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."
Well into his fourth decade as a theatre artist, Panych's career is still running on all cylinders despite his tendency to tell people what he really thinks, a policy of undiluted honesty rarely found in the low-stakes world of Canadian theatre. The world premiere of his next comedy, The Shoplifters, is opening Arena Stage's season in Washington, D.C., in September, while another new work, Sextet, opens at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in November with an all-star cast that includes Bruce Dow and Rebecca Northan.
Together with MacDonald – his partner for 34 years, and husband for the past 10 – Panych has mounted close to 80 productions. Which is why I have long been curious why he would let any reviewer get under his skin.
The truth is that Panych has been talking back to theatre critics his whole career, even before online comments made the process instantaneous. Back in British Columbia, where Panych was based for the first two decades of his career, critic Colin Thomas at the Georgia Strait was a regular target of his vitriolic letters to the editor. Even a rave for a production elicited a letter from Panych saying that he didn't need Thomas's – ahem – "constipated turdballs of praise."
"He can't take a bad review – or a good review," says Thomas, by phone from Vancouver.
Panych says part of his irritation comes from the potential career impact of reviews – and he has a list of potential opportunities that he says were lost. Among them was a 2004 meeting with a high-powered artistic director in London that was cancelled after the British reviews of his movement play The Overcoat (a hit over here) came out.
But his resistance to critics seems to go beyond that, to a larger desire not to be pigeonholed or labelled or intellectualized. "I don't want to be defined," he says at one point.
But that's the job, whether in review or a profile, so you'll just have to go online (or click below) to see what Panych thinks of this one.
In a series of online comments, Panych has repeatedly taken The Globe and Mail's theatre critic J. Kelly Nestruck to task for his reviews – while, at the same time, crafting an entertaining monologue about magic pants and time machines. Here are some excerpts.
On Nestruck's two-star review of Wanderlust at the Stratford Festival in 2012:
"People were fooled by the humour, by the sweet simple story, by the gorgeous melodies; but not you, not in those half-pants. You saw everything, instantly; even as the audience leapt, yes leapt, to their feet at the curtain call, you sat, calves exposed, knowing what hundreds of talented experienced, hard-working theatre people could never know; that mere serviceability lay at the core of this work, and that the audience now cheering wildly, yes cheering, were not possessed of the necessary abbreviated trousers."
Read the full comment here
On Nestruck's two-star review of Panych's production of Our Betters at the Shaw Festival in 2013:
"Here is my humble thought: a time machine. A time machine to take you back to 1917, when the play was written, and to tell Somerset Maugham to his face what a piece of garbage Our Betters is going to be, especially with me directing it; get him to rewrite it – tell him how his love of strong independent women is going to be construed by some dweeb as misogyny, and how his disdain for British classism will be hilariously re-imagined as anti-Americanism; tell him all about 9/11 and WWII and frisbies and those weird running shoes with the toes in them – get him up-to-date, for God's sake."
Read the full comment here
On Nestruck's column about German director Thomas Ostermeier's approach to the classics in 2013:
"Hey Kelly, guess what? I made it for you; the time machine. I just took a pair of your special short pants and covered them in tinfoil (for heat resistance), and off you went to 1973 where you found me in a disco and guess what I was wearing? The same pants! (without the tinfoil but I did have a moustache and it wasn't even November). I showed you all kinds of crazy goings on in theatre like people painting themselves blue or crawling over each other naked or even, yes, throwing things at the audience, and you were so surprised that theatres were so nonchalant, and messing with the classics this way but not me, because hey, it was all part of growing up; nobody was paying for any of it but, and we were young and who cared?"
Read the full comment here