Morris Panych wasn’t sure if he wanted to be interviewed by me. And, after he revealed to me the depth of his distaste for my criticism, I wasn’t so sure if I wanted to interview him, either. “I burned your name in a fire at New Year’s,” the playwright and director confessed in a pre-interview phone call to suss out my intentions.
Panych, whose production of Arms and the Man opens the Shaw Festival season on Friday, has been my most persistent critic since I was hired at The Globe six years ago – a kind of official online opposition, speaking his mind at regular intervals in comments left on the newspaper’s website.
But our digital relationship reached a new stage of acrimony in 2012 after I gave a two-star review to his Robert Service-inspired musical Wanderlust at the Stratford Festival. He responded with an angry, childish (that’s his own word for it) and yet inarguably entertaining 400-word comment that zeroed in on the shorts that I wore to its opening.
“Please, Kelly, where can I get these magic pants? Who makes them? If it’s necessary for me to expose my knees in order to understand what great theatre is, then I will expose them.”
Panych’s husband and creative partner, the designer Ken MacDonald, followed up by tweeting a shorts-clad cartoon of me looking like a character out of Wes Anderson movie, sitting amid an audience on its feet, an empty thought-bubble floating above my head.
Social media has changed criticism in a variety of ways, some undeniably strange. But for the most part, the dissolution of the boundaries between critics and artists (and readers) has been healthy. Outside of the minds of egomaniacs, a review has always been the beginning of a discussion about a work of art, rather than a binding verdict – and what before was only implicit is now a part of the form.
Physical boundaries, however, still exist, and so breaking the fourth wall to meet Panych for a latte at a coffee shop near his home in Toronto’s Riverdale neighbourhood was understandably nerve-wracking for the both of us. My fears of a confrontation evaporated, however, upon finding him, dapper as always, lounging in a chair next to a pile of board games and records, relaxed and loquacious, talking about nursing his husband back to health after a total shoulder replacement in March.
Which is not to say that Panych is less outspoken, more polite, or any less theatrically self-regarding in the flesh. When the subject comes to whether he – as one of the regular roster of directors at the Shaw Festival – might be interested in taking over from outgoing artistic director Jackie Maxwell, he launches into a juicily misanthropic rant about that job’s less palatable duties – mainly meetings and outreach and fundraising.
“The worst of it are the rich people – I can’t stand rich people and that’s who you have to talk to all the time,” says Panych, who grew up in Alberta in a family of seven under circumstances he describes as near poverty. “You go to those opening-night dinners and they only want to talk about their property. Literally, you’re sitting next to somebody that you’re way more interesting than, and they’re not even interested in what you do…”
Then, more calmly, Panych adds: “I just don’t think I’d be very good at that. “
Perhaps the 61-year-old can afford to bite the hand that feeds him, because he’s skipping the black-tie dinners in Niagara-on-the-Lake this week. He’ll be in Quebec City directing Verdi’s Macbeth – an opera with beautiful music and murderous subject matter that he says helped him figure out how to navigate the contradictions of Arms and the Man, a wild and wordy romantic farce about war.
“The political subject and the actual mechanics of the play are completely different,” notes Panych, who prefers to focus on the characters and story in plays, rather than politics, which he admits he’s “not terribly interested in” (a charge I levelled against him in the past).
Panych says Shaw’s plays are better on the stage than they read on the page: “Whenever I read a play of his, I think it’s the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life … but then, when they come off the page, they always come off the page – even the weirdest ones.”