Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Morris Panych and Ken MacDonald

“I find as a writer that I always say to people, people who are waiting for inspiration, there isn’t any such thing. And you have to really write into your inspiration. And I always say to writing students--just finish. Just get the job done. Get started and finish it. And then you’ll know what you have and you can work on it to your heart’s content. But you’ve got to commit to an idea” -- Morris Panych

They say that familiarity breeds contempt, but Canadian theater artists Morris Panych, an actor turned award-winning playwright/director, and Ken MacDonald, an equally celebrated set designer, would beg to differ. Together for 34 years and married for the past decade, the duo has worked on nearly 100 shows together, including Panych’s The Shoplifters, which recently premiered at Washington, DC’s Arena Stage. A conversation with the pair covers everything from American Idol to artistic freedom to David Hockney’s iPad paintings to the morality of larceny. Interviewing Panych and MacDonald in tandem is a bit like watching a tennis match as they have a tendency to lob ideas and even sentences from one to another. When they occasionally cut each other off, you get the sense that it’s not a matter of one partner imposing his voice over the other’s, but rather they just know each other so well that, at times, they just share a voice. As Panych answered when asked why they like working together, “We know each other.” Though Panych and MacDonald each work on individual projects with other collaborators, it quickly becomes clear that the secret to their enduring partnership is a shared a vision for what theater should be, and a commitment to articulating that vision in language and design. We spoke to them at Arena Stage a few days before opening night. What follows is an edited transcript of that conversation. 

NEA:  I want to start by asking how each of you got involved in your respective careers.

KEN MACDONALD: I was a high school art teacher but in university all of my friends were in theater and I used to do the musicals and stuff at university and I loved theater… but I was in the education department and I taught for five years. I taught drawing and painting, grade eleven and twelve, art eleven and twelve. And then I had a great friend who asked me if I would design a set for him. I said “I don’t know how.” but I did a drawing of what I thought [a design] was—for a show called Puttin’ on the Ritz, an Irving Berlin musical review--and they liked it. And then I did that for two or three shows and [that director] liked them so much he said, “Will you be my resident designer?” I quit teaching. I have no training but now I’ve done it for 35 years.

MORRIS PANYCH: I think Ken’s done like 160 shows. 

MACDONALD: Yeah, something like that. I fell into it not by mistake because I had a great love of theater but I didn’t know what my part in it could be. I’m a terrible actor so this was my way of being in it.

NEA:  And you, Morris?

PANYCH: Well, I was really hooked on acting since I was in grade seven. And then I became interested in acting through high school. I wanted to go into an acting program at a university but my academic marks were so bad that I couldn’t get into the program. I kind of drifted around for a couple of years and studied radio and television and worked in radio and television. And then I had to get out of there because I was so bored with it. And I found a creative writing program at UBC [University of British Columbia], which wasn’t acting but there was a theatrical aspect to it.

I studied creative writing for four years, and in my fourth year I had done all of my requirements in creative writing and I started to drift toward theater. I became interested in theater because I was writing little plays and they were doing them at the theater department. And then I would go and watch rehearsal. When you’re in high school acting is not the same as when you’re at university. It’s a whole different focus. And I remember one time I was extremely irritated by the actors asking questions and so the director got mad at me and she said, “Why don’t you read these books?” And she gave me Uta Hagen’s Respect for Acting and [a book by] Robert Benedetti. I read those books and I was just completely fascinated by the whole idea of acting. And so I drifted away from writing and I got interested in acting in my last year of university. And so I double-graduated with the majors of theater and creative writing. But I didn’t have any training as an actor. I went to London for two years and studied acting at E 15 Acting School, which is a very weird radical school but I didn’t learn anything.

