Darren Keay and Emily Oriold. DON RICKERS

Foster Festival delivers “humour with heart”

In the fall of 2015, Emily Oriold knew it was time.

Time to honour Canada’s most prolific playwright with his own festival.

Her rationale was simple.

“We’ve got a big festival in Stratford dedicated to a dead old English guy [William Shakespeare] and another big festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake for a dead old Irish guy [George Bernard Shaw]. It’s time we showed some appreciation for a Canadian icon.”

And thus was born the Foster Festival, in tribute to Order of Canada recipient Norm Foster. Born in Newmarket, Foster currently lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick. A playwright for 40 years, he is in his early 70s now, but makes the trip to Niagara every year for the festival. Foster has over 60 plays to his credit, with about 150 productions of his stage comedies performed annually across Canada and abroad.

Quoted in the Niagara Falls Review in 2015, Oriold said, “Norm’s work is so popular with theatre-going audiences because they feel a range of emotions deeply, while laughing themselves silly.”

Oriold led the festival through its first four years as executive director, and has returned as incoming artistic producer, to help steer the organization through the COVID crisis. The 2020 season’s plays have been cancelled, but the festival will maintain a robust online presence to keep in touch with its supporters. The Foster Festival’s home base is the First Ontario Performing Arts Centre in St. Catharines, where the couple said the summer productions of Norm Foster stage comedies had a $2 million economic impact on the local economy in 2019.

Foster heaped praise on Oriold in a message on the festival’s website. “Starting a theatre company takes time,” Foster wrote. “You do not just open your doors and find an audience. I was constantly amazed at Emily’s determination and energy. I cannot wait to begin working with her on our 2021 season. It will be the best one yet.”

Fonthill is now home to Oriold, her actor husband, Darren Keay, and their young son. She grew up in rural Ontario, attended high school in Listowel, studied drama at the University of Waterloo, and has been an actor/director/producer/writer since 2001.

Keay was born in Nova Scotia and attended Acadia University in Wolfville, before heading overseas to study at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. He has performed in theatre productions across Canada, and also has television and film roles to his credit. Keay is an active member of the Foster Festival acting company.

“Early in my career, I performed theatre for young audiences, which is almost full circle to what I’m doing now, working a fair bit with Carousel Players in St. Catharines,” said Keay.

They met at the Blythe Festival in Huron County, which specializes in the production and promotion of Canadian plays. Keay was an actor, and Oriold an assistant director.

Why relocate to Fonthill?

“We were living in Cambridge at the time, and Emily’s sister had friends in Fonthill who were always talking about it,” said Keay. “We didn’t know the area at all. And then lo and behold, we found out that a great couple in town were selling their house, and they were very kind to us. That was 2016. We both have roots in small towns, and that’s what totally made us fall in love with this place.”

Oriold had actually envisaged a Foster Festival ten years ago.

“I even designed a logo for it,” she recalled. “I was just a young actor in Toronto living in a bachelor apartment…what did I know about starting a theatre company? But I held on to it, and carried that logo for a decade until the festival became a reality.”

It was during a 2006 run of one of his plays at the Port Mansion Theatre in St. Catharines (Port Dalhousie), that Foster became passionate about Niagara. He decided, of all the possible sites in Canada, that the region would be home to his festival, and the place where all of his new plays would premier.

The sentiment is shared by Oriold.

“I love living and working in Niagara,” said Oriold, “collaborating with local artists and building relationships with the many people and businesses that make up the fabric of this community.”

The response from theatre-goers living in the region has been heartening. “We had 5000 patrons in the first season, which grew to 12,000 by the fourth season,” said Keay.

Oriold said that quite a few theatre patrons from Fonthill have discovered the Foster Festival, but that many in Niagara have no awareness of its existence. She is working to change that.

“We’re always looking for ways to reinvent the festival. Where else in Niagara can we go with little ‘pop-up’ productions to engage people? Poetry and short-story readings, concerts drawing on various genres of music, and of course comedy?,” said Oriold.

To provide arts-enrichment opportunities for children and youth in the region, the Foster Festival has partnered with local not-for-profit organizations The Kristen French Child Advocacy Centre of Niagara, The Boys and Girls Club of Niagara, and The Niagara Children’s Centre.

The festival has recently gone online and created a series called Normflix (tip of the hat to Netflix). It’s a three-part series, with readings from Foster’s plays, questions from patrons that Foster answers live, and a trivia game called Tic Tac Foes, based on the classic Hollywood Squares game show. Festival artists, plus St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik and St. Catharines MP Chris Bittle, are contestants.

Oriold said that the Foster Festival is planning a special play in downtown St. Catharines for the Christmas season, but that she is not a liberty to discuss details at this point.