PANYCH, Morris

Author Tags: Theatre

"Panych has never gone away long enough to be missed, it's easy to take him for granted, and to forget just how much work he's done." -- Mark Leiren-Young, 1989.

Morris Panych, an actor who studied Creative Writing at UBC, emerged as the most creative and prolific playwright in B.C. in the 1980s and 1990s. As a director and playwright, Panych has kept pushing the proverbial envelope, directing and writing and acting in more than 50 productions. As an actor he has made numerous appearances for television and films. "He's like a snake charmer," director Kate Weiss told Georgia Straight in 1989. "He has this incredible sort of allure."

His first play, Last Call, co-written with Ken MacDonald and first produced at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre in 1982, was a "post-nuclear cabaret" musical that imagined the aftermath of a nuclear apocalypse. Directly influenced by Albert Camus' The Myth of Sisyphus, Panych and MacDonald appeared on stage as the last two people on earth, with only beer, a piano, and each other. The show toured across Canada, winning the duo their first Dora Mavor Moore Award.

Panych became artistic director of Tamahnous Theatre from 1983 to 1985. His absurdist 7 Stories, about a man contemplating suicide from a seventh storey ledge, received six Jessie theatre awards in 1990. In the same year of its presentation, Panych wrote and directed Nocturne for Studio 58 at Langara College, played two consecutive leading roles at the Vancouver Playhouse and directed the season opener for the Arts Club. His many other original productions, usually with stage design by his partner Ken McDonald, have included Contagious, Cheap Sentiment, Real Talking People Show and 2 Be Wut U R. The latter play, along with The Cost of Living and Life Science, is contained in Other Schools of Thought.

A British adaptation of Vigil, re-titled Auntie and Me, was produced in London's West End. It won three Jessie Richardson Theatre Awards in 1996, including Outstanding Original Play. Panych's second edition of Vigil (Talon, 2012) incorporates changes to scenes and dialogue that have been part of the play's evolution over the past fifteen years, as well as a new playwright's note.

Girl in the Goldfish Bowl received five Dora Mavor Moore Awards in 2003, including Outstanding New Play and Outstanding Direction of a Play, and was accorded the Governor General's Award for drama in 2004. It has been described as a poignant comedy about childhood, innocence and fish.

His darkly comic What Lies Before Us (Talonbooks) was nominated for the 2007 Governor General's Award for English Drama. Panych won his first Governor General's award for Drama for The Ends of the Earth (1994).

Aptly described as "dancing between hope and despair," Panych's absurdist comedies have long attracted critical praise, as well as perplexed responses. In Benevolence, which premiered at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in September of 2007, a shoe salesman and would-be screenwriter named Oswald, on a seemingly irrational impulse, gives a hundred dollar bill to a street person named Terence who has continually worn a handwritten cardboard sign around his neck saying "hungry" for two years. Oswald's seemingly rash act of kindness leads to a reversal of fortunes, until Oswald ends up penniless and on the run for a murder he didn't commit, involved with a reformer hooker--whether he likes it or not, after bizarre encounters with Terence in a porn theatre.

His drama Gordon (Talonboks, 2011) follows the life of an 'odd little child' who has a penchant for setting the neighbours' sheds on fire with their pets locked inside, and who ends up starting a business with a former cell mate.

Panych’s play The Shoplifters (Talonbooks, 2015) is a hilarious study of the interactions between Alma and Phyllis, two senior shoplifters, and Dom and Otto, the two security guards charged with interviewing them. This comic adventure addresses ethics, morality and the similarities that exist between “society’s haves and have-nots.” The Shoplifters was the winner of the 2015 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award.

Sextet (Talonbooks 2016) has been heralded as "a dark and steamy comedy" that presents the harmonies and dysfunctions of six sexually entangled musicians on an ill-fated winter tour. When a blizzard strands this sextet for an extra night, they have only their instruments, each other, and their secrets to keep them warm. Complications arise because there are only four rooms. Four men and two women portray two cellists, two violinists and two violists. Nobody knows the full sexual score. Richard Ouzounian, a longtime reviewer of Canadian theatre, called Sextet "the best script Morris Panych has ever written."

Born in Calgary on June, 30, 1952, Morris Panych grew up mostly in Edmonton. Upon completing his Fine Arts degree at UBC in Creative Writing and Theatre, he spent two years studying acting in London, England, then returned to Vancouver in 1980. He eventually moved to eastern Canada with his partner Ken MacDonald, an accomplished set designer.