I became a career actor [in Canada] and I acted pretty much solidly for 15 years. I played a lot of really big roles too and I was quite good. I was mostly situated in Vancouver. But I really figured out very quickly that if I was only going to be an actor it can be very soul-destroying. And you’re really at other people’s whim a lot of the time and your creative process depends on other people’s approval. So I started to write again. I wrote a musical for Ken and I to do. And then wrote some other plays. And then just drifted back into playwriting at the same time that I sort of drifted into directing because I also thought, [looking at] the people who were directing me, I really didn’t think I could do any worse. I sort of became a bit of a triple threat but then my acting dropped away. I’ve done a couple of things in the last few years but really it’s too scary for me now.

NEA: When did your creative partnership start?

MACDONALD: I’ve designed everything Morris has ever [directed] except for your first show which was--

PANYCH: My first show that I ever directed was designed by another designer. And maybe there was something else but Ken’s always done my shows. We’ve done 80 shows together.

MACDONALD: Ninety maybe.

PANYCH: Ninety. We’ve done a lot of shows.

NEA: Why do you like working together?

PANYCH: I think we like working together because we have a shorthand because we know each other.

MACDONALD: We’ve seen so many things together, done so--

PANYCH: Because we respect each other’s work. I think that’s a big part of it. I mean we don’t talk about that a lot but I have a great deal of admiration for his set designs.

MACDONALD: And vice versa.

PANYCH:  And I’ve always encouraged him to be very, very theatrical and make statements and be bold…. We’re not really into naturalism that much unless it’s like crazy hyper naturalism. People need to go on a journey, an imagistic journey as well as linguistic. It’s not just about ideas for us. It’s also about images.

MACDONALD:  And it’s not just about the words. So many times you say, “Oh this play you could just do it with three chairs and a table. “

PANYCH:  That drives us nuts when we hear that, when we hear people say it.

MACDONALD:  We go, “No, you can’t.”

PANYCH:  That’s radio.

MACDONALD:  Yeah, that’s really good radio. 

NEA:  When you’re working together what do you think you bring out in each other? Or is there something that you feel just becomes a little bit better because you’re collaborating?

PANYCH:  Well, probably Ken could answer that question better than me because really what Ken brings out in my work is what we just talked about which is the sense of un-naturalism, like the dreamlike quality of the work, the kind of extended reality, that kind of theatrical overstatement.

MACDONALD:  I think when I work with Morris, and I do work with other people but mainly I work with Morris, is that he likes that. And he allows me to go further than maybe some directors would who want something that’s just a little bit more realistic.

PANYCH:  Ken can and wants to create visual metaphors. And I think that’s really what we’re both interested in. We take the audience on a journey that’s not just intellectual. It’s emotional and visual, hopefully.

NEA: Knowing that Ken is going to do the first set design do you find yourself thinking about the set at all when you’re writing?

PANYCH: No, I don’t think about the design at all.

MACDONALD: To my frustration. <laughs>

PANYCH: I probably think in a more naturalistic way when I’m writing…. I think when I write plays I write in close-up. I don’t see anything around. I see two heads or three heads. It’s all close-ups so that’s what’s in my head. A lot of the visual jokes in The Shoplifters, a lot of the laughs in the show came from rehearsal. They didn’t come from my brain. They came from actors and me working together or Ken and certain props and stuff like that because I don’t think about that when I’m writing. I’m trying to stay just focused on the dialogue and the characters and the story and how it’s developing.

MACDONALD: And I like working with Morris, and not that other directors won’t let me do this but I feel it’s maybe out of place a little bit for me, but with Morris I feel quite confident to say I don’t like that scene. Or I don’t like the way he or she is acting that. Or what if they did this or what if they…?

NEA: Ken, where does the set design start for you?

MACDONALD: I’m usually reading Morris’s plays daily because he has an office upstairs from where my studio is in our house. And so he’ll have written ten or so pages that day and I’ll read it.  So I’m already starting to think--

PANYCH: There’s certain things you know. You know in this play we have to have a table and a couple of chairs minimum. But what else do we have? What kind of environment?  A room that’s closed in and it should be claustrophobic.

