Norm Foster

Norm FosterPhoto: The Foster Festival
Norm Foster
Photo: The Foster Festival

Norman (Norm) Clayton Foster is generally recognized as Canada’s most produced playwright, a title that he largely credits to accident. The only child of a bookbinder and an owner of a hairdressing salon (Posner R3), Foster was born in New Market, Ontario on 14 February 1949. He attended West Collegiate High School in Toronto, was primarily raised in working class Scarborough, and did not have the opportunity to see his first play until the age of thirty (Learning ii). After secondary school, Foster attended Centennial College in Toronto and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, where he studied radio and television. Having been warned by a teacher about the limited work available in television, he pursued a career in radio that took him to Winnipeg, Kingston, and eventually Fredericton in 1979, where he worked as a popular morning host for local radio station CIHI.

Foster attributes his career in theatre to his time in New Brunswick (Barton 52) for it was here that he saw his first play and began pursuing a life in theatre. In 1980 a friend brought him to an amateur theatre company, Theatre Fredericton, where he was immediately cast in the lead role of Elwood P. Dodd in Mary Chase’s Harvey, directed by Alvin Shaw (Posner R3). Foster was hooked, and the vibrant theatre community gave the amateur thespian ample opportunities to explore and grow as an artist as he continued to perform in several other comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace. The plot and style of comedies like these inspired Foster to develop the writing he was doing for radio — two-minute sketches involving characters of his own invention — into full-length plays. In 1981, his first script, Friends and Family, was produced by Theatre Fredericton and directed by Shaw. Friends and Family was seen by Theatre New Brunswick’s Artistic Director Malcolm Black, who had been searching for another local playwright to build on the success his company had with Alden Nowlan and Walter Learning (Learning ii). Black asked Foster for his next play. Foster wrote Sinners — a sex farce about a furniture dealer caught in the arms of a Minister’s wife — which Black produced and directed for TNB in 1983. In 1984, Black went on to commission and produce Foster’s next play, The Melville Boys. That play was later performed across North America, making an off-Broadway run in New York and eventually winning the Los Angeles Drama-Logue Award. On the heels of that success, TNB produced nine Foster plays over the next sixteen years (Learning ii), including The Affections of May (1990), The Motor Trade (1991), and Wrong for Each Other (1992). Eventually, Foster’s output was so large that Fredericton’s small-town theatre company could no longer produce what he wrote, so other professional companies started taking on his work. This success gave Foster the courage to quit his job as a radio DJ in 1999 to write full time and occasionally act in his own plays (Learning ii).

Foster’s plays have now been performed across North America in numerous venues, whether summer festivals, regional and community theatres, amateur companies, or school theatre programs. This is in part due to the inexpensive apparatus of his productions, most requiring only one set and no more than four characters (Mullally). While this form of presentation was influenced by writing for the small-budget TNB, Foster preferred writing this kind of show because it allowed him to create fully fleshed characters who could be showcased dynamically in an ensemble format. Foster also credits his presentation style to his love for small-town Fredericton, where he lived for twenty-two years:

Most of my plays are set in small towns and I think that’s because of the small town feel I enjoyed while living in the Maritimes. It is a way of life like no other. It put me in a laid-back frame of mind which I found conducive to the creative process, and it also provided me with a wide array of characters with which to populate my plays. I can honestly say, if it wasn’t for the time I spent in the Maritimes, I doubt that I would be a playwright today. (Barton 52)

Evident in all his plays is Foster’s sense of comedic plot, reminiscent of greats such as Neil Simon and Alan Ayckbourn (Learning ii). Such plots are easily accessible to audiences of any region or class. The plot of a play such as Ethan Claymore, for example, reaffirms audience expectations and traditional community values, and reflects Foster’s experience of writing in the Maritimes, where people are “historically stubbornly traditional and resistant to change” (Mullally). Ethan Claymore plays on some of the stereotypes of rurality that visitors and locals find so amusing, such as Douglas’ manipulation of the stereotypes themselves to trick a new-to-town teacher, Teresa Pike, into meeting the widowed farmer, Ethan Claymore:

DOUGLAS: Well, on my way over here this morning I stopped by the school and had a word with Miss Pike. I explained to her it was a custom in this area for the new teachers to introduce themselves around to all the parents, and that it seems that everyone’s met her except for this friend of mine Ethan Claymore. Mind you, I didn’t tell her that you weren’t a parent, but that’s a small point. Well she was very apologetic and she promised that she’d stop by after school this afternoon and make your acquaintance. Now, I can be here to help break the ice if you like, but personally I think that my presence would be an intrusion, and Lord knows I’ve never been one to intrude. (Foster, Claymore 1.2)

