Morris Panych’s The Waiting Room
Morris Panych talks about his latest work, a theatrical interpretation of Spirit of the West’s album of the same name, itself inspired by group frontman John Mann’s struggle with cancer.
October 8, 2015
This article was originally featured in the October 2015 issue of Vancouver magazine.
How did this project come about? Did you approach John or vice versa?
John told me he had written an album of music about his journey with colorectal cancer. He asked if I was interested in doing a book around the music, and I didn’t hesitate to say yes, without even hearing the album. John and I go a long way back as collaborators—aside from working together on different theatre projects, we used to get together to show each other our new work. John would play new songs for Ken [MacDonald, Panych’s husband] and I, and I would get John and Jill [Baum, John’s wife] to read plays I had written out loud. It always involved some very good wine and a lot of lovely food. Probably the art was just an excuse for the food and wine, but it happened.
What was your initial reaction to the music?
While I am pretty familiar with John’s music, it always surprises me: the depth of his ideas, the shape of his melodies, the sincerity, tenderness. John is a poet, first of all, which is what makes him such a good theatre collaborator. His songs have stories, drama, character… I knew, as I listened, that the songs could inspire a book.
How did that evolve as you worked on the play?
I wanted to hear John’s story first-hand, so he came to visit me and stayed for a couple of days. We went through the main points of his cancer journey. He told many stories that aren’t in the songs. He gave me a very clear picture not only of the detail of his journey, but the emotional toll that it took on him—a toll that could only be exorcised by writing the album. Suddenly, the album made a great deal of sense, and it was this emotional impact that I knew I had to capitalize on in the book.
What was the biggest challenge of translating John’s album into a stage work in its own right?
The biggest challenge, in many respects, is the strength of John’s songwriting. The songs are so completely self-contained that it’s difficult to surround them with action and dialogue. Luckily, I have done other shows—the last of which was a translation of Robert W. Service lyrics into theatre—that gave me some clues how I might approach the album.
How closely did you collaborate with John?
In some respects I’m not a great collaborator. And John really writes his own stuff. So to put those two things together requires that we stay focused on what we both do best. The songs were already written when I started. I asked John to write one song, but I didn’t end up using it. It was actually easier to write the book around existing songs, because that kind of challenge has its own rewards, and sometimes the more you’re painted into a corner, artistically, the more creative you have to be.
You’ve directed musicals and operas. How did that experience help—or hinder—you?
It’s simply too early to tell. Principle rehearsals haven’t started, and rehearsals will reveal a lot about how we construct the show. We go into rehearsal with a general plan, but part of the excitement about new work is that the plan is malleable and that the process of preparation is a creative exercise.
Is there one track on the album that resonated or inspired you most deeply?
The a capella song that finishes the show, “Mice and Men,” is perhaps the most inspirational. It broadens the ideas of the whole piece and brings a man’s life into perspective. In other words, the battle for cancer is an opportunity for personal growth and experience, because life is really, always, a little bit about death.
Does the play deal with John’s early-onset Alzheimer’s?
To be clear, the piece is not about Alzheimer’s, which is John’s current battle, and presents us, in the creation of this piece, with a whole new set of challenges. But, that said, I ended up writing a play about forgetting and remembering as a result of my experience working with John on this piece. But The Waiting Room is a play about a man struggling with a cancer diagnosis. Perhaps there will be another album about Alzheimer’s, but you’ll have to ask John about that.
What do you hope people will feel after the performance?
I hope they feel inspired to go out and really live their lives. Life is so precious and short, one should value as much of it as they can, knowing that all struggles are living struggles and central to our existence as human beings.
The Waiting Room,
Oct. 1 to 31, Granville Island Stage