Each month we interview member playwrights to share their work, stories and inspiration with the community. We recently spoke with Norm Foster, who has been called Canada’s preeminent comic playwright. Mr. Foster has seventy-five plays to his credit including The Foursome, Jonas and Barry in the Home, On A First Name Basis, The Love List, Outlaw, Lunenburg, Hilda’s Yard, Renovations For Six, Halfway There and Come Down From Up River. He is the recipient of the Los Angeles Drama-Logue Award for his play, The Melville Boys and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
During the pandemic, Mr. Foster kept busy writing. He authored a total of eight new plays during that two-year period, including 1812, Danny and Delilah, Whit’s End, Moving In and A Pack of Thieves.
Norm lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Tell us how you got your start writing plays.
I was working in private radio when I moved to Fredericton in 1979. A friend that I worked with at the radio station was going to audition for a community theatre production of the play Harvey. I went along with him just to see what this theatre thing was all about. I had played in the pit band in high school for a production of Guys and Dolls, but I really knew nothing about theatre beyond that. Anyway, I auditioned for Harvey and I got the part of Elwood P. Dowd. After that I did Arsenic and Old Lace and then Butterflies Are Free. Eventually I thought maybe I could write a play of my own. I wrote a couple of plays that were done by the same community theatre group, and then the local professional theatre company, Theatre New Brunswick, headed at the time by Malcolm Black, did my play called Sinners. That was my first professional play.
What does your writing process look like when you’re working on a play?
My process has changed over the years. When I first began writing plays I used to map out every scene. I would include bits of dialogue that I wanted to use in the scene. It was pretty detailed. And then when I actually started writing the play, I would write as many pages as I could in one sitting. 12 or 13 pages or more. But then, the more confident I became in my writing, the less planning I did. Now I start with an idea. I know where I want it to begin. Sometimes I don’t know where it’s going to go. I just let the characters take me there. I let them write the play for me. It sounds odd but that’s exactly what I do. If the characters I’ve created are clear enough, they will find their way to the end of the play. They will tell me when it is the end. The only thing I know about a play when I begin it, is what kind of mood I want it to set. And I don’t write as many pages in one sitting now. I write maybe three or four pages at a time, but I construct them more than just write them. I go over and over them until I think they are just right. So now, my completed first drafts are rehearsal-ready.
Your career as a playwright has spanned several decades, over which time you have become the most produced playwright in Canada, seen the creation of an annual festival dedicated to your work (The Foster Festival), and have been made an Officer of the Order of Canada. How have you changed as a writer over that time, and what do you hope that your legacy as a playwright will be?
I have changed as a writer. My earlier plays were more about the comedy. The plays that I have written in the past decade tend to be more about the characters than the situations. And I like to think that the comedy in the later plays is smarter comedy. Still funny (I hope) but more clever. More thoughtful.
What is your favourite play that you have written, and why?
Picking a favourite play for me is tough. The Melville Boys is the one that is closest to my heart because that’s the play that really opened many doors for me. It’s still the play that I am best known for. But it is not my best play. I’ve written several plays that I think are better than The Melville Boys. I think On A First Name Basis in my most intelligent play. Halfway There is my most complete play. But Jonas and Barry in the Home is probably my favourite play. I like the relationship between the two men. And I think the play is very funny, and brave, and has a lot of heart. And in case you haven’t noticed by now, I don’t mind bragging about my own work.
Is there any advice that you would give to an emerging playwright?
I have mentored a few playwrights….I just realized that if I misspell ‘mentored’ on my computer, spell check corrects it to ’neutered’. How interesting…..The only advice I can give is to get your play into as many hands as you can. Eventually somebody will read it and like it and maybe even produce it.
What are you working on next?
I’ve just finished a play called I’m In Love With Your Sister. And I’ve started a new one called Public Speaking For Beginners.
Do you have any favourite Canadian plays and/or which artists are currently inspiring you?
I’m irresponsible when it comes to Canadian plays. I live in Fredericton New Brunswick, so I don’t get to see much theatre. I have friends whose work I enjoy. Kristen Da Silva is a very accomplished comedic playwright. Peter Colley, another friend, is a fantastic writer. And I’m happy for the success that Mark Crawford has achieved.
I’m inspired by different things. The Banshees of Inisheerin inspires me. Brilliant writing. And there is nothing funnier than Derry Girls.
Disclaimer: Playwrights Guild of Canada (“PGC”) is a national arts service mandated to engage and grow an active Canadian writing community. We promote Canadian plays around the world to advance the creative rights and interests of professional Canadian playwrights for the stage. The views of our members are their own. The opinions of PGC as an association remain neutral.