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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.