BY ANTHONY CHASE
I recently started to receive press materials about a fascinating theatrical venture up in St. Catherines, Ontario. “The Foster Festival” is a theater festival dedicated to the work of one Canadian playwright, Norm Foster.
This caught my interest for a variety of reasons. First, a festival dedicated to the work of a living, working playwright is unusual. Second, despite the fact that Foster is often called “Canada’s most popular playwright,” his work is all but unknown to the world of Broadway. Finally, St. Catherine’s is not a place where I would expect the man who has been described as “the most produced playwright in the history of his country” to set up shop.
And yet, there is a Foster Festival, dedicated to the work of Norm Foster, Canada’s most produced playwright, right now, in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.
When the press rep asked if I would like to talk to Mr. Foster and the festival artistic director about all this, I didn’t need to think it over. Yes! I was aching to learn more about this project. Foster is one of the world’s most successful playwrights. Moreover, with over 50 plays to his credit, and not one of them ever having debuted in New York, London, Chicago, or Los Angeles, here is a man from whom aspiring writers in Buffalo, New York might have an opportunity to learn something. If there is a secret code to being a prosperous PLONY (playwright living outside New York) this guy has cracked it!
Two days later, Patricia Vanstone and Norm Foster are on the telephone. It’s a matinee day and they are sitting in the theater, about to get ready to perform a Norm Foster two-hander called, On a First Name Basis. Mr. Foster himself stars in this story of “a very successful, but cantankerous, novelist who suddenly discovers that he knows nothing about his maid of 28 years. She, on the other hand, knows absolutely everything about him!”
Why a festival dedicated to Norm Foster?
“The festival came about from our desire to focus on a living playwright in this country,” says Vanstone. “Norm is beloved here, and really on both sides of the border. He writes about ordinary people, often working class people, at extraordinary moments of their lives. Audiences respond to his plays very powerfully, and so often, see their own families and lives in his work.”
It would be difficult to dispute this claim. A quick look at upcoming productions of Norm Foster plays reveals that on any day of the year, multiple productions of his work are being done throughout Canada and the United States. In fact, his 2005 play, Looking, just opened at Desiderio’s Dinner Theatre here in Western New York. When I asked director-producer Jay Desiderio why he had chosen the play, he said, “I read a lot of plays, and about one in ten interests me for my theater. Looking is about people looking for love after failed relationships. I am at a point in my life when so many of my friends are out dating again after divorces, or who are just tired of being alone. When I tell them about this very funny play, they invariably say, ‘That’s my life!’”
The Desiderio’s production of Looking is consummately charming, and manages to be simultaneously familiar and outrageous, deliciously lowbrow yet sophisticated. Director Jay Desiderio has populated the world of Norm Foster’s play with four of the region’s most accomplished dinner theater performers – and the ability to engage an audience that has been eating and drinking is a true talent. Marc-Jon Filippone, Don Gervasi, Lisa Hinca, and Tammy Reger keep us in stitches with laughs of recognition.
Hinca plays Val, a nurse of a certain age, discouraged with love, who responds to a personal ad at the prompting of her more freewheeling pal, Nina, a cop played by Reger. Val agrees to go on a date with Andy, played by Don Gervasi, but on one condition, Val has to come along. O.K. Andy recruits his friend Matt, played by Filippone for the double date. Naturally, Nina and Matt hit is off, while Val and Matt do not. Despite the predictable setup, the road to a happy ending is riotously funny and full of surprises, as friends offer hilariously bad dating advice.
The eminently appealing production of this deceptively simple yet insightful play runs through August 28th. Dinner and show packages cost between $45 and $55 depending upon your entry. The food is very good, and the service is attentive. The theater has recently moved from Lancaster to Bobby J’s Italian American Grill at 204 Como Park Blvd. in Cheektowaga. 716-395-3207.
Norm Foster has a gift for locating the funny element in life’s most perplexing struggles, and for pulling the unexpected from events that might seem mundane on the surface. In On a First Name Basis, the irritable novelist will make it his mission to learn all he can about his devoted maid, with comical, yet moving results.
In a Norm Foster play, unlikely people are likely to be brought together, with comical but affecting consequences. The other plays in this summer’s Foster Festival reveal more about the playwright’s method.
Here on the Flight Path
“John is a back porch philosopher. Over the course of three and a half years he interacts with three neighbors from his balcony. Fay, a practicing member of the world’s oldest profession. Angel, a somewhat naïve aspiring country singer, and Gwen, a recently divorced homemaker. Sex, love, life and loss are all discussed with big laughs and a few tears in what many describe as Norm Foster’s funniest play ever.”
Halfway to the North Pole
The small town of Stewiacke, Nova Scotia is located exactly halfway between the equator and the North Pole. Into this town wanders Doctor Sean Merrit, newly dumped by his fiancée and looking to leave his troubles far behind. The first people he meets are four local women, Violet, Mary Ellen, Rita and Janine, each with issues of her own. What follows is a month of lessons learned for all, through hilarity, tears and the bonds of unshakeable friendship.”
“I came to the theater very late,” says Foster. “I’d had a career in radio and broadcasting, and then, when I was 31, a friend got involved in an amateur theater production.”
The play was Mary Chase’s American classic, Harvey, and Foster would play the lead, Elwood P. Dowd.
“Two years later,” he continues, “I wrote my first professionally produced play [Sinners]. It was done in New Brunswick.
His next play, The Melville Boys, would go on to spectacular success, with productions across Canada and the United States, including at Buffalo’s Alleyway Theatre during the 1989-1990 season.
“I write one or two plays every year,” explains Foster, “and I’m glad to say, things just never seemed to slow down for me. 2015 was my most successful year ever!”
And now, a theater festival dedicated to his work. But why St. Catherines?
The question seems to bemuse the Canadians, whose view of their fair city was not formed while zooming past on the QEW on their way to Toronto.
“It’s a very charming city,” explains Vanstone. “The arts are booming here, and we are located right in the wine country. If you haven’t tried any of the Niagara Escarpment wines, you really owe it to yourself. There are many lovely restaurants along the St. Paul Street area of St. Catherines, and once you come here, I think you’ll find it is really a lovely place to spend some time.”
As Vanstone talks, I check the interactive map on the Foster Festival web site and immediately realize that St. Catherines has a lot in common with Buffalo. A place where the arts thrive and where, believe it or not, it might be lovely to spend some time.
“In St. Catherines,” says Vanstone, “we like to say that ‘culture’ is the new steel!”
That clinches it. I’m going to St. Catherines.
On a First Name Basis plays through July 2. Here on the Flight Path plays from July 13 – 30. Halfway to the North Pole plays from August 10 – 27. Tickets cost between $25 and $42 Canadian. The festival can be contacted through its web site at http://www.fosterfestival.com or by phone at 905-688-0722 or toll free: 1-855-515-0722