A CONVERSATION WITH NORM FOSTER
By Simon Chang
Part 1 - My Darling Judith
The Milton Players are no strangers to the works of Norm Foster. With his relatable characters, dialogue, and stories that mix comedy and poignant drama, Foster's writing style has found success in Milton, across Canada, and around the world. It's this acclaim that has contributed to an average of one hundred and fifty productions of his shows a year, and earned him the title of "Canada's Most-Produced Playwright." A sampling of Norm Foster shows The Milton Players have performed over the years includes Sinners, Here on the Flight Path, Drinking Alone, and Self-Help. That's out of a body of work that includes over fifty plays, written across three decades of experience in Canadian theatre. It's also a body of work that continues to grow. Having moved back to Fredericton, New Brunswick in September of 2012 after living in Ontario for over a decade, Foster has been busy writing and also acting in several new productions. Recently, he's found himself back in Ontario over the past summer, touring his play On A First Name Basis as the character of David Kilbride. As Foster puts it, "Since I moved back last September, I've been on the road for about six months. So I've hardly had any time back [in Fredericton] at all."
Despite this busy schedule, Norm Foster was gracious enough to spare some time and chat with us regarding our upcoming productions of his shows, My Darling Judith and Bedtime Stories, as well as his career. What follows is part 1 of that conversation, covering My Darling Judith. Part 2, with Bedtime Stories, will be released alongside that show's opening in spring of 2014.Milton Players: You are a writer of comedies, but you do infuse them with drama. And it's not always the same degree of drama in every show. [For example] Self-Help is farcical, but then you take something like Melville Boys, and it's very dramatic. My Darling Judith falls in the middle. How much of that is pre-determined as you start the writing process?
Norm Foster: It really is pre-determined before I start. Say I'm writing a play like Self-Help - I'm thinking to myself, "The next play is going to be a lot more serious than this." Or I'm writing a serious play, and I think, "Ok, the next play is going to be really light." I kind of map out, get the feel of what the story is going to be about, what it's going to be like. I know from that how much heart, how much drama is going to be in it before I even start. So quite often the play I'm working on determines the feel of the next play.
MP: If we look at the whole chronology of your work, would we find those highs and lows?
NF: I've never looked at it myself, but I think you might, yeah.
MP: With My Darling Judith, there are a lot of references to musicals and bands and songs. I know that music is a big part of your writing process as well.
NF: It is, very much so. I've been involved in music all my life, through high school, playing in bands, touring around, and putting myself through college playing in a bar band. I've been around music all my life and it just seemed like a natural thing to use music - even when I'm writing. If I get stuck at a certain spot, I'll just stop writing and put some music on. That will get me over the hump and the line will come to me and I'll just go back to work. I use music in a lot of the plays.
MP: Do you remember what the influence was to use music for My Darling Judith?
NF: It was mainly because Judith is a fan of musicals. And that was one of her character traits that sort of spawned all the musical references. When you're writing a play you always look for a certain characteristic that makes your character a little quirkier. You're looking for something a little different that makes them stand out, and that was one of her characteristics. Aside from being wacky. (Laughs)
MP: Oh, she is wacky. And she has a very serious, dramatic side as well.
NF: Absolutely. There's a reason for her wackiness.
MP: One other thing on the music side I did want to point out is The Doobie Brothers. There's a specific reference in the play that they've broken up. I went online to research The Doobie Brothers and realized they had actually gotten back together.
NF: They had broken up two or three times. They're one of my favourite bands. I think I've seen them three or four times in concert. They're all over the place.
MP: Do you ever write [those kinds of references] and then go back a few years, decades later, look at it and go "This is kind of dated"?
NF: I've stopped using any pop references at all. I'm lucky that The Doobie Brothers are still well known. When I wrote The Affections of May, I made a reference to Neil Diamond. Well thank god Neil Diamond is still around, you know? So I've stopped using pop references for that very reason. Ten years down the road, it becomes dated. This is just one more thing I learned along the way while I was writing. If you want to make a play universal, you stay away from any references that date it that way.
MP: With Hilda's Yard (a show that premiered shortly after Foster's move back to Fredericton), that's actually a period piece from the fifties.
NF: Yeah, that's your period piece and for that you actually want to use the pop references of the time to confirm the dates and make it sit in that year.
MP: And again, Judith as we said [has a very serious, dramatic side]. The play does take a more serious bent in the final act. I made a quick list of issues that your characters have faced throughout your shows, including: Adultery and divorce, father-son estrangement, terminal illness. Drinking Alone actually happens to have all of those packed in one.
