an interview in one act
C. David Johnson, Norm Foster, Heather Hodgson, and David Kirby
|Story and photo by Karen Robinet|
SWL: Norm, you were introduced to theatre relatively late in life. How had you managed to avoid it?
NF: Well, I guess growing up I was never exposed to theatre that much. I never had any interest in it. I played in the pit band in high school for productions of shows like 'Guys And Dolls', and 'The Pajama Game' but, I was more interested in the music side of it then. I really didn't care what those people were doing up on the stage while I was playing. In fact, I always felt that all of that singing and dancing was distracting the audience from what we were doing down there in the pit. The truth is I had never actually seen a straight play before I acted in one with an amateur group in Fredericton in 1980.
SWL: Once you discovered the wonderful world of theatre though, you embraced it with all the zeal of a religious convert. How would you describe your metamorphosis from a theatrical neophyte to one of Canada's most popular playwrights?
NF: That first experience in Fredericton really turned me on to theatre. I loved the idea of this group of people pulling together to get this show up. It was a turning point in my life really because it set me on the path that I'm on now. After that experience I decided to try and write a play and found that I was very comfortable writing dialogue. It seemed to come naturally to me. And then Malcolm Black saw one of my amateur productions and he asked me to write a play for Theatre New Brunswick. That was when I wrote Sinners, and that was my big break.
SWL: It's been 21 years since your first professional play, Sinners, was produced. How would you say you've evolved as a writer since then?
NF: I think, hopefully, my characters have become more real and more interesting over the years, and that in turn makes it more interesting for the audience and for the actors who play them. And I also think in some cases, the humour has become a little more sophisticated. I don't mean the characters are highbrow now. I mean the humour is more thoughtful. A little smarter. At least I like to think so. But, what do I know? I'm just the friggin' writer.
SWL: Has it become easier, or more difficult to write a play you find personally satisfying?
NF: It's easier because I write with more confidence now. When I sit down to write I just know that it's going to work. I have a voice inside me that tells me it's going to be good. It's quite liberating to write like that. And to tell you the truth, I wouldn't even start a play unless I thought the end result was going to be personally satisfying. Writing would become a job then, and I have never thought about what I do as a job.
SWL: Our audiences know you as an extremely adept writer of comedy, and a man who has been compared to American playwright Neil Simon. Five years ago, you said you had no desire to write a straight drama. Is that equally true today?
NF: Yes, it is true. Now, a lot of my plays such as Storm Warning and Outlaw have equal parts drama and comedy, and I like that blend because the two elements complement one another. And I know I could write a straight drama and one day I might. Who knows? But, I write what I enjoy writing and at the moment, that is comedy. I wouldn't enjoy writing a drama nearly as much so why should I do it? At this point I don't feel that I have anything to prove.
SWL: Robert More, the artistic director at Victoria Playhouse Petrolia says Toronto has shunned you in "one of the greatest acts of snobbery in the country," primarily, one assumes, because you haven't written the 'great Canadian drama.' Does that bother you?
NF: Not at all. I have done quite well without Toronto. I was produced there years ago but things change and I don't try and understand why. Quite frankly, I am just as flattered when a theatre such as The Victoria Playhouse or The Port Stanley Festival Theatre produces my plays as I am when the bigger centres produce them.
SWL: At the same time, you're experiencing the kind of commercial success any playwright would envy. Why do you think your work is so popular with audiences, not just here in Canada, but beyond?
NF: I have been told that it is because audiences identify with the characters in my plays. They see someone they know up on that stage. Sometimes they see themselves. I hope that the stories engage the audience as well as the characters. The real challenge in writing a play is to write something that will hold an audience's attention for two hours. And I think the stories I write have a universality about them that people outside of Canada can identify with as well.
SWL: Do you prefer to consider yourself a successful 'Canadian playwright,' or simply a 'successful playwright?' Why?
NF: I am very proud that I am a Canadian. However I don't write plays to try and spread the word about how great our life is up here. I write about people, not places. So, in answer to your question, I would like to be considered a successful playwright who is thrilled to be a Canadian. In fact, I think I'm most proud that I'm actually 'successful' at what I do. That's not easy in this field and I know just how lucky I am. I don't take that for granted.
SWL: Are there any of your plays you wish you'd never written?
NF: Well, there is one that I wish I had written better. Windfall. It just never worked out the way I wanted it to. It had some very good moments in it but not enough to make it satisfying for me. But I look at every play as a step in my development. I learn something new about the process with every play I write.