MACDONALD: I start off fairly realistically. And I draw in my iPad. But I would do a little sketch and so I thought I love this big industrial fan so I stuck one of them on a cinderblock wall and a table and a sink and very much sort of a realistic lunchroom in the back of a Safeway [grocery store] basically.

PANYCH: But it wasn’t saying anything.

MACDONALD:  And then I started to look at storage boxes and how they were on shelves and I thought what if or maybe Morris said, “What if they didn’t have shelves?” And then I kind of loved that because they’re just precariously piled.

PANYCH: All those boxes are built. They’re not a real box.

MACDONALD: They are not found boxes. They are boxes that we bought sixteen different sizes, unfolded, stapled, printed the labels for them, folded them, put the stickers, taped them. It’s like a huge amount of work on every box. And [each] one of them is planned. It’s not random at all… So when I read Morris’s plays I’m starting to think about it as we’re going along.

NEA: You’ve talked about wanting the audience to be very aware that they’re watching theater.

PANYCH: Yeah, I think it’s an extension of meta-theatricality because to me theater commenting on itself, meta-theatrics it’s a little bit done now. I mean…

MACDONALD: I never know quite what that means. People say it of all of my sets and I go, “What?”

PANYCH: It’s sort of like you’re making people aware that they’re watching a piece of theater, that kind of thing. And in some ways we did come out of that world and, you know, like the ‘70s and the ‘80s and even into the ‘90s. There’s this strong sense of meta-theatricality, this comment to the audience that we know what we’re doing. And we know you know and we’re all in this together kind of thing. But that’s actually kind of like worn out, I think, in my view. I like the audience to experience a dream… they enter a world that doesn’t belong to them, that is somewhere else. So they have an experience of really going somewhere. Because that’s what happens in a film because the size of a film is so big you can get lost in that film. But with theater it’s harder to get lost in that same way. You can’t blow people’s mind with visuals. You have to blow their minds by taking them into a strange world. And so we try to do that as much as we can. It’s important to just take the audience on a journey. They’re there to get out of their lives. I mean that’s what I think they are there for.

MACDONALD: Yeah. Well, to be entertained and not to be bored because theater can be so boring.

PANYCH: So boring.

MACDONALD: I just fall asleep at the drop of a hat at most theater. And so I think our main idea is not to bore people. To entertain them. It doesn’t have to be political. It just has to be a slice of life. And Morris likes to write about very small, very petty little subjects sometimes--a petty little man who did a petty little thing--and blow it out of proportion. That’s the fun of it sometimes. Even this show, about two women who stole two steaks, but it’s a huge thing. You know, it’s a whole play about that. It’s a very small incident but it has political and social and everything and cultural ramifications to it. And I think that’s what he’s a master of writing--these little people with their little problems and making them blown up.

NEA: Since Ken so nicely segued back to The Shoplifters can you talk about the spark for the play?

PANYCH: I don't know if it was a spark. I started to be interested in the idea of stealing and why people steal and what kind of a statement it’s making about them as people and what it means. Because I don’t think people steal, especially shoplifters, I don’t think they take things just because they need them necessarily. There’s something else going on.  And also I have certain political beliefs and certain feelings about, you know, capitalism and how it works…. And to me what predicated some of the worst governments in history is their concern primarily with the economy and with their own wellbeing rather than with the democratic rights and the equality of people and all of that sort of stuff. I mean that’s a lot of stuff to say about stealing something. But stealing something can make a statement, even if it’s unintentional, saying, “I need something and I don’t know any other way to get it.”

And so I started with this character, this woman who stole, and I tried to answer the question, some of the questions about why and I did a lot of research about the morality of theft or the immorality of theft and the sense of what was being lost and what was being gained, a lot of that stuff… You know there was a huge protest movement in the ‘60s that appeared to have gone away. But I think in the hearts and minds of many people they still really have a kind of Robin Hood mentality. They believe that there is a right and it’s not always what we’re told.

