Morris Panych and John Mann have been friends for almost three decades. In fact, Panych remembers the very night his friend Jill Daum spotted Mann and declared he was the one.
“She kind of earmarked John as her property before he knew it,” Panych recalls with a laugh, over the phone. “We saw him at the Arts Club and she was like, ‘That’s the guy I’m gonna get.’ We were like, ‘Okay, go for it.’ I thought he was gay. We go back that far.”
Their friendship was easy and supportive. Whenever Panych wrote a new play, he and his partner, Ken Macdonald, would go over to Mann’s and Daum’s house. A bottle of wine, a reading, and Mann, the lead singer of Spirit of the West and an actor, would play new songs. Panych and Mann collaborated frequently, but their new project, The Waiting Room, a play with music, which opens at the Arts Club’s Granville Island Stage on Wednesday (October 7), is a labour of love and deeply personal—particularly to Mann. It’s inspired by his 2009 battle with colorectal cancer, an experience he chronicled from beginning to end in a collection of songs.
“For me, writing songs is very therapeutic,” Mann tells the Straight via email, a form of communication he finds easier this day, for reasons we’ll explain below. “These songs just kept coming. I was always joking that I was writing an album of chart-bustin’ cancer anthems.”
The Arts Club commissioned him to create a solo show and Mann kept writing songs but the script eluded him, so he called Panych, who was now living in Toronto.
“He came out and he would try to tell me the story of his colorectal cancer, and it was evident that he was having trouble remembering and even recalling what he’d said a couple of hours before,” Panych recalls. “I just thought it was kind of, like, dozy, stoned—rock-star stuff.”
Finally, Daum called from Vancouver to tell him: Mann had early-onset Alzheimer’s disease.
“Everything changed after that,” Panych says. Daum flew out to help piece together the narrative. Mann had completed 90 percent of the songs before his diagnosis, and there was a certain chronology inherent in them. Panych also wanted to keep the focus on Mann’s cancer journey without bringing the Alzheimer’s into the narrative. The result is a refreshingly candid and at times blisteringly funny exploration of cancer.
“Morris has taken some of my situations and turned them into very funny scenes,” Mann writes. “Like Jim the zealot who wandered around praying for everybody, a surgeon with zero people skills, and also how cancer deeply affects you. You don’t go back to how you were before. It alters you.”
“Cancer is a source of fear almost exclusively,” Panych says. “I know it sounds kind of flaky, but the play is trying to open up the idea that cancer is part of who we are as human beings. Not just a source of fear, but courage and bravery and challenges—the way life is.”
Panych originally wanted Mann to star in the lead role, but that proved impossible with the Alzheimer’s. But Mann is on-stage, singing all of his songs throughout the show, and his presence is powerful.
“It’s very tricky for him right now to perform the songs in the show,” Panych says. “He’s got a lot of help. But he sometimes has lapses, even with the iPad [he uses for lyrics], he’s not really sure where he is. It’s kind of an ongoing situation, it just changes all the time.…We don’t know how quickly and seriously his condition will develop, but our fingers are crossed John can make it through the run.”
“Being on-stage singing these songs is an incredible experience. It’s the culmination of a career, my theatre work melding with my music,” Mann writes. “Working on this show has been a love fest. We are all aware that this is a special opportunity. We’re squeezing everything we can from it and giving it all we’ve got.”
It’s a bittersweet time for everybody involved, and every performance feels like a once-in-a-lifetime chance, which is also, in many ways, the point of the play.
“Morris has written a beautiful and very funny show,” Mann writes. “Two of the big nuggets of wisdom I carry with me from his script are: ‘The people who love us suffer with us and that’s part of the joy of loving.’ That we shouldn’t try and protect people we love from our pain. Also that ‘We’re all afraid of what’s going to happen but it happens anyway.’ There’s no reason for it and we shouldn’t look for one. We should live each day and not wait for life to happen.”
“Even from the beginning, I was like, I just wanna have a good time,” Panych says. “I just want to surround myself with people that I love and make this a great thing for John and make it something that he cherishes and it feels right and honours him and his music. Not to get maudlin about it, but that has made it much more meaningful than a normal rehearsal. This is very special.”
The Arts Club’s The Waiting Room runs until October 31 at the Granville Island Stage.