Douglas’ declaration of the end of his friend’s mourning period and the subsequent intervention in his dating life exemplifies the claustrophobic world of small-town New Brunswick, where everyone knows — and is involved in — everyone else’s business. While Foster delights in presenting his audience with these regional stereotypes, his own experience as a Maritime citizen leads him to recognize, at the same time, that Atlantic Canadians have become increasingly aware “of the overtly representational nature of their profile in Canada and beyond, specifically through the dominant emphasis on tourism as the region’s sole ‘growth industry’” (Barton 53). Ethan Claymore is thus not simply a play about stereotypes, but of the struggle to keep the region alive in the face of narrowing economic and narrative options.

This “balancing act” (Barton 53) is complemented by Foster’s unique characterization. His characters don’t fall into easy regional stereotypes, a fact that enables their accessibility: each is an “everyman: yet still deep and idiosyncratic” (Barton 52). Foster places these people in real situations and events that impact us all, such as marriage breakdowns, deaths, career failures, and parent-child relationships. As such, Foster attends to what Walter Learning calls “The Three Rs”: relationships, reconciliation, and redemption (Learning ii). While the characters of Ethan Claymore, then, are quirky and comedic, the heart of the story is an exploration of reintegration into community and love after experiencing loss. These themes don’t necessarily differentiate Foster from other Maritime playwrights, but his “compassionate eye on the human condition and his natural empathy dictates that his plays send us out of the theatre with hope in our hearts” (Learning iii). Foster corroborates in admitting that he has no interest in writing “issue oriented scripts” (Posner R3) or producing the “Great Canadian Drama” (Russell-King). Rather, his purpose is clearly to entertain, which he does masterfully in creating “a bond between his work and the audience which goes beyond his ability to make us laugh” (Learning iii).

That said, theatre critics have not reacted to his work as positively as audiences and theatre companies. A few critics have gone as far as calling his work, “a waste of time” (Foster “Reflections”). Review sites such as Capital Critics Circle hold back no punches when suggesting that four of the six plays in Foster’s Bedtime Stories “should have been left to gather dust in the playwright’s bottom drawer” because of a “sophomoric humor that can quickly wear out its welcome” (Portman). This critical dismissal has resulted in limited funding from the Canada Council and little representation of his work in Canadian theatre anthologies.

As popular as he is, then, Foster is perceived as a clever, formulaic writer of lightweight, lowbrow comedies, a paradox not lost on Walter Learning, who observed that Foster’s strengths are also his greatest weaknesses (iii). But Foster accepts this reception, and he continues to hone and produce his work as both writer and actor. To date he has written close to sixty plays, with three more in development. Foster has also recently published his first novel, Watching Jeopardy (2011), which was nominated for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel. He is currently working with Emily Oriold and Patricia Vanstone to create the inaugural 2016 season of The Foster Festival in St. Catharines, Ontario. The festival is not only dedicated to celebrating the playwright’s works, but also “Fostering” the talent of local children and emerging Canadian playwrights. As well, Foster continues to work in local theatre as a writer, performer, and mentor, taking great delight in the laughter and shared understanding of humanity that his work evokes.

Sharisse LeBrun, Fall 2015
St. Thomas University

Bibliography of Primary Sources

Foster, Norm. The Affections of May. Toronto: PUC Play Service, 2001.

---. Bedtime Stories. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2007.

---. Bob’s Your Elf. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2012.

---. Bravado. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1988.

---. The Christmas Tree. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2014.

---. Dear Santa. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2012.

---. Drinking Alone. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. Ethan Claymore. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. A Foster Christmas [“Ethan Claymore,” “Bob’s Your Elf,” “The Christmas Tree,” “Dear Santa”]. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2010.

---. The Foster Season: Three Plays [“Maggie’s Getting Married” (2006), “Here on the Flight Path” (2006), “The Long Weekend” (2002)]. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.

---. The Foursome. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2000.

---. The Gentleman Clothier. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2014.

---. The Great Kooshog Lake Hollis McCauley Fishing Derby. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2014.

---. Here on the Flight Path. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. Hilda’s Yard. Toronto: Playwrights Canada, 2012.

