Ken MacDonald met Morris Panych at work more than 30 years ago. Set-designer MacDonald was toiling away in the props-and-costumes department of the Belfry theatre company in Victoria, BC, when a colleague began dishing about an up-and-coming actor who had been cast in the production they were working on.
“I looked over the balcony and said to my friend, ‘Oh, he looks good!’ MacDonald says. The “he” in question was, of course, Panych, fresh out of theatre school and still honing his acting chops.
“I was actually in a relationship at the time,” the designer confides. “But we became really best friends and just started hanging out. We just had great fun together, and yes, he was very sexy. I never expected that friendship to go there, but then we fell in love.”
For Panych, the meeting was also not what one could call love at first sight. As much as he enjoyed their friendship, the actor had no plans of a romantic nature with his best buddy Ken. But as the two spent more time together, and their affection deepened, it gave Panych much food for thought. And plenty of anxiety.
“I actually tried to get out of it at one point,” Panych chuckles. “I was scared and a little wary. I’m a very kind of devoted, domestic person, so I knew from the beginning that if this was the person I was going to be with, it couldn’t just be a short-term thing.
“It took about six or eight months to settle into it, but then we moved in together, and now look at what that relationship is. It’s every-thing, and it ended up being completely central to my life, so it was important to step into it slowly and carefully.”
Now a respected playwright and director, Panych has a provocative take on other contributing factors that may have been in play for him at the time.
“I think it’s a sad reality of a lot of gay people, that we always think there’s something better out there,” he says. “It’s a very important and mature steppingstone for a person in a relationship to have an acceptance of what they’ve chosen. So many get into their late 20s and wonder if this is it, if this is right.”
For Panych and MacDonald, three decades have passed and they’re still getting it right both personally and professionally. All of Panych’s plays feature set design by MacDonald, and the two rarely work apart. But what may sound like a recipe for disaster for many of us has proven a winning combination for these two.
“Ken’s usually the first person to see whatever I’m writing,” Panych says. “I always get him to read through my material, and sometimes when I’m really writing I get him to read it daily. But it usually involves lots of shoulder massages.”
It also means dinners spent discussing projects, like their current collaboration, The Amorous Adventures of Anatol at Tarragon Theatre. But the intersection of work and home life seems a natural and healthy reality for the duo.
“I love that our art is a major part of our lives,” MacDonald says. “We bounce stuff off each other, and when I’m watching a rehearsal with him I can whisper my thoughts in his ear.”
Work for the two necessitates a lot of travel and long hours, which has meant any small hopes for expanding their family were set aside to focus on each other and their careers. But Panych sounds a little whimsical when he ponders what might have been.
“It would have been nice to have some other little creature in life, whether it was human or otherwise,” he says. “But we travel too much and we stay up too late. Our life is what it is.”