Important COVID-19 update. Click here for a message from our president

 

A CONVERSATION WITH NORM FOSTER
Part 2 - Bedtime Stories

By Simon Chang



Norm Foster

When The Milton Players last spoke to Norm Foster in October 2013, the playwright was in the middle of prepping the world premiere of his then-newest project, A Snow White Christmas. The Players too, were equally busy at the time, gearing up for the production of Foster's show My Darling Judith. Quite happily, both parties found success that fall; "A Snow White Christmas was a hit," Foster reports, "We had a great cast who did a wonderful job." Meanwhile The Players landed the right mixture of comedy and drama in Judith, bringing in new audiences and kicking the season off on a strong note.

With Christmas completed, Foster's attention has turned to his newest shows in production, including The Gentleman Clothier at Lighthouse Festival Theatre in Port Dover and The Ladies Foursome at the Upper Canada Playhouse in Morrisburg, which Foster bills as "a female version of The Foursome only with a completely different story." For The Milton Players, Foster's witty dialogue and clever story construction are once again at the forefront as the season closes with the popular Bedtime Stories, a narrative told over the course of six intertwining vignettes. In the following interview Foster discusses the development of Bedtime Stories, how his radio career helped him in the world of theatre, adapting his shows for television and growing new audiences.

Milton Players: Bedtime Stories, from what I've seen on your website, gets performed an awful lot year-to-year.

Norm Foster: Yeah it does! I think it's because of the number of characters. Community theatre groups like to have as many actors as they can, and the beauty of Bedtime Stories is that it can be done with 5 or 6 minimum or it can be done with like 17 actors. I'm really happy that it gets done a lot, it's great.

MP: The opening vignette features a radio DJ trying to boost his career by having a couple have sex on air. I know that your career is also deeply steeped in radio.

NF: I was in radio for years and years and years.

MP: As a radio performer, can you talk about that vocal nuance of performing without visuals?

NF: I don't know how much that has changed these days. I was driving from Halifax the other day trying to listen to the morning radio show, and it was just awful. They seemed like they were very young, they were yelling a lot, and trying to be funny and not really being funny. Back when I was doing the show, we would try and boost our voices a little bit, make 'em a little deeper. But I also tried to make it as conversational as I could, and be funny that way and be subtle with the humour. You sit in a room for three hours every morning and talk to yourself, so you develop that ear for dialogue. That helped me a whole lot.

MP: And you've also been on stage a fair bit as well. Does [radio] help you in your performance?

NF: Oh yeah, it helps a lot. The radio training I got has just stood me in good stead my whole life. When it came time to make the transition to the stage, it wasn't difficult for me because I already knew how to control my voice. I had a pretty good booming voice to begin with - could fill a room - so radio helped me in so many aspects of the writing career. I really got lucky you know, when I started. I've never been a starving artist. When I started writing plays I was doing a morning show, and I would do the show from 6AM - 9AM. So that was supporting me, and I would come home and write plays. I never had to have a job that would take up most of my day where I didn't have time to write any plays. If it wasn't for the radio job, I wouldn't even be doing what I was doing. I'd still be in radio doing something else, or I'd be working for Fed-Ex or something like that. (laughs)

MP: Have you considered going back to radio?

NF: No I haven't. I mean I love it, but when I left the writing and the acting sort of took up my life and I didn't have time to miss it. Now it seems like it's changed quite a bit, doesn't seem to be as much fun as it used to be when I was in it.

MP: So Bedtime Stories; I tried to wrap my head around how you would map this out in the developmental process. Can you run me through how you figured out what-calls-back-to-what and if you had all the vignettes laid out beforehand?

NF: That all happened, as most of my stuff does, in the writing. In a lot of my plays, stuff that happens is referenced back in the first act and it pays off in the second act. That's part of the fun of writing for me. Sometimes I don't know how the character's going to get me to the end of the show, but I sort of follow their trail. The taxi driver of course is the through line, and I would just make references to her throughout and hope that it paid off at the end. I would say "OK, I need a little more back in the second vignette," so I'd go back and fix that up. It's like a building block process, you just keep going back and going back and layering it in.