Books of Plays:

Last Call: A Post-Nuclear Cabaret (Harbour, 1983)
7 Stories (Talon, 1990)
The Ends of the Earth (Talon, 1994)
Other Schools of Thought (Talon, 1995)
Vigil (Talon, 1996) Updated second edition (Talon, 2012) $16.95 978-0-88922-692-0
Lawrence & Holloman (Talon, 1998)
Earshot (Talon, 2000)
Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (Talonbooks, 2003)
The Dishwashers (Talonbooks, 2005)
What Lies Before Us (Talonbooks, 2007)
Benevolence (Talonbooks, 2008)
Still Laughing: Three Adaptations by Morris Panych (Talonbooks, 2009)
The Trespassers (Talonbooks, 2010) 0889226288; $16.95
Gordon (Talonboks, 2011) 978-0-88922-664-7 $17.95
The Shoplifters (Talonbooks, 2015) $17.95 9780889229266
Sextet (Talonbooks 2016) $18.95 9780889229846

Other Plays:

Contagious (1984)
Cheap Sentiment (1985)
Simple Folk (1988)
The Cost of Living (1990)
The Necessary Steps
2 Be Wut U R (1992)
The Story of a Sinking Man (1993)
Real Talking People Show

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2016] "Theatre"

Lawrence & Holloman (Talonbooks $14.95)

Known as a risk taker, as someone who pushes limits, Morris Panych has provided the opening of the Arts Club Theatre’s 35th season with a perplexing speeded-up Godot. It’s two annoying guys without a laugh track. Or it’s a farcical ‘odd couple’ about evil born from meaningless lives. Panych’s Lawrence & Holloman (Talonbooks $14.95) can be viewed either way. Glib or gloomy.
In no particular time or space, we meet two department store employees who have no reason to like one another. The pushy, self-deluded egotist named Lawrence enjoys browbeating the brown-suited dweeb named Holloman. “Are you actually going to spend the rest of your sad, sorry little life in the pursuit of nothing but being a complete non-entity?” Lawrence shouts. Holloman is fiendishly passive, secretly orchestrating Lawrence’s downfall, feigning fecklessness until his narcissistic tormentor is ultimately helpless. “You realize what you are, don’t you,” says Holloman, triumphant at last. “You’re a blind, one-legged paraplegic with no money!” Lawrence remains brashly and absurdly optimistic, still regarding Holloman as his protége. In a climatic bathtub scene -— shades of The Death of Marat —- a fatal shot is fired. There’s lots of sitcom repartee (essentially abusive banter), comical mis-use of language and physically exaggerated behaviour. But we never care about or like either party.
It amounts to strange but forgettable entertainment. 0-88922-392-0


The Trespassers
Publisher promo

The Trespassers unfolds over the course of a few weeks in a town in the ­middle of nowhere—not small enough to be a quaint place or large enough to be in any way an interesting one. They once had a sawmill here, which was a going concern before it was shut down in a labour dispute, and it now crowns a sort of half-town, gutted of its reason for being.

Fifteen-year-old Lowell is no average teenager—and his grandfather, Hardy, is no conventional role model. Whether urging the boy to pilfer peaches from an abandoned orchard, arranging for his sexual initiation with an older woman in town, or teaching him the importance of gambling, Hardy is the despair of Lowell’s born-again mother, Cash. But how far into forbidden territory has Lowell actually ventured?

An unapologetic anarchist, Hardy may once have owned the abandoned orchard at the heart of the town where he and Lowell spend much of their time trespassing, discussing capitalism and the finer points of the Ten Commandments, as if ethics were nothing more than a game of poker where we win or lose not because of what’s in the hand we’ve been dealt, but because of how we play it with what’s in our heads.

Torn between his grandfather’s atheism and his mother’s Christian ­fundamentalism, Lowell begins to understand that things are not what they seem in what is left of this town. When inspector Milton shows up to ­investigate a mysterious murder, Lowell’s skills at shaping the truth to ­protect both himself and those he cares about are put to the ultimate test: shall he plea bargain, or stick to the truth as he understands it? As Hardy once pointed out to him, “There’s something in-between lying and not lying. It’s called a story.”

The Trespassers (Talonbooks $16.95)

Morris Panych made his playwriting debut with a musical, Last Call: A Post-Nuclear Cabaret, in 1982, produced by Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver. He has since written twenty plays, adapted others, and directed eighty plays, as well as film and opera. Usually featuring quirky characters, in semi-real situations, Panych’s works such as Vigil, The Overcoat and 7 Stories have been mounted in many countries. The Trespassers might be described as typical Panych, fuelled by pathos and humour, while slightly perplexing to the audience, with shades of Samuel Beckett.

