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Interview – Morris Panych

Photo Caption – Margaret Barton and Alan Williams in the original 1995 production of Vigil. Written and directed by Morris Panych / Photo by Bruce Stotesbury / Set & Costume Designer – Ken MacDonald / Lighting Designer – Marsha Sibthorpe / Sound Designer – Ian Rye

Interview conducted by MK Piatkowski for BC Bookworld, 2011

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 over twenty plays and adapted half a dozen others. He has twice won the Governor General Literary Award for Drama, is the recipient of five of Toronto’s Dora Awards, and has won so many Jessie Awards that the Vancouver theatre community joke about changing their name to the Morrie Awards. Morris has directed close to one hundred plays, in addition to film, music video, and opera—including Pacific Opera’s Macbeth, The Barber of Seville and Flight. His acclaimed film The Overcoat won an honourable mention at the Prix Italia.

Who would direct the coolest production of one of your plays?

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. I am scared of success and failure in equal measure, but what scares me the most is writing that’s irrelevant. 

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.

How do you deal with praise? With criticism?

I take both too seriously. 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 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. 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 a 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 whiteout. 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.

What would you like academics to write about your work in 50 years?

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 in wonderful, but through time is awe-inspiring.

MK Piatkowski was the artistic director of one big umbrella at the time of this interview. obu is now a personal and corporate transformation company, with MK using her theatre experience as a corporate trainer and life coach. She still occasionally directs, mostly working with storytellers.

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Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel”

BY DR. RACHEL CLEVES

NEW YORK IN 1905 WAS A CITY FULL OF WOMEN LIKE ESTHER, THE HEROINE OF LYNN NOTTAGE’S PLAY INTIMATE APPAREL. At the turn of the century, young single Black women, born in the U.S. South after the Civil War, pulled up stakes and travelled north by the thousands looking to escape violence, overwork, and closed horizons. Between 1890 and 1900, the city’s Black population doubled. Many of the women, like Esther, were illiterate and left behind only photographs as records of their lives, like Nottage’s own grandmother who inspired her play. It takes imagination to recapture their stories, but not as much imagination as it took for these young women to invent new lives and stories for themselves.

They arrived in New York by steamer, by train, and on foot. Some had family to stay with or had lined up domestic jobs in advance that came with room and board. Others had nowhere to stay. The unlucky were preyed upon by the hustlers who stalked the docks and train stations, looking for newcomers to recruit to the city’s sex trade. Doing battle with the procurers were do-gooders like Victoria Earle Matthews, who ran the White Rose Mission, a “Christian, nonsectarian Home for Colored Girls and Women.” Matthews and her volunteers waited at train platforms for new arrivals and invited them to stay at the Mission, where they received training as seamstresses, hatmakers, and cooks. From this safe landing place, the young women might secure lodgings in a respectable boarding house, like Esther finds in the home of Mrs. Dickinson.

Coming north might have saved migrants from the debt peonage of the Jim Crow South, but it didn’t free anyone from the burden of hard labour. Making ends meet as a single Black woman in turn of the century New York required constant toil. Most jobs were closed to Black workers. The majority of Black women worked as domestics. Even a skilled seamstress, like Esther, had to work nonstop to earn enough to pay rent. But Black women migrants refused to be limited to a life of labour. They came to New York for something more. The historian Saidiya Hartman writes that “at the turn of the twentieth century, young black women were in open rebellion.” They were chasing after love, pleasure, and excitement. “A small rented room was a laboratory for trying to live free in a world where freedom was thwarted.” Their intimate acts were acts of revolution.

Esther takes a risk on a man she doesn’t know, George, a Barbadian labourer who writes her letters from Panama, where he works on a crew digging a canal to cross the continent. Other women found lovers closer to home, not only men but other women and genderqueer folk as well. But if love was an act of resistance, it was not a panacea. Through such acts of rebellion as leaving home and taking lovers, Esther and her sisters imagined the modern world into being.

To learn more about Black women like Esther in turn-of-the-century New York, I recommend Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals (Norton, 2019).


Dr. Rachel Cleves

A historian and professor at the University of Victoria, Cleves is the author of three books, Unspeakable: A Life Beyond Sexual Morality (2020), Charity and Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America (2014), and The Reign of Terror in America: Visions of Violence from Anti-Jacobinism to Antislavery (2009). Her research has been featured in The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, salon.com and brainpickings.org. Her current project is titled “A Historian’s Guide to Food and Sex.”

She writes in a treehouse in Oak Bay, British Columbia.


COVER PHOTO COURTESY OF WWW.HISTORY101.NYC

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Playwright’s Notes – Little Red Warrior & His Lawyer

I wanted to tell a Story about Land Claims from the perspective of snk’y’ép, Coyote, our sacred profane Trickster, as told in the Nlaka’pamux Story Traditions. Not to adhere to any kind of ethnographic accuracy, but to write a play imbued with the spirit of those Coyote Stories. 

Coyote Stories are a part of our sptékwł Stories, about animal beings with human aspects who are presented in our Creation or Foundational Stories. These characters represent all of the animals within Nlaka’pamux cultural knowledge and the specific fauna found on our Lands, Coyote being the most powerful and consequential of them. Other animals like Rabbit are also Tricksters, but they have traits that differentiate them from snk’y’ép. The Coyote character in Nlaka’pamux culture is vain, selfish in the extreme, cunning, lustful, arrogant, foolish, greedy, and vengeful. He embodies the worst of human character. And that makes him funny.  But he is also a powerful transformer, a shape-shifter, a conjurer, and a lover. 

In the Coyote Stories there is Old Man Coyote, who is malevolent and often trying to sleep with the three gorgeous duck wives of his son, the younger Coyote. Old Man Coyote tricks his son into going on a trans-dimensional journey into the Sky Nation that takes eight years to return from. All so that he can sleep with his son’s wives. And through his triumphs and follies on the journey back home, Coyote transforms the world into the reality we recognize today. In other adventures, Coyote has conversations with combs and blankets, deep philosophical conversations with his own asshole, and transforms his feces into various desirable objects in order to trick a cannibal or some other unsuspecting powerful being out of their possessions. 

This play is inspired by these ancient, hilarious, absurd Stories that on closer investigation reveal a rich narrative imbued with absolutely deliberate cultural memes, reflecting the Beliefs and laws of the people. The Trickster behaves in ways counter to the Customs and Beliefs of the people, thereby provoking them not to live by his example but to enjoy and understand his faults in relation to their Values and laws. His misdeeds shape the world around us. 

I wanted to explore that kind of contrary Trickster dramaturgy in the context of a Land Claim. What would Coyote do if his Lands were being threatened? Yet no character in this play is named Coyote or snk’y’ép; rather, the Trickster is the universe of this play. Transformation is possible, nothing is certain, and everyone is suspect. In Trickster Stories, no one walks away unscathed. 

Kevin Loring