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Reportage by Jonah Hundert
Last night at Theatrebooks we were paid a visit by playwright, director, actor and all around Canadian theatre icon Morris Panych. Morris visited us as part of our monthly Meaningful Words reading series (stay tuned for info on our next Meaningful Words night, Wed. March 16th with Damien Atkins!). In our intimate space on the top floor of the store Morris dazzled an audience of students, professionals and fans with material both new and old, familiar and completely alien.
We started off with some Panych favourites; a stretch of monologue from Vigil (which has been translated into 26 languages, often as Auntie & Me Morris later explained), some gut busting back-and-forth from The Dishwashers, and some dialect heavy dialogue from What Lies Before Us which, as Morris pointed out, was hated in Toronto but loved in the prairies. In Panych’s hands (and voice) these are all gems (although oddly fixated on all things testicular).
But the real treat came when we were given a sneak peak at some of Morris’ newer material. First came a scene from Gordon, which premiered at Montreal’s SideMart Theatrical Grocery last October. Gordon will be available for sale at Theatrebooks by the end of March. It’s a play based on a story his mother used tell, Morris informs us, about a young man her family knew who would frequently leave home, coming back weeks or months later. Sometimes he would return having earned tremendous amounts of unexplained money, and other times he would return flat broke and hungry. In Gordon, the title character has also been away from home. His father thinks he’s been at college, when in fact he’s been learning a criminal trade. In the scene Morris reads us Gordon returns home to his father’s house along with his simpleton sidekick and his girlfriend waiting in the car. Their repartee is vicious and hilarious. Particularly the joke about the blind man in the fish market…. “hello ladies!”
We then hear a scene from an as yet untitled work in which a rookie grocery store security guard interrogates a career shoplifter after a steak falls out of her dress. It sounds promising. Morris finishes off his readings with a scene from In Absentia. This is not Morris’ usual style, he explains. It’s not a comedy. In Absentia is a play about a woman whose husband has disappeared in Colombia, presumed kidnapped or worse. It is nothing if not intriguing. In Absentia will premier at the Centaur Theatre in 2012.
The best part of the evening, for me at least, came with the Q&A at the end. The questions were mostly about the art of playwriting itself. “Do you start with characters or plot?” “Characters.” “Has any ever asked you to write a play, like for a commission?” “No one asks me to write plays.” One young student asked Mr. Panych how someone new to playwriting might start working on a play. The advice? Don’t censor yourself. Even if after twenty pages of writing you feel like you’ve got nothing but garbage, just keep on writing. Commit to writing a terrible play and who knows what you might end up with. Morris tells us an anecdote about a film made of Picasso painting on glass, with the camera on the other side so that the viewer can watch Picasso stare, contemplate, experiment and then fill the “canvas” with what, to the viewer’s eye, seems like a masterpiece. Picasso then wipes out the whole thing, leaving just a corner, or a spot of paint. he then starts over from that point and fills the “canvas” again. And the process repeats itself until at last he is satisfied. “I find comfort,” Morris says, “that even one of the greatest artists of all time sometimes has no idea what he’s doing”. His final piece of advice on writing is simply this: “To me a writer is someone who wakes up in the morning and wants to write.”
This piece first appeared on the Theatrebooks blog.