Morris Panych’s poignant drama The Trespassers (Talonbooks $16.95) runs from March 26 to April 16 at the Vancouver Playhouse, having played at the Belfry Theatre in Victoria in October.

It is about a fifteen-year-old boy caught between his born-again Christian mother and his rambunctious granddad, an anarchist and gambler, who arranges for his grandson’s sexual initiation. The boy comes to the attention of the police when they investigate a mysterious murder in an abandoned peach orchard. His grandfather advises, “There’s something in between lying and not lying. It’s called a story.” The following interview excerpts are from a longer interview conducted with Morris Panych by MK Piatkowski for One Big Umbrella.

QUESTION: How do you write, pen or keyboard?

PANYCH: I hate to admit it, but I have almost no penmanship left. I lack the coordination even to write my own name. I believe that writing will move more and more to the keyboard, and that the work itself will more and more reflect this mutable, tangential form; no less true, but less rooted.

Committing to pen and paper is very different than committing to computer, which is not so much a commitment as a first date. I can change my writing on computer and nobody has to ever know just how shitty it was.

When I was first in creative writing at UBC, we copied our scripts on gestetner machines, which were like a kind of printing press. There were a lot more steps so I thought more carefully about what I was writing.

I wish I were the kind of person who could carry around a little notebook. Writing to me needs discipline. I get up, I get coffee, I go to my attic room, I turn on my computer, I fall asleep, I wake up, I write.

QUESTION: As a writer, what scares you?

PANYCH: I am scared to write non-comedic material because I fear it will come across as melodramatic. But I have to try. Lately I have been working to take away the comedy somewhat from my writing, deal with different themes. I cannot write about contemporary politics. I think I’ve been around long enough to know that some things don’t last, trends change, philosophy evolves; what matters to me is human interaction; things that don’t change, ever—fear, anger, love, death, suspicion.

I can’t write about the war in Iraq because I don’t know what to say about it. I can say ‘war is bad’ but that’s not very interesting, and not necessarily even true. I admire people who can find something to talk about in everyday politics, who can address current issues; I can’t. I am scared of success, and failure in equal measure, but what scares me the most is writing that’s irrelevant. It’s a terrible contradiction to want to be relevant but not write about things that are current; I am pretty much doomed to failure. Sometimes I think I should write about being gay but I have nothing to say about that, either. ‘I’m gay’ is not a play; although some people seem to have made a career of it.

QUESTION: Where would you like your work to be produced?

PANYCH: It’s a nice feeling to have a play make you some money, so anywhere is fine. That said, one of my favorite recent experiences was going to see Lawrence and Holloman at a little hole- in-the-wall place in Kensington Market. I felt that the play had legitimately reached its second life; a life away from the main theatre constituency. I love to have my plays achieve this second life, anywhere; in little out-of-the-way places, in big houses. It’s important to me that my work is produced in places other than just where it originated. It makes me feel like my children are finally leaving home and going out into the world to make their mark.

QUESTION: What do you drink on opening night?

PANYCH: I like to start in the morning, to be honest. I like to drink enough by show time that I appear relaxed, funny, easygoing and generally feeling great about my work, when in actual fact I’m really just a little hammered.

At the Tarragon [Theatre], when Urjo Kareda was alive, we used to drink scotch all through the show; he would listen on the tanoy and I would venture, drunk, into the theatre, through the little back door. This I call the barf door, for two reasons. Immediately after any show, the obligatory cheap champagne I sip then dump into somebody else’s glass; if somebody buys me a nice bottle I hide in a washroom and drink it, if somebody else gets a nice bottle I hide in the washroom and drink it with them; as for the ‘gala’ after party, usually I have red wine because I get a free couple of plastic glasses worth.

QUESTION: What inspires you?

PANYCH: To say what inspires me, sort of implies that I’m inspired, which I’m often not. But I am often moved, particularly by acts of kindness; even somebody opening a door for me and smiling can bring me to tears, of late. I feel pretty emotional when somebody displays their humanity, even in passing.

The thing that most deeply moves me is music; say, for instance, Prokofiev’s cello concerto. To think how somebody could be such a genius to construct and interweave those harmonies, and to do it with such apparent ease and wit, but more than that, how this man has reached out a hundred years and somehow known what was in my heart.

How his music speaks to me; that is moving. For art to reverberate through space is wonderful, but through time it is awe-inspiring.

QUESTION: What do you want to write about that you haven’t yet?

PANYCH: Sin. What it is. I don’t know, but when I figure it out, I want to write about it. And love; I would like to write a love story—it would be sad, I think, and a little bit funny. I want to write more about lost children; since my parents both died, I feel I have become one.


[BCBW 2011]