SWL: What's your favourite 'Norm Foster.'
NF: Well, that's a very tough question because I like different plays for different reasons. I like The Melville Boys because it got my name known and it was my first real success. And quite honestly, I got lucky with that play. It was my second professional effort and I didn't really know what I was doing. I was writing on instinct more than anything else. I am sure if I started writing that play today it wouldn't be as good because I would be 'thinking' too much. Other plays I like are Outlaw because I really love the western genre and I had a ball writing that dialogue. Storm Warning I like because of the dramatic elements and I like the two main characters a lot. And Ethan Claymore has always been a favourite of mine because of its heart. And of course I always think the one I'm working on at present is going to be my best and right now that play is 'Looking'.
SWL: In addition to writing plays, you also act in them. What do you get out of acting that you don't from writing?
NF: Fun! I really enjoy acting and being in the rehearsal hall and exchanging ideas with other actors and directors. And being on stage is a rush as well. Writing, although it is a lot fun at times, is a very solitary process.
SWL: If you had to choose between the two disciplines, would you give up acting or play writing?
NF: Acting. Playwriting, for me at least, is the far more satisfying of the two.
SWL: Do you only act in your own plays?
NF: Mostly my own but I have done others such as 'Art' at Theatre New Brunswick and I'm going to be in a play called 'Strawberries in January' at Theatre Aquarius in Hamilton this season. I would much rather act in someone else's play because I don't feel as much pressure as I do when I'm acting in one of my own plays.
SWL: How do you reconcile your role as an actor in one of your plays, with the vision of the director?
NF: When I'm acting, I am strictly in the director's hands as one of the actors. I was rehearsing a play of mine once where the director and another actor were having a discussion about a character's reason for saying what he says and I didn't say a thing. And they didn't ask me. And I was right there in the room! I like that. When I'm acting, I am just the actor, not the writer.
SWL: You're currently at work on a new play which will debut in Petrolia next summer. How did that come about?
NF: I have always been a fan as well as a friend of Robert More's and he did a lot of my shows at The Lighthouse Theatre in Port Dover and I've always felt that I owed him a premiere and this is it.
SWL: What can you tell us about Looking?
NF: Looking is about four middle-aged people who are looking for relationships. Well, actually, two of them are looking and the other two get dragged into it by being the friends of the first two. It's about the dating scene when you are approaching fifty and how it has changed from when you were twenty.
SWL: Might we ever see Norm Foster gracing the stage at Victoria Hall?
NF: Just tell me when the first day of rehearsal is and I'll be there!
SWL: With so many successful shows under your belt, how do you cope with the internal and external pressures of writing yet another one?
NF: I really don't feel any pressure when I'm writing. It all goes back to that confidence again. I look forward to writing each day and to climbing into that world with those characters and seeing where they will take me. Some days it's easier than others to produce good work, but even the tough days are rewarding in some way. Anytime I put something down on paper that I think has some merit to it, I feel good.
SWL: What do you enjoy most about theatre?
NF: The people I work with. I have met some wonderful people and made some very good friends in this business. And I have such respect for the talent I see every time I start rehearsals for a new show. I am constantly being blown away by the artists in this country.
SWL: What would you tell people who say they never go to the theatre because it's boring, or it's only for the elite?
NF: Come and see a Norm Foster play. Now, I know that sounds a little cocky, but it's not meant to be. I simply mean that my plays are there for the audience to enjoy. I don't write for the critics or for the artistic directors or for the theatre snobs. I write for my cousin Joan in Scarborough, or my sister Marlene in London, or the guy who does my drywall after my pipes burst. I even write for the plumber who did the bad job which caused my pipes to burst in the first place.
SWL: Do you have aspirations beyond stage writing?
NF: Not really. I've been asked to write screenplays and there is a lot more money in film if you ever get a screenplay produced, but when you write a script for the screen, it becomes the director's script to do with what he pleases. When you write for the stage, it is all yours. Besides, I still think my best play has yet to be written and I can't stop until it's done.
SWL: If you hadn't discovered theatre, what do you think you'd be doing right now?
NF: I would be hosting the morning show on a radio station somewhere and probably enjoying it very much.
SWL: A hundred years from now, how would you like to be remembered?
NF: As a writer who moved an audience, whether it be through laughter or by touching their hearts. And even if, a hundred years from now, they say, 'Oh yeah, he's the guy who wrote The Melville Boys. Did he do anything else?', that will be enough.