The Foster Festival has a premiere ready to share with the public, but for now, it has to be virtual.
Hopefully, for the last time, says festival artistic director Emily Oriold.
The festival has made its home in Niagara at the FirstOntario Performing Arts Centre, and Oriold says the hope was to be able to present outdoor productions this summer. But with the province’s three-step reopening plan, they would be restricted to performances to audiences of 10 people starting June 14, and then 25 people three weeks later — and that’s if reopening proceeds as planned. The festival, founded in 2016, relies on “earned revenue” to fund its productions, and can’t afford to premiere a new play under those circumstances, she explains. Community theatres and festivals that have a longer history behind them have been recipients of government grants for the arts to offset production costs, Oriold says, but as a newish group without that history, the Foster Festival wasn’t eligible to receive pandemic financial support.
Once the audience is allowed to be larger, hopefully in September, they will look at multiple outdoor settings, she says, with one of Foster’s “greatest hits,” although they’re not ready to announce the locations or the play just yet.
For now, the festival is excited to be offering the world premiere of Foster’s new play, 1812, as a virtual reading this Sunday,
Originally written as a musical, with Canadian musical theatre composer Leslie Arden, Foster decided, with Arden’s blessing, to reduce the scope of it and transition to a production as a virtual reading.
“We’re seeing this pandemic as an opportunity, not a hindrance,” says Oriold.
“We’ve kept things small, and we’ve kept on with online offerings.”
The festival is also able to offer new outlets, such as the four-week playwriting workshops with Norm Foster, something different that has been offered for the first time on Zoom during the pandemic, she says.
And it’s also allowed Foster to write more than he ever has before. Two new plays would be typical in any given year, to premiere at the festival, with productions that would take up a lot of his time. Instead, he’s had quiet time in Fredericton, New Brunswick, “sitting at home, writing, keeping his brain and imagination active. He thinks of an idea, and he has to write it.” He’s written seven new plays since June, 2020, says Oriold, which will be produced “as quickly as possible,” likely beginning next year.
“He’s always exploring new genres,” Oriold says of the historical background of this play, which began with a “spark of inspiration based on a true story.” It’s about two towns, St. Stephen, New Brunswick, and Calais, Maine, divided by a border, but connected by a bridge, and life-long friendships between people in the two communities, who are accustomed to regularly crossing the bridge to visit each other.
Overnight, a war changes their lives forever, and true to Foster plays, 1812 is built around friendship, love and loyalty, “with a lot of the laughter and heart-felt moments Norm Foster followers love to see.”
The historical element and setting may be new, “but his plays are always about a group of people, and shared experiences,” says Oriold.
In any given season there might be 150 Foster plays being produced, not just across Canada, but internationally as well.
Currently, he has plays in production in Russia, Poland and Italy, translated into those languages, she says.
The beauty of a virtual reading locally, presented by the festival, the home of Foster premieres, says Oriold, is the ability to engage and support artists from all over.
But what she misses, and looks forward to getting back to, is standing at the back of house and listening to the laughter of the audience. “Norm misses that as well. It’s so much a part of why we do what we do, and we want to get back to that. We’ve missed two seasons now, and although this is reality, it still seems so surreal. We thought we’d be back in August, but that’s changed. And we understand. We just have to wait. And we’ll keep changing the plan, until this is over.”
Directing 1812 is Jim Mezon, who has acted with many major theatres across Canada, but is most closely associated with the Shaw Festival. He joined the ensemble in 1980.
He and his wife, Catherine McGregor, also a Shaw veteran, appeared together in a staged reading of the Christmas Tree in December, presented by the Foster Festival in 12 Niagara locations, with 12 real-life couples sharing the stage for one performance each.
Mezon has also directed for the Foster Festival, including Wrong for Each Other in 2018, and Hilda’s Yard in 2019.
Also working with 1812 is Niagara-on-the-Lake resident Barbara Worthy, as a consultant on the historic elements of the play. The Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum has lent and sourced some props from the 1812 era.
“We think it will go over extremely well in Niagara, when we can do this as an in-person play next year,” says Oriold.
Tickets for live-streaming at 6:30 p.m. Sunday, June 6 are $25 at www.fosterfestival.com. An online link will be emailed June 4. The livestreamed reading will be available for 72 hours.