This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on January 22, 1996
Foon, Dennis (Profile)
On the grainy black-and-white footage of a social worker's assessment video, a boy's tousled head rests upon a desk. Slowly, the cherubic face turns to stare into the lens, impassive. "Hello," he says, his features suddenly erupting in volcanic rage. "F-- you," he spits into the camera. That image of defiant fury unleashes the harrowing story of Des, the fictional 11-year-old gang leader fresh from a spree of robbery and arson in Little Criminals. Exploring the psyche of an underage offender, the $2.5-million CBC drama, airing on Jan. 21 at 9 p.m., delivers two hours of emotional punches to the solar plexus.
In the role of Des, Brendan Fletcher, a novice 14-year-old actor with only two school plays to his credit back home in Courtenay on Vancouver Island, commands the film as cockily as his character does Vancouver's mean streets - all pint-sized swagger and feral cunning. One minute, he tugs the heartstrings as a snuffling wild child, terrified that the zonked-out hooker who is his mother will abandon him to foster care; the next, he counters a policeman's warnings with a chilling riposte: "Me and my buds will jump you, pour gas on you, burn your skin off." Previews of that virtuoso performance have already won Fletcher Hollywood offers, including a role in a movie-of-the-week co-starring Stephanie Zimbalist, which finished shooting last month in British Columbia. Impressed also by the deft pacing of Regina-born director Stephen Surjik, Britain's Channel 4 has purchased Little Criminals.
But the most striking feature of the film is the rivetting, real-life horror of its script - the brainchild of award-winning Vancouver children's playwright Dennis Foon. Four years ago, while researching another drama, the 44-year-old writer first stumbled onto the growing phenomenon of kids involved in increasingly violent crime. "These are the monsters we've created in our society - little Frankensteins," Foon says. "But the question I kept asking myself was: are they criminals or victims? And what are we going to do about it?"
For Foon, the father of two daughters, those questions were particularly charged. As co-founder and artistic director of Vancouver's Green Thumb Theatre for Young People, he had spent most of the past two decades revolutionizing Canadian youth drama. Defying the conventional wisdom that children would sit still only for slapstick fare punctuated by whistles and clowns, he pioneered the notion of bringing their worries and world view to the stage with gritty, kitchen-sink-style realism. In Foon's plays, kids grappled with racial slurs and school bullies, the tug-of-war of divorce and the humiliation of alcoholic parents. His plotlines were spun with such compelling credibility and innovative charm that his dramas were produced in schools across the country and around the world from Dublin to New Zealand.
In Invisible Kids, which won a 1986 British Theatre Award, he examined the bewilderment of immigrant children in Canada through a puckish device: all the newcomers spoke perfect English while their Canadian counterparts muttered only in gibberish. And his five-part series on sexual abuse for the National Film Board, Feeling Yes, Feeling No, has become a staple for classroom prevention programs across the continent.
What brought his work its authenticity was Foon's painstaking research - spending weeks with his subjects, taking down their tales in careful longhand in his lined notebooks. "Dennis did his homework," says Maja Ardal, the artistic director of Toronto's Young People's Theatre, which is mounting productions of two of his plays this month, including his adaptation of a German work called Bedtimes and Bullies. "He went into the schools, into the world of young people and said, 'I'm studying you and I want to know what's important to you.' And they told him their stories. But what is significant is he didn't compromise what they had to say." Her predecessor, Peter Moss, now the creative head of children's TV programs at CBC, agrees. "Dennis has an extraordinary capacity to listen," Moss says. "When you see one of his plays, you know that the kid up on the stage exists out there somewhere."
Still, even after years of listening, Foon was not prepared for the characters he encountered when he landed in Winnipeg in 1992 to research a project for the Manitoba Theatre for Young People. There, he heard of youth gangs led by 11-year-olds with hair-raising criminal histories but the savvy to brag that as long as they were under the age of 12, the police could not touch them. In one school, he met a nine-year-old aboriginal who was already a veteran break-and-enter artist. "The kid was running around the room the whole time, climbing up the back of my chair and throwing things at me," Foon recalls. "He had been busted with another kid and a three-year-old, who he said he was babysitting."
Later, teachers told Foon how once, chased by a teen gang he had double-crossed, the boy fled to the principal's office. "The next day was the first time they ever saw him smile, because he finally got some protection from somebody," Foon marvels. "The image stuck with me. And it triggered me to want to find out a whole lot more: was this just one kid from a freaked-out situation or was it universal?"
Armed with a research stake from the CBC, Foon made the rounds with police gang squads and social workers in Vancouver, Winnipeg and Toronto, discovering what the experts knew only too well: this was no anomaly. One Vancouver treatment centre was so overwhelmed with seriously troubled children - some as young as five - that it had been forced to scrap its waiting list and take only emergency cases. Foon interviewed more than 125 young toughs to produce the composite bundle of trouble he called Des, who is hurling himself at breakneck speed towards jail or his own funeral. Yet, when Foon finished his script, he and his collaborators worried that he had gone too far. "I thought the police and social workers would find it more controversial," agrees Phil Savath, Foon's longtime friend and frequent collaborator, who produced Little Criminals. "But if anything, they thought we were too soft."
