Saturday, March 15, 2003

 
 

Norm Foster started acting in little theatre merely as a hobby. Now he's a rarity--a successful full-time writer of plays.

 
By Gary Smith
Special to The Hamilton Spectator
 
Norm Foster is late. He's already 15 minutes overdue for our interview. The red-faced Theatre Aquarius publicist can't imagine why he hasn't turned up. After all, he lives just up the hill in Ancaster. A quick phone call and it turns out Foster had the wrong date pencilled in. No matter, the big guy is now on his way. He turns up slightly dishevelled, looking like some sheepish character from one of his plays.
He's written more than 30 of them. Many are so successful they've become mainstays of the southern Ontario summer theatre circuit. Some are produced as far afield as Florida and California. For all his success, Foster is a decidedly casual man. Dressed in comfortable blue jeans and baggy grey sweater, he lowers his six-foot-plus frame in a leather office chair. No aura here, I discover. "You can't have an aura once you've lived in New Brunswick," Foster grins. "It's simply not allowed. I'm a blue-collar kind of guy. And those are the kind of people you find in my plays. Maybe that's why I'm not produced in Toronto. Mississauga seems to be the closest I can get."  

Foster grew up in Toronto where he fell into radio, "I think, accidentally. I wanted to be a writer for television and my professor said, 'There's no work for television writers in Canada.' So the next thing you know, there I am on the radio doing a DJ show. Careerwise, my whole life has been something of an accident, I suppose. I started acting in little theatre. It was really just a hobby. Then I began to work on a play. "It took me years to decide I was enough of a success at play writing to quit my day job. I didn't quit that until about four and a half years ago. I just didn't think of what I was doing as work, I suppose. I'm lucky that way, I've never had to do jobs that I didn't like. Then, too, my blue-collar background made me feel I had to hang on to whatever job I had. That's what you did."

Foster likes living in Ancaster. "It reminds me of Fredericton." He moved there with second wife Janet Monid because the possibilities for her acting career were simply better being close to Toronto. Foster and Monid appear together quite a lot, acting in Norm's plays. Here On The Flight Path is a piece they do together frequently. Foster says his plays are always about ordinary folk and usually deal with troubled relationships. His characters are frequently attempting to redefine themselves. He doesn't tend to look back on plays he's written with an analytical eye. "My main objective is to tell a story. I try to write something an audience is going to relate to and then sit and watch for a couple of hours."

Foster has a very clear understanding of why his plays work. He also knows when they don't. "But I've given up trying to account for why people like certain ones over others. Sometimes it's the failures that appeal to me most." His first play, The Melville Boys, remains one of his most-produced comedies. Its early success never fazed him, though. "I never felt anxious about coming up with a second play. There was no pressure ever about that. You see, I knew so little about the business, I never felt threatened by success." Amazingly, Foster has never had a play that wasn't produced. "All right, I've had one or two that were only done once or twice," he grimaces. "My biggest disappointment was a play called Bravado. It was so different for me. I had one of the characters die, and the audience just wouldn't go for that. They didn't expect that from me." Despite that, Foster says he doesn't allow audiences to dictate what he writes. "When I get an idea, I simply have to write it. I have to get it out of my head."

Foster gets up at 5:30 a.m. and is at the computer an hour later. "I don't have to force myself to write. I'm always writing something. I usually can't wait to climb back into whatever little world I inhabit with my characters. " Sometimes the characters take over and sometimes they almost write the play themselves. I've gained confidence, and I don't block every little thing out from the start. I know where I want things to end, but how we get there is another thing altogether." Foster considers himself lucky to have his plays produced. "Just to make a living as a playwright in Canada is quite an incredible thing. Of course, unlike Bernie Slade with Same Time, Next Year, I haven't hit on the big annuity comedy yet. If Bernie never wrote another play after that, he could live comfortably the rest of his life."

Foster's next offering with Theatre Aquarius is The Foursome, opening March 26. The play is a bittersweet comedy about four university buddies who meet for a golf game after 25 years, and Foster thinks it fits neatly into the canon of his work. "It's about the way time changes almost everything. As these guys take shots at themselves, we see the pain that underlies a certain amount of what they feel. One talks too much about his marriage, one worries he's just not the marrying kind." They reminisce and the talk gets around to a number of serious things. Eventually, it becomes clear that beyond the gutsy banter, these guys have difficulty talking about anything real. "It's about the way you're close to understanding something serious, and then things change. I know the territory. My first marriage ended in 1980. I know about that. Suddenly you're older, and you just don't have the same possibilities anymore." Foster agrees golf is secondary to the theme of regret and lost opportunity that pervades the darker crannies of his somewhat cynical play. "Yes, it's been called cynical. But increasingly there is a dark thread to many of my plays while at the same time I have found a sweetness in something like A Foggy Day, which I did to Gershwin music at the Shaw Festival."

Foster admits to having a special relationship with Theatre Aquarius. The company has produced an annual Foster comedy for a number of years. "It started way back with The Melville Boys. They just seem to like my plays here. And I like the theatre. It seems a good fit. Hamilton is such a blue-collar town, and maybe that's why my plays appeal to people here." Certainly The Last Resort, Office Hours and Self-Help have been successful for the local company. Self-Help even transferred, virtually intact, to Mississauga's Stage West Dinner Theatre. "I'm tough on myself," he says. "And the more I learn, the more difficult I get. You have to be tough if you're going to put out a product that you're proud of."

gsmith@thespec.com.

Who: Norm Foster

What: The Foursome

Where: Theatre Aquarius

When: March 26 to April 12

Tickets: $26-$47 Phone: 905-522-7529