NF: I know! I hit the trifecta on that one. When I go back and I read these things or I see the plays, a lot of them make me uncomfortable. I find it very difficult to watch. I haven't seen it in awhile, but to watch The Melville Boys, I find that very difficult. It just makes me cringe sometimes, the topics they're touching on. I wouldn't say I'm not very deep, but I just don't like to discuss those things you know? Cancer, alcoholism, I avoid those things in my life, and here I wind up writing about them. It's because a play can turn on an issue like that. That sparks the conflict right there that spurns the story on, so you have to have these things, otherwise you have no story. So I'm forced to use some of these things.
I'm uncomfortable with the whole adultery thing now. Back in the days of My Darling Judith, it was kind of light. Neil Simon wrote about adultery and divorce. You could cheat on your wife. It was like Boeing-Boeing, that play about [having] a woman in every city, but now you look back at it and you go "My god, that's really sick." (Laughs) What were they thinking when they wrote that? So things change. I'm glad I wrote all these plays, each play is a stepping stone in the career, and I learn something with every play I write but sometimes I think "Ah, I wish I had done something else besides that."
MP: Is there any issue that you haven't tackled yet that you'd want to?
NF: That I'd want to? I don't think so (Laughs). The play we toured, On A First Name Basis, is a two-hour conversation between two people about their lives. Hilda's Yard is about family relationships. It touches on spousal abuse in the fifties and issues like that. I've pretty much covered everything so far over the years.
MP: Production wise for Judith, you featured a second floor for the bedrooms, which The Milton Players cannot replicate due to the constraints of our room. Is that part of the conceptualization of the play? Or is that something you talk about with the director and the producer and figure out what you can and can't do?
NF: Back in those days when I was writing a play, I would try and describe everything. I would almost try and design the set myself. The more plays I wrote, the more I realized it's not my job to do that. There are people far more qualified, set designers, who do that. What I do now is put in what I need in the play like a telephone, a table, a lamp, a door, and let the designers do the design of the play. With Judith, I don't think it was really essential to the play. It was just a set I saw in my head.
MP: A major sequence in the second act happens offstage, and is conveyed to the audience via Carl's exposition. Isn't the general rule [in writing] that as much as possible, you show the action and not tell it?
NF: That's right. And I totally agree with that too. When you do write something that is related offstage, you try and keep it as short as you can and try and make it as interesting as you can. It just can't be long, long, exposition.
Here's another thing I hate about a lot of plays: You know a play is weak if someone starts off the play and they're on the telephone. And they're describing some action or they're setting something up to somebody on the other end. They're only doing this because "I couldn't think of any other way to get this information out there except to tell their friend on the telephone." I might have done that a couple of times early in my career too. But you're right, most of the action should be seen on stage.
MP: Career wise, your bio states an average of 150 productions a year for your shows. You've earned the title of Canada's most produced playwright. When did you realize [this happened]?
NF: It started maybe twenty years ago? The Playwrights Union of Canada would keep track of all the productions I was getting, and they said to me one day, "Of all the plays that are done by Canadians around the world, 50% of the plays are your plays, and 50% are all the other Canadian writers." And I thought "Wow, that's really something.'" I think that's when it hit me. I'm certainly very pleased with it too; I mean it's not easy. I know playwrights who if they get three productions they're thrilled. I get plays produced all the time, and I just know how lucky I am. It's something I'm really proud of.
MP: Do you feel in any way this influences the approach to your work?
NF: No that's never been a concern to me. I always write plays that I think I will enjoy. I don't write plays, first of all, that I wouldn't enjoy writing, and secondly, that I wouldn't enjoy seeing in a theatre. So I've always trusted my own judgment that if I'm going to like it then a good portion of the audience is going to like it too. I've never said "Oh, I have to write this because my audience likes this kind of thing." I've never thought of that. I try and do different stuff as much as I can, because I just can't write The Affections of May over and over again, you know. I think if they're going to see one of my plays, they know in general what they're going to see.
MP: Are there any shows you want to see performed more?
NF: Oh sure. I always wonder why Hilda's Yard isn't produced more. I think it's my best play. I always wonder why it never gets produced, like the way it should. It's funny; I was talking to another friend of mine, [another] really popular Canadian playwright. He's saying to me, "I can't believe I don't get produced more." Are you kidding? You get produced a lot! So every one of us is always thinking, even if you get 800 productions a year, "Why aren't they doing this play?" You're never satisfied.
MP: Was there anything from the older library that you're always keen to see pop up?
NF: Outlaw is one; I always like it when I hear someone is doing that. Ethan Claymore, it's an old Christmas play of mine that I think is really sweet. I like it when that gets done too.
MP: We've covered some things you have on your plate right now, was there anything else you wanted to mention?
NF: I have a new Christmas show (A Snow White Christmas) at Theatre Orangeville (opening Nov. 29 and running until Dec. 22). It's a musical that I wrote with David Warrack. After that, next summer I'm opening a new play called The Gentlemen Clothier and that's going to be in Port Dover.