesn't work. It's nice to have folks like that you can depend on. No matter how good you think you are you're always going to miss something and sometimes you can't see the forest for the trees.
You seem to have an instinctive, a very distinct feeling for what delights an audience Did you have that right from the beginning?
I think I'm lucky in that what I find funny I trust that an audience is going to find funny or touching or moving in some way too. So far the material that I've found, that has moved me in some way, has also moved an audience. I don't set out to do that; I'm just lucky that that's the way it works out.
Do you think as an actor that there are cross over skills you use as a playwright that have helped you through?
Acting lets me know what it's like for an actor up there on stage. And knowing what an actor looks for has helped me a lot, maybe to create more interesting characters which is something as a writer that you always try to do. You want to try and create that character that actors love to play.
And what mistakes do you see other playwrights making?
Well to be honest with you I haven't had a chance to read a whole lot of plays but from what I've seen over the years. I think the mistake, I don't know if it's a mistake but it's something that bothers me a bit, people take themselves too seriously. And sometimes when I'm watching a play I can see the writer's wheels turning and I think when you don't see the writer at work then it's a much better job. It's a much better play.
So what excites you most about theatre?
The whole process - creating this work from nothing and seeing it come alive on the stage - that's the most exciting thing. Seeing an audience react to the work. Seeing the actors getting involved in bringing your work to life. It's really exciting.
Where do you want to be in ten years?
I'm quite happy with where I am right now. If this roll I'm on can keep up I'll be more than pleased.
Do you feel that you've been pigeonholed as a commercial comedy writer?
I can't complain about that but I have been, sure, and I think that sometimes people have to do that, put you in a category. Maybe it makes them feel more comfortable.
Do you ever feel like you want to break out of the box you've been put into?
No I've never felt a desire to do that. It's not that bad. I don't feel that much pressure really. I have no desire to write a straight drama at all, so it's not like I'm fighting to write that Great Canadian Drama. No.
So you sound pretty content and happy.
I know. It's amazing! I'm really lucky. I get to write and I get to play golf in the summer. I mean, what more could I ask for? I get people to put my plays on and it's great, so yeah.
So what advice do you have for the up and coming playwrights reading this book?
I had a teacher in college who told me, just keep writing no matter what other people say about your work or no matter what you think. Just keep writing and write every day. And that's what I've done. And it's paid off.