MP: Was the original plan to have six [vignettes], or was that also just in the step-by-step writing process?

NF: No the original plan was to have six. Three in each act.

MP: There are a lot of callbacks in the show, you can watch it once and actually go back a second time and pick up ones you've missed the first time through.

NF: I love doing that. To me the greatest laughs are the laughs that sneak up on the audience. Sometimes they're good laughs and the audience sees it coming, but when you take them by surprise, I love those laughs the best.

MP: There are a couple of recurring characters - you keep hearing [the couple from Scene 1] on the radio every so often. But there are also lots of new characters in this show. Is it hard to develop so many characters in such a short amount of time?

NF: It is, that's the challenge. I really like the scenes with the guy who's in bed and his old love interest comes to visit, and the exotic dancer who has no rhythm. You really like these people, and you get to like them in such a short time. The dancer she's funny, yeah, but she really is sad and you feel sorry for her. That's the challenge in these stories is to try and get the audience on their side as quickly as you can. You got this woman who comes to visit this dying guy and then she's all self consumed, and I still have to make the audience like her. I think she's kind of cute, you know?

MP: You did mention earlier that either a small cast could play a number of recurring roles or a huge cast could play every role. Was that worked out in the first show, or was that worked out in the writing process?

NF: That's worked out in the writing process. In the script I lay out if they've got five actors, who plays what and when. And after that if you want to use ten actors, well then you decide who plays what. I'm not going to do the math on that.

MP: Have you ever seen the larger shows?

NF: Never have. I've only seen it done by the minimum actors. Only seen it done twice, anyways. I don't go to see my shows very often, because I don't like to be surprised.

MP: There are a lot of scene transitions in this show, taking us from vignette to vignette. Is there a danger of losing the audience?

NF: That's up to the director. You have to make those changes as quickly as possible, change as little as you possibly can. I saw one production where they actually changed the bedding. You don't need to change the bedding, leave the bed the way it is. Don't even touch the bed. The best production I saw was they had walls on swivels, and the wall would turn around and it would be a different wall. The actors themselves would be standing behind the walls. It was great, it worked like a charm. The longest set change was maybe like 15-20 seconds. Nothing. You don't want to be stuck doing the scene changes, the audience gets restless. I wrote a play called The Foursome where there are [scenes for every hole on a golf course] and I kept telling the director, "Don't go to a blackout, don't do anything. The guys exit one way, they're talking, they come in the next way." There is no change of scene, there's nothing. Just keep moving.

MP: The play Wrong For Each Other was where it was all one set but you just shifted the characters to a different area.

NF: Yeah I like that. See I really think about that when I'm writing. I don't want the play to grind to a halt, I want it to keep going. So when I was writing Wrong For Each Other, I thought that was a great idea. There's a little potted plant and that represents the flower shop, a little table represents the restaurant, little bench represents the ball game. It was very easy.

MP: In my research, I don't think I came across any plays that are sequels or follow-ups. Am I right or wrong?

NF: You're right. There's a play I wrote called Outlaw, and I wrote Jenny's House of Joy that takes place in the same year and the same town and some of the same characters are mentioned. But they're two different stories. One is about four women in a whorehouse; one is about four cowboys out on the trail. That's about as close as I've come to a sequel.

MP: Has it ever been a consideration to do a full-on sequel to a story or spin off one of the characters from say, Bedtime Stories for example?

NF: No I've never thought about doing that. I've got a few characters I could see in other situations, yeah. I don't think that'll ever happen. It's hard for me to take a character that I've spent a lot of time on and put in a play, and then once that play's been done and I've seen it, reach in and pull that character out and put it somewhere else.

