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Novelist Thomas Wolfe has said you can never go home again.
Norm Foster, who got his start with Theatre New Brunswick and became the most produced playwright in the country has moved back to Fredericton and begs to differ.
“I grew up in Toronto and I never considered myself a big city guy, ever. Even growing up there, I just felt like it wasn’t for me. Being in a big city people are more anonymous to each other I think, and here I can walk down the street and meet 10 people I know. I love that. I love that about this town. It’s great.”
Foster had lived in Fredericton from 1979 to 2002 before leaving for Ontario. He has a new play, Hilda’s Yard, which premieres at the Playhouse next month and a renewed sense that if the world’s his stage, it’s in Fredericton that he really finds his mark.
I walked into the Garrison Ale House downtown. I told the host who I was meeting and began to describe him. She said she knew exactly who he was and would make sure to escort him over when he arrived.
I took out my notebook and looked behind me when I heard footsteps approaching. Foster looked especially tall standing next to the host. He extended his hand then slid into the booth across from me.
“When I came down here I just sort of fell in love with the place. This was in 1979 and a lot of my plays take place in smaller towns about this size. I can’t explain why but just feel more at home and I feel like I identify more with the people and with the place.”
Foster took a sip of his beer then took of his black coat. Foster has travelled the country, written around 50 plays and been produced now up to 150 times a year, for the past 20 years.
His plays share a similar theme. Small town life and relatable people. Comedy works best, he said, if the audience knows someone like one of the characters on stage, or better yet if they find similarities within themselves to these characters.
The stage that started it all was in a community theatre. The long-time morning man on Fredericton radio auditioned for a production of Harvey and got the lead role of Elwood P. Dowd. His career began behind the footlights but his interest quickly turned to scripts. His first professionally produced play came with the help of TNB.
“The first time TNB did a play of mine it was called Sinners. It’s was a farce. It’s okay, and it still gets done surprisingly. To see these professional actors doing my show, I was really nervous about the whole process,” said Foster. “I didn’t really know anything about plays until maybe after I’d written seven or eight of them and I started to think, ‘oh this is how it works.’”
But Foster’s success came early. The Melville Boys, his second production, gained positive reviews with productions across Canada, the United States and an off-Broadway in New York.
“The opening night of my play The Melville Boys at TNB in 1983 is one I will never forget. It was so exciting. The audience reaction was unbelievable and the cast was thrilled with the result. I’m still in touch with those cast members after all this time.”
Foster didn’t stop to put his pen down after The Melville Boys, learning about structure and flow of a script.
“I didn’t know as much about structure back then so it [The Melville Boys] was just written from raw emotion and it was my biggest play and got my foot in the door across the country, but I couldn’t write that today because I know too much about how to write a play. I know it sounds weird.”
Foster rarely goes to his plays after he’s seen it because he can always find reasons to rewrite. He said this is one of the “curses of being a writer,” along with the inability to let go of an idea. Foster took a brief break for a year from writing four years ago because he felt like he had so much material that readers didn’t have enough time to digest it.
“I had written so much. There were so many of my plays out there that I thought some of them weren’t getting the recognition I thought they deserved,” Foster said. “I still have a play now that I thought about during that period that I haven’t started yet, that I’ll probably start after I finish these next two. So I just store them away.”
Fosters next project Hilda’s Yard will have its premiere October 11 in Fredericton, produced by TNB. The play is set in the 1950s and revolves around the Fluck family. When the children who are in their 30s are finally out of the house, the parents feel like they can start their life. Until one day, there’s a knock at their door and the kids return home.
Foster also had the premiere of On A First Name Basis earlier this year in Ontario where, in addition to writing the play, he starred in it as well.
Foster acts in about three plays each year, some his own and some written by others. Foster said experiencing the feeling of being on the stage as well as off has helped his playwriting.
“Sometimes when I act in my own show and I’ll say a speech and think, ‘this is almost impossible to say why, would I write that?’ So now when I’m writing I say a lot of the lines aloud to make sure they roll off the tongue and they’re not tongue twisters.”
Foster said his greatest play is still to come and that every artist has this complex. Their next song or book will be their best. Right now he thinks Hilda’s Yard is it, but once he starts his new project these thoughts will most likely change like it always does when he begins a new project. But what won’t change is his love for writing comedy.
“I love setting up the punch line. It might be set up like 20 pages before and it pays off in the second act. I love doing that. I love surprising an audience with a laugh, it just thrills me. Sometimes when I’m writing I laugh at stuff I’ve written.”
A man walked over to the table and Foster waved at him.
“We’re just wrapping up here John, if you want to sit at the bar I’ll be right over,” said Foster.
Foster seemed right at home in Fredericton. He continued like we had never been interrupted.
“There’s something about Fredericton that clicks with me. I can’t pinpoint it but there’s something that triggers in my brain that says ‘this is where I should be and I should have been here the whole time. But here I am, thrilled to be back.”