I don’t want to bullshit you. I wasn’t walking down the street one day and struck by a bolt of lightning. That sometimes happens but not usually. I find as a writer that I always say to people, people who are waiting for inspiration, there isn’t any such thing. And you have to really write into your inspiration. And I always say to writing students--just finish. Just get the job done. Get started and finish it. And then you’ll know what you have and you can work on it to your heart’s content. But you’ve got to commit to an idea.

MACDONALD: Seeing a blank canvas is the same thing for me. I mean I hate starting a new design. I feel I have no more ideas. And oh my God, I pulled the wool over their eyes too many times. And so eventually at some point I literally just have to make a mark on a paper.

PANYCH: But I think at a certain point you achieve an artistic vision that you carry through like your artistic vision that you’re carrying through is one of this big canvas where we have these interpretations on it. You know, I think that’s really what you--

MACDONALD: Yeah, but it’s so hard to start. What I do is I make myself a little white model box of the set, of the stage, and it’s blank. And I put the light on and then I just go okay and I start folding some paper and cutting and sticking it in there and going, “Well that could work.”

PANYCH: You always forget that the process is horrible and debilitating. You always forget.

MACDONALD: Until you have the idea. Once you have the idea I’m so excited and then it’s all about I could do this and this would come in and this would fly in. But until that point it’s just horrible.

PANYCH: But what I’m saying is you always use the same stream of thought to get there. There are certain things you don’t include in your thinking and I think that’s what makes you the designer that you are.

MACDONALD: I think in some ways because I have no technical background--

PANYCH:  That makes a big difference. And he’s a real good drawer. I’m probably as a writer much more practical when I work than Ken is as a designer because I do think about whether it’s really feasible for this production to be done anywhere. Like if I have 500 actors in it it’s not going to get done.

MACDONALD: You’re not going to write a 16-character play.

PANYCH:  And the thing is about playwriting, you want it to be done. There’s no other reason to write it. And you also think visually it’s crazy to do many locations because it’s really too hard unless you are working with someone like Ken where we decide it’s going to take place in a million locations but it’s really just going to be with lights and we’re going to create something. But you do think about things like that. That does enter into your consciousness. But you always solve it in ways that are familiar to you. We went to see Andrew Wyeth[‘s exhibition] yesterday and I love that he said at one point in his painting that he would prefer to paint the same thing over and over again.

MACDONALD: He said, “I got bored looking for new subjects…”

PANYCH: I liked the idea that there’s an infinite number of possibilities in the same thing.

MACDONALD: Yeah, so he’s just working on a theme.

PANYCH:  Yeah, which is genius.

NEA: Morris, is there a certain set of questions that you find yourself going back to as a writer or a certain narrative that iterates?

PANYCH: Yeah, definitely. Why do we exist is the big one I would say.

MACDONALD:  Death.

PANYCH: Death. What are we doing with our lives that brings value to them when they really have in a sense no value? How do we exist without God? Those are my big main questions--how do we find a soul and a humanness without God?

MACDONALD:  That makes you sound like you think there is a God.

PANYCH:  No. I’m saying God is not the driving force behind people’s beliefs anymore. So what creates their humanity; how do we be human? They are big questions, I know, but they’re fascinating to me. And I think partly too because existence is a really big conundrum. If you don’t believe that there’s life after death, then what are you doing with your life and how do you rationalize its existence and how do you make it into something meaningful when really it isn’t? And so how [do] you conduct yourself in your life? They’re kind of big questions but those are the things that drive me. So in a play like The Shoplifters really the big question for those two people is why are we doing the things we’re doing with each other? And how do we live in each other’s orbit, this security guard and this shoplifter because in the end they do find that they have an orbit around each other? And then all of these moral questions extrapolate from there. What do we do with criminals? How does crime exist? How do we rationalize it or make it work? Somebody committed some hideous evil crime and all we can say is well he’s just evil. I don’t think that’s right. I think there’s more to it than that and it’s all of the experiences and all of the world that exists around them which creates their crime. So this is a very small crime, a woman steals a steak but it has, as Ken said, a very big repercussions. I mean I hope.