Anger surges in Foon's voice as he talks of the plight of kids like Des, betraying what Ardal terms a "new creative rage" in his work. In one recent play, Mirror Game, he traces how a parent's violence translates into the slap that a teenage boy, in turn, deals his girlfriend. "Having talked to kids so much," Foon concedes, "I've become more and more obsessed and upset about how we treat our children."
Friends suggest that his newfound anger is the flip side of the empathy that has allowed Foon to tune into kids' hurts - a quality he owes in part to the anguish of his own misfit childhood. The youngest of three sons of a Detroit scrap dealer, he was born when his father was already severely deaf, crippled with painful arthritis and covered with psoriasis. "I felt very estranged from my father because of his disease," he says, "very alienated and alone." With few friends, he found solace in books and school, where he scored top marks. Then, at 16, inspired by meeting William Ayres, one of the original Sixties' radicals who founded the group known as The Weatherman, Foon led a protest walkout at his high school. Then, he attended the University of Michigan, where he majored in religious studies - the result of countercultural dabbling. "I actually had a religious experience," he says. "I dropped acid and saw God."
At college, Foon at last discovered people he could talk to. And in 1973, he won a creative writing fellowship to the University of British Columbia. To him, Vancouver felt like home - he had spent boyhood summers in Ontario's Algonquin Park - and he never left, eventually becoming a Canadian citizen. For his master's thesis, Foon wrote what he terms "this really bad kids' play." And Jane Howard Baker, the woman who would become his wife, convinced him to produce it. Together, on a federal Local Initiatives Programme grant, they set up Green Thumb - an act of singular bravado since he had no desire whatsoever to build a career in children's drama. "I didn't really have much interest in kids," he admits. "I wanted to write about fantasy - to do groovy things for my contemporaries."
As Savath sees it, Foon was taking an artistic leaf from the credo his father was constantly quoting: if they will not let you in the front door, go in the back door. For Foon, children's theatre was merely the back door to the mainstream stage - one that gave him a chance to import the hottest writers and directors to learn from. Experimenting wildly, he staged a fantastical 1977 production about a village fool's waltz with death called Shadowdance - "a sort of Seventh Seal for children," he terms it - which had the distinction of being banned by some B.C. communities as satanic. But what changed his career was a 1979 drama called Hilary's Birthday by Canadian Joe Wiesenfeld that defied every rule for children's theatre. "It was a realistic play about divorce - just people talking in real-life costumes," he recalls. "But kids sat and listened to every word. I realized then I'd been a total idiot about what I was doing: I'd been completely underestimating them."
With that, Foon found his calling. The stark realism of his plays paralleled similar revolutions in children's drama in Britain and Germany - which he helped introduce to Canada - all with a larger mission than mere entertainment. "We weren't developing audiences," he says, "as much as we were trying to develop citizens."
In 1983, Foon moved to Toronto for a year as writer-in-residence at Young People's Theatre. But he was disconsolate, homesick for his then-five-year-old daughter, Rebecca, in Vancouver. Every day he wrote her, concocting puzzles and stories. In one, a vertically challenged tree is bereft when his only friend, a vocally inept bird, is forced to take flight and migrate south for the winter. The Short Tree and the Bird That Could Not Sing became a prize-winning book and, adapted by Foon as a play three years ago, it won a 1995 Chalmers Canadian Children's Play Award. This month, a YPT touring company will take the play to 240 Ontario schools, ending with a two-week Toronto run in March. And the CBC is currently turning it into an animated series. "I thought, 'Finally I've written something that isn't about anything,' " Foon notes. "Then a therapist came up to say, 'Thank you. You've written the best play about separation anxiety.' "
For years, Foon has chafed at the fact that his fame has been circumscribed by the marginalization of children's theatre. "I've always been dealing with being pigeonholed as a writer for young audiences," Foon says, "and people not taking you seriously." That frustration helped him choose Surjik, 38, who won his commercial stripes with Wayne's World 2, to direct Little Criminals. "I'd heard he was frustrated about being offered nothing but comedies," Foon says, "and I knew he would be looking for a way out."
In 1988, Foon himself was looking for an exit, resigning from Green Thumb and writing a play for adults, Zaydock, about a man coming to terms with the end of his marriage. Three years after his own divorce, the emotions were still painfully fresh. But even that effort, as one critic observed, was the tale of a man-child reluctant to take responsibility. "This guy is grappling with the issues of growing up," Foon concedes. "And in the marriage he's very much been a child." Now the father of a baby girl named Aliayta with his partner, poet-playwright Elizabeth Dancoes, Foon seems reconciled to his gift for reflecting the increasingly complex and perilous universe of the young. For many watching him during the shooting of Little Criminals, that gift seemed no mystery. "We'd have Foon alerts," recalls producer Savath. "Dennis was so excited when he came onto the set, he was like a big puppy. His enthusiasm was just boundless." But so too is his rage at injustice to small spirits - especially the growing number of young people like Des, the casualties of a society that has abandoned them.
Maclean's January 22, 1996