---. Jenny’s House of Joy. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2007.

---. Jupiter in July. Alexandria: Alexander Street Press, 2007.

---. Kiss the Moon, Kiss the Sun. Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 2004.

---. The Ladies Foursome. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2015.

---. The Long Weekend. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2002.

---. Looking: A Comedy. New York: Samuel French, 2006.

---. Louis and Dave. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. The Love List: A Comedy. New York: Samuel French, 2006.

---. Maggie’s Getting Married. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. The Melville Boys. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1984.

---. Mending Fences. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2007.

---. The Motor Trade. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 1991.

---. The Motor Trade and The Affections of May. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1997.

---. Mrs. Parliament’s Night Out. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2012.

---. My Darling Judith. Toronto: Playwrights Union Canada, 1997.

---. Office Hours. Alexandria, VA: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. Old Love. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.

---. On a First Name Basis. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2015.

---. One-Actmanship: Two Plays [“My Narrator,” “The Death of Me”] Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.

---. Opening Night. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1989.

---. Outlaw. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2004.

---. “Reflections,” CanPlay Magazine, April 2009.

---. Sadie Flynn Comes to Big Oak. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 1996.

---. Self-Help. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2002.

---. Sinners. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1984.

---. The Sitter. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 1994.

---. Skin Flick. Toronto: Playwrights Guild of Canada, 2009.

---. Small Time. Victoria: Scirocco Drama, 2001.

---. Storm Warning. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2003.

---. Triple Plays: Three Plays [“Jenny’s House of Joy,” “Outlaw,” “Bedtime Stories”]. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2008.

---. Watching Jeopardy. Bloomington, IN: Xlibris, 2011.

---. Windfall. Toronto: Playwrights Guild, 1986.

---. Wrong for Each Other. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1992.

---. Vintage Foster: Six Plays by Norm Foster [“The Melville Boys,” “Opening Night,” “The Motor Trade,” “Wrong for Each Other,” “Jupiter in July,” “Drinking Alone”]. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2001.

Foster, Norm, and Leslie Arden. The Last Resort. Toronto: Playwrights Union of Canada, 2001.

Foster, Norm, and John Mueller. A Foggy Day. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 1998.

Foster, Norm, and Steve Thomas. Jasper Station. Alexandria: Alexander Street Press, 2006.

---. One Moment. Toronto: Playwrights Guild, 2007.

---. Race Day. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2002.

---. Sitting Pretty. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2005.

Foster, Norm, and David Warrack. Ned Durango Comes to Big Oak. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 1994.

---. A Snow White Christmas. Toronto: Playwrights Guild Canada, 2013.

Bibliography of Secondary Sources

Barton, Bruce. “Introduction to Ethan Claymore.” Marigraph: Gauging the Tides of Drama From New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2004. 52-53.

Brenna, Dwayne. Scenes From Canadian Plays: From Automatic Pilot to Zastrozzi. Saskatoon: Fifth House, 1989.

Craig, Alexander. “Beyond the Norm.” Performing Arts & Entertainment in Canada 31.4 (1998): 26.

“Foster Festival.” Information Morning. CBC Radio. Fredericton. 22 June 2015.

The Foster Festival Official Website. 2015

Gallagher, Noel. “Canada’s Comedy King.” The London Free Press 19 June 2003: D3.

Learning, Walter. “Introduction.” Vintage Foster: Six Plays by Norm Foster. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 2001. ii-iii.

Mullally, Edward. “Norm Foster and the ‘Popular’ Label.” Office Hours. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1996. [n.p.]

Norm Foster Official Website. 2015

Oriold, Emily. “The Foster Festival Will be the First Theatre Festival in Canada to Celebrate the Work of a Living Canadian Playwright Norm Foster.” Norm Foster Official Website. 15 June 2015

Portman, Jamie. “OLT’s Bedtime Stories: The Best and Worst of Norm Foster.” Capital Critics Circle. 15 July 2015.

Posner, Michael. “I Tell ya, I’m Lucky...I’ve Never Had Writer’s Block.” The Globe and Mail 4 Aug. 2003: R3.

Russell-King, Caroline, and Rose Scollard. Interview featured in Strategies: The Business of Being a Playwright in Canada. Toronto: Playwrights Canada Press, 1999.

Zettel, Mike. “Festival to ‘Foster’ Humour With Heart.” Niagra This Week, St. Catharines-Thorold Edition 15 June 2015: 1.