NEA: Ken, I know that you’re a visual artist doing work outside of just your design work.

MACDONALD: I draw almost entirely on my iPad now…. So this is my art now, it takes place on here. But you can also see that I can do my set designs on there, too. I rarely paint anymore. I’ve not done a painting for a long time or even draw with pencil. This is what David Hockney draws almost everything on now. And I gave a lecture at the David Hockney showing that came to Toronto of all his iPhones and iPads and I recreated a Hockney exactly on here and said this is how he does it because that’s the app that he draws on. It’s called Brushes. And I understand why he loves it so much and I’ve just embraced it and I keep trying to get better and better at it. So that’s kind of my art right now.

PANYCH:  He’s not an intellectual.

MACDONALD:  Who is not?

PANYCH:  Ken isn’t.

MACDONALD:  David Hockney?  <laughs>

PANYCH: I think the strongest thing about Ken as an artist is that he’s not an intellectual. He’s a visualist. And it’s very rewarding in theaters especially now to work with someone who isn’t full of [air] and can talk the talk but can’t walk the walk. They can [talk] about their design in kind of like all sorts of intellectual terms but in reality they actually are terrible designers. And Ken is a really good designer and so, you know, I don’t mean that you haven’t got an intellect.

MACDONALD:  Thank you.

PANYCH:  Sometimes you have no intellect especially when he watches Orange is the New Black. We like crappy TV. When you work in an intense artistic environment, it’s really nice to go home and just chill and think about nothing else and watch American Idol.

MACDONALD:  People can’t believe we love American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance.

NEA:  My final question is a fill in the blank. Theater matters because…

MACDONALD:  Life matters because…

PANYCH:  Well, I hope this doesn’t sound too corny but I think theater matters because it’s theater. And with all of the things we’ve talked about---

MACDONALD:  Theater matters, I guess, because it’s live. Because there’s that amazing thing of something could go wrong, you know how the audience loves that when something goes wrong and people deal with it. We love film but it can be so slick and there’s something just wonderful about [theater because] it’s happening in front of you every night and it’s a little bit different.

PANYCH: Theater is a gathering. It’s a coming together of people in an enclosed space.

MACDONALD: I think because it’s happening right there. I think that’s what’s sort of fantastic about theater. And you hate to think you’re part of a dying art form and sometimes you look around--

PANYCH: Well, it is kind of a dying art form.

MACDONALD:  It is. And Morris was so thrilled when there was a young fellow at Starbucks here who saw The Shoplifters the other day and I don’t know he found out that Morris wrote it and he just went crazy. And Morris went, “I’m so happy that this young guy liked my show as opposed to—“

PANYCH:  He was just some urban guy who works at Starbucks.

MACDONALD:  As opposed to like you often have a retired audience.

PANYCH:  It makes you feel like you’re doing something.

MACDONALD:  And, of course, theater is expensive to go to. I think it’s way too expensive to go to.

PANYCH:  I wish we could convince young people to go to theater. I think they might find it more exciting.

MACDONALD:  But yet, we don’t want to feel like we’re part of a dying art form. And we want to try to keep it alive but we want to have not just an older generation, which we appreciate and that’s a huge amount of our audience because they can afford it.

PANYCH:  At the same time, I don’t think we want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. All of these people suddenly going, I want theater to be great like it’s like whatever they did in New York with the Scottish play, what was it called?

MACDONALD:  Sleep No More.

PANYCH: Yeah, Sleep No More and all of that sort of stuff and suddenly it’s like--

MACDONALD:  It’s all site-specific.

PANYCH:  I like a controlled environment where people can sit in and watch something.

MACDONALD: I like a proscenium arch… because that’s my little shoebox I can control exactly what you see.

PANYCH: When I was a kid, when I was 16 there was lots of good movies and I even worked in a movie theater, but I got a job as an usher in a [live] theater and nothing made me happier than watching those plays. Nothing made me more involved and so deeply affected by what I was watching. 

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