Theatrical powerhouse Morris Panych speaks about his stage fright and his passion for pink
More than a decade ago, Morris Panych starred in a Vancouver production of Yasmina Reza’s Art. Though Panych started his long theatre career as an actor, at that point, he hadn’t been on stage for seven years.
“I thought I would die,” says Panych, as if it was just yesterday. “During the preview, I waited offstage and all the blood just ran out of my body. I don’t even know how I got on the stage. I opened my mouth and everything came out backwards. It was like I was talking in Hebrew. I didn’t even know what I was saying. I walked off stage after the first scene and I thought, ‘I am fucked.’ I don’t know why I thought I could act or why I came back to this horrible profession.”
Panych recovered (in fact, critics loved his performance), though he didn’t act again for another eight years. No matter. Even off stage he’s a theatrical powerhouse. Panych remains one of Canada’s most ubiquitous theatre artists. He’s won Governor General’s Awards for his playwrighting and directed nearly 100 plays for every major theatre company in Canada. In a country where plays rarely get more than a single run, Panych has remounted his Overcoat, which he co-created with Wendy Gorling, seven times.
This month he directs Parfumerie (see listing on page 24), an adaptation by Adam Pettle and Brenda Robins of a 1937 romance by Hungarian playwright Miklós László, for the third time. Popping up every second holiday season, it’s like Soulpepper’s answer to the National Ballet’s Nutcracker. With a remount, most of the ground work is already done. The set, designed by Panych’s husband Ken MacDonald, comes out of storage. The cast watch videos from last year’s performance to help bring back the memories of what they should be doing on stage. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time, but you do need to put the wheel back on the car,” says Panych.
A long fruitful theatre career means a certain amount of repetition and that’s where Panych’s artistic angst—which both draws him onto the stage and scares him off it—comes in handy. Panic and fear keep things fresh. “It’s addictive. Even the terror is thrilling,” he tells me over coffee in Soulpepper’s cosy library. Even at 61, he’s handsome and has a temperament that remains boyish. One minute he’s passionately dismissing postmodernist “bullshit,” the next he’s folded up with his elbows on the table, almost blushing as he talks about his affection for MacDonald. Panych’s heightened sense of what’s at stake injects a compelling urgency into his best work. He always needs to be risking something.
Although Panych has worked with MacDonald on every play he’s ever directed—they met more than 30 years ago during a production at the Belfry Theatre Company in Victoria, B.C.—their collaborating has never provided a comfortable safety net. Just the opposite. MacDonald has an amazing ability to turn up the volume and raise the tension, which is perhaps the secret ingredient that keeps Panych engaged and creative.
“We have an absolutely crazy, volatile working relationship. Our real lives aren’t like that at all, but the minute we start talking about a play, it’s just ugly,” says Panych. “I often tell him, ‘I can’t believe the way you’re talking to me, you would never talk this way to another director.’ He’s just rude. Ken’s a Taurus, which tells you everything.
He really digs his heels in.”
Panych himself is not known for holding back what he thinks. Joseph Ziegler, a Soulpepper founder and friend who has worked with Panych on several productions, says the director can be unapologetically blunt.
“He’ll say it even if it hurts people’s feelings,” says Ziegler, who plays a broken-hearted cuckold in Parfumerie.
“Saying what has to be said can be a good thing. Morris is really in touch with himself as a person and what his feelings are.”
Sheila McCarthy, who last worked with Panych in Canadian Stage’s kooky 2012 production of The Arsonist, says his honesty doesn’t mean it’s his way or the highway. His directing style is flexible and open-ended, allowing actors to contribute.
“Morris is vulnerable. Most directors aren’t, or at least they don’t tell you that,” says McCarthy. “I love his dogged curiosity about everything. He is also extremely sexy and everyone thinks so, men and women.” McCarthy, who, as you might guess, is a long-time friend, once broke three toes jumping off a table designed by MacDonald.
“They are still numb a year later and it is Morris’s fault.”
When Panych and MacDonald were first creating Parfumerie’s look for Soulpepper’s 2009 season, Panych knew from the start that the set had to be pink. Opulently pink. Never one for minimalism, the director wants the audience to be lost in the sights, sounds and emotions of the production. Parfumerie, also the basis for the 1940 film The Shop Around the Corner and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle You’ve Got Mail, is a classic romance of hate turning into love. Audiences need to come out wanting to shop at that frilly store where passion ignites.
“Ken hates pink but he agreed with me. He knows I like pink,” says Panych. “If he wants to get on my good side, he brings home pink flowers. It’s so gay, I know. This is how I know he wants to get on my good side. If I want to get on his good side, I cook. I cook every fucking night. I learned how to make chicken katsu curry because every time we go to London, that’s what he wants.”
As much as Panych loves London, the UK has never returned his affections. The Overcoat and Vigil, which have been performed in more than 30 theatres in Canada and the US since its 1995 debut, both got bad reviews there. He’s doesn’t love everything the British do either. On a recent trip to Ireland and the UK with Ziegler and his wife, actress Nancy Palk, the straight couple went out to plays all the time. Panych and MacDonald were more likely to spend their evenings playing bridge.
“A lot of theatre really bores me,” says Panych. “It bores Ken even more. I’ve decided recently I’m going to go to theatre on my own because I can’t stand going with him. He gets so restless, he wants to leave once he’s seen the set. In fact, I have to tell actors in our own productions not to take it personally when Ken falls asleep during rehearsals, because that’s what he does.”
Winding Panych up is not MacDonald’s sole talent. He’s the visual counterpoint to Panych’s emphasis on narrative. While Panych writes in his free time, MacDonald takes pictures and collects objects. Many of the set ideas and props in their productions make their first appearance in their Riverdale home. (They sold their place in Vancouver a few years ago and have been working on the West Coast much less as a result.) A branch MacDonald found in their garden ended up being the model for a humungous 70-foot-long branch that was the set for a 1997 Vancouver production of the opera Susannah. When the couple was exploring ideas for Design for Living at the 2006 Shaw Festival, MacDonald made a cardboard prototype that looked, to Panych’s eye, a little too much like past efforts.
“I didn’t say anything but he knew exactly what I was thinking,” says Panych. “So without even saying anything, he picks the whole thing up, crumples it into a ball and throws it on the floor. We both looked at it and said,
‘That’s fantastic.’ And these poor builders had to build this crumpled-up window thing.”
When the creative friction produces great ideas, something must be working. Even if it’s crazy-making.
Morris Panych doesn’t much care for crowds at the theatre or the cinema, but here are some of the things he’s liked lately (and things Ken MacDonald mostly didn’t).
The Royal Opera House’s London West End production of The Wind in the Willows earlier this year was “extraordinary.”
Both Panych and MacDonald liked August: Osage County, but MacDonald didn’t care for Peter and the Starcatcher. “He’s like, ‘It’s panto[mime].’ I’m like, ‘Sure, it’s panto, but it’s good panto.’” They were also divided on Spring Awakening.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a 2006 novel by French writer Muriel Barbery, and Let the Great World Spin, a 2009 novel by U.S. writer Colum McCann, are Panych’s current favourite reads.
12 Years a Slave: “The best. The chances that director [Steve McQueen] takes! There’s one scene where—I won’t give anything away—someone burns a piece of paper and the shot goes on for, like, a minute and a half. This director really wants you to stop and think about that moment. It makes you feel so guilty as a white person.”
“Everyone was loving Death in Venice [from the Canadian Opera Company’s 2010/2011 season]. Ken so hated that show. It was very turgid. It moved like mud.”