MP: When it comes to creating or writing characters, do you find any of them are amalgamations of or inspired by people you know?

NF: I don't think so. I try and make these characters up out of my head. Maybe once in awhile you can't help it, have a characteristic of someone you've known pop up in any character. But I never base my characters on anybody I know. In fact, I try and steer clear of that.

MP: Was The Foursome based on you and your friends on the golf course talking about doing a concept show like that?

NF: The Foursome, I actually got the idea from a friend of mine, a director who said "You know, somebody should write a play and set it on the golf course." And at the time I was golfing with a foursome. We play all the time together. But the play is not about those guys. Those guys are too boring. (laughs)

MP: I read that The Melville Boys was in development for a CBC television-movie? Can you talk about that a bit?

NF: It was a very frustrating experience. Everybody at CBC, there's a producer, who has a producer, has a producer above him. So I had this producer and I wrote the screenplay and he took it to his producer. His producer said "Ehh..." and I cut down some of the humour to make it a little more serious. I would do a re-write and take some of the humour out, then he'd take it back to his producer who says "OK we've almost got it, but let's just cut out more of the humour and put some more serious stuff in." I'd [revise] it, he'd take it to his producer. His producer said, "OK, finally this is it." So - and this is a true story, too - he took it to [his producer] who said, "It's not funny enough." So I said "Ah, the hell with ya." That was so frustrating.

MP: Have you ever tried venturing into the film or TV realm again since then?

NF: No, I haven't. I'm so comfortable writing plays, and it's going so well. And nobody's asked me. If somebody asked me "We want you to write a pilot for a sitcom," I'd say "OK sure I'll give it a shot, I've got a couple of ideas." But I'm not going to do it on spec. Not going to say, "Oh I'm going to write this and try to sell it." I'm at this stage of my career; I'm not going to do anything on spec.

MP: Or even try adapting one of your shows into a film?

NF: I think a lot of my shows would translate well into film. Hilda's Yard, for one. But unless somebody comes and asks me, I'm not interested.

MP: Playwrights - who do you follow and what do you recommend? Not necessarily "If you like Norm Foster you'll like this," but just what you, personally are kind of interested in right now?

NF: I don't get out to see many plays. I really don't know what's going on out there these days. I watch the Tony Awards and I think "Oh, never heard of that one!" So I don't have any playwrights that I follow. I got into the business not knowing much about theatre, and I'm always compared to Neil Simon. So I know a little bit about Neil Simon, I know a little bit about Tom Stoppard, David Mamet, people like that. And the classics like Tennessee Williams who I love, Arthur Miller, fantastic. But no, there are no playwrights I look at now and say, "Wow, they really burn up the place." Doesn't interest me that much.

MP: You've had a lot of experience in writing, acting, and the production of theatre in Canada for over thirty years. Your resume reads far longer than that. Our group has high years, has low years; audiences don't come in sometimes. You keep hearing that "Theatre is dead, theatre is dying," and that's not true. Theatre is very much alive and well in Canada. Your work is a testament to that. What is your opinion on that kind of phenomenon and experience?

NF: I don't know if it's cyclical, or what it is. I can't explain it either. I know there are some theatres that my shows are done in, they flourish. They sell out all the time. Other theatres struggle with their seasons and have trouble getting people in. I think a lot of it has to do with the face of the theatre - who's running the theatre, how well they are at getting out and meeting the people, encouraging people to come out. A lot of it has to do with getting younger people interested in theatre. We can't just let our audiences die away. So that's a big part of it too. And doing shows that people want to see, I mean that's a huge part of it. You have to know what your audience wants and you try and give it to them, without cheapening yourself. So yeah, I see the problem but I'm not sure what the solution is. But like you said, theatre's not dying at all no, it's still there. I just think we have to be careful what we program it with, that's all.

Login Form

Remember, your username may not be your email address. If you do not remember your username, use the forgot username link and it will be mailed to you.