Umbrella Talk with playwright Morris Panych

In this week's Umbrella Talk, Morris Panych talks about his hangover cure, his plays achieving a second life, and how music moves him.

A little more about Morris Panych
Morris graduated from Creative Writing at UBC in 1977, and had his first professional production in 1982 with Last Call for Tamahnous Theatre in Vancouver. Since that time, he has written twenty plays and adapted half a dozen others. He has twice won the Governor General Literary Award for Drama, the highest honour for playwriting in Canada. Morris has directed eighty plays. He has also directed for film and opera, as well as music video. His acclaimed film of The Overcoat won an honourable mention at the Prix Italia. You can find out more about his work at

What do you drink on opening night?
I like to start in the morning, to be honest. I like to be pissed enough by show time that I appear relaxed, funny, easy going and generally feeling great about my work, when in actual fact I’m really just a little hammered. At the Tarragon, 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. If I am unlucky enough to have Maria Popoff as stage manager, there will be weird cocktails until about four am., and if Randy Hughson is in the show, beer and slurred but meaningful conversation until the sun comes up. Then it’s Richard Ouzounian’s review; a bracing and effective cure for any hangover.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?
I can tell you who would direct the uncoolest. The asshole from New York who directed Avenue Q. He arranged a reading of ‘Girl in the Goldfish Bowl’ for the Roundabout Theatre, for which he hired a ten year old actress (a part normally played by a forty year old woman who is recalling her childhood). I said to him, yeah o.k. but how does this person become forty years old at the end of each act? He said, yeah, that’s a bit of a problem. I think the coolest person would be the person who loved and understood my work and wanted an audience to love and understand it in the same way.

What scares you? What can't you write about?
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.

What do you want to write about that you haven't yet?
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 guess Vigil is a kind of love story. I want to write more about lost children; since my parents both died, I feel I have become one.

If someone was to write a play about your life, what genre would it be? (eg. comedy, tragedy, melodrama, horror)
It would be a Beckett play, except that he’s dead, so there is nobody to write it, thank goodness. Bravo did a documentary about Ken (MacDonald) and I a couple of years ago; I don’t know if ‘Boring Comedy’ is a genre – oh wait, that’s Shaw – how about ‘Comedy Docu-drama’?

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?
I take both far too seriously. I wish, honestly, everybody would just shut the fuck up about the work and either do the work or watch the work; a smattering of applause, go home. You don’t get anybody standing over a plumber at the sink going ‘oh, that washer was connected with such a fine comedic sense’ or ‘haven’t we all seen you attach a faucet like that over and over again?’. A crazy woman came up to me at the corner of Queen and Parliament and said ‘you; you’re ugly’. For a long time after I thought, what did she mean? Am I really ugly? Is she telling me something nobody else will? Does she have some special insight into my soul? Or is she just crazy? Criticism sticks. I’m pretty sure she was insane but there is a small part of me, still, that is carrying around this feeling that I might be just a little bit ugly.

Where would you like your work to be produced?
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 it’s 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.

Where do you write? Pen or keyboard?
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. I don’t have to take responsibility for what I write nearly as much as when I used to have to use white out. 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.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?
Sometimes, in my moments of lowest self-esteem, which is at about 3:00 every afternoon, I check the online encyclopedias to see what they say about me. This, I guess, is pretty much how it might look in 50 years, unless by then there are no academics and the world has become so self-reflective and narcissistic that the past doesn’t really matter; it’s possible. I would like them to say, these academics, that I existed. The worst fate for an artist is to have not been heard; that’s my idea of eternal damnation.

What inspires you?
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 is awe-inspiring.


AnonymousActor said…
Panych is of my favourite playwrights, the fact he is Canadian just goes with passing. His work, I find relevant in the way he describes: emotional. Reading this is a very humbling experience in an odd sort of way. It was a fantastic and humanistic insight to his life and work with sharp wit.

It's a pity how such a definitive effect in a work can be lost once, as he put, his babies leave the home (as in the case of Roundabout). I haven't doubt that these children will grow, and it is an exciting time to be around to see that. I can relate to a lot of what he spoke about, especially in the case of what to write about. To hear it articulated by someone else, that's when the lighting bolt strikes. Thank you Umbrella Talk for a great interview.

A final note, if I were interviewed I would never reveal where I drink during shows, you wont be able to escape *them* now. You are a brave brave man, Panych. As always, keep challenging us, you do it so well.
davidstein said…
I read "Seven Stories" years ago, and couldn't stand it.

20 Anyone who takes Richard Ouzounian seriously is not to be taken seriously.

- David Stein,