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Morris Panych returns to The Belfry, where his career began

Playwright Morris Panych is one of Canada’s top talents. One of the major springboards for his success? The Belfry Theatre, where he is among the most-produced playwrights in the company’s 46-year history.

VIGIL

Where: The Belfry Theatre, 1291 Gladstone Ave.
When: Nov. 17–Dec. 11 (live streaming Nov. 29-Dec. 4)
Tickets: Pay What You Can (suggested price $10.50-$57.75)

Morris Panych has been involved with more than 150 individual productions during his career, in a variety of capacities and mediums.

The Calgary-born, Edmonton-raised, Vancouver-shaped playwright, actor, director, and dramaturge is one of Canada’s top talents, twice winning the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, the highest honour for playwriting in Canada. One of the major springboards for his success? The Belfry Theatre, where he is among the most-produced playwrights in the company’s 46-year history.

Panych, 70, and his longtime partner/collaborator, Ken MacDonald, are back in Victoria this week for a re-mounting of Vigil, Panych’s celebrated two-hander about a self-centred man keeping watch on his dying aunt. MacDonald is in charge of sets and costumes for the production, which runs Nov. 17–Dec. 11. Panych has been one step removed, though being around The Belfry while the production is in progress has brought back waves of memories for the University of British Columbia graduate.

Not only is the Fernwood theatre where Vigil had its world première in 1995, The Belfry is also where Panych had his first professional gig as an actor, during a production of Spokesong in 1979. Other plays from Panych, including his adaptation of The Threepenny Opera (1996-97), Earshot (2003-04), Girl in the Goldfish Bowl (2005-06), The End of the Earth (2008-09), and The Trespassers (2010-11), have also been produced by The Belfry.

His work has also found a home at Langham Court Theatre, the Canadian College of Performing Arts, and Pacific Opera Victoria, among others. “Victoria is special,” Panych said.

“This is where Ken started his career as a set designer, and where I started my career as an actor [in Spokesong]. I was fired from that job twice, but I cried my way back into the part.”

The Belfry brass clearly saw something promising in the fledgling talent. During its 1982-83 season, the company co-produced Panych’s first play, Last Call — A Postnuclear Cabaret, which was later adapted for TV by the CBC. The company would go on to present two more Panych plays — The Cost of Living (1991-92), and his adaptation of Anatol (1992-93) — before signing to produce the première of Vigil during its 1995-96 season.

“It’s funny to revisit a play,” Panych said. “When you’re 27 years younger, the jokes you make about being old — [the old person] is you now. Ken and I were joking this morning about aches and pains. I’m actually at that age now where that happens.”

Panych and MacDonald are not the only collaborators revisiting Vigil in Victoria. It is being directed by Glynis Leyshon, who has been associated with the work since it was created, and Panych said she, too, noticed how it had “a whole different meaning” today, as opposed to 25 years ago. “It hit her in a completely different way.”

Panych said he last saw Vigil in Tokyo, where it was performed in Japanese. He said it was invaluable seeing how a foreign culture interpreted the black comedy, which finds the funny — and hypocrisy — in aging and death.

“Every culture has this issue, because people age. What do you do with them? We used to live in a culture where families all lived together, and older people had a share of that. But nowadays, nobody knows what to do. You’re on your own, it feels like.

“It’s kind of super relevant right now. It always has been, but because of what’s happened in the pandemic with the aging population, the play has taken on a resonance.”

mdevlin@timescolonist.com

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