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The dish on hard work

Panych play plumbs the humility of toiling for a living

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The lot of the dishwasher has been pondered by no less a literary figure than George Orwell, who examined the life of the Parisian "plongeur" in his 1933 memoir Down and Out in Paris and London. Orwell concluded, distressingly: "A plongeur is a slave, and a wasted slave, doing stupid and largely unnecessary work."

Playwright Morris Panych begs to differ.

Panych, 60, is an actor, director and playwright who has worked in the Canadian theatre scene for more than three decades. His play The Dishwashers, now playing at the Prairie Theatre Exchange, is contemporary (and thus far removed from the 80-hours-a-week horror of Orwell's plongeurs) in its meditation on the value of work.

Panych had some restaurant experience.

"I was a busboy and I was certainly a waiter but I was never a dishwasher," he says, emphasizing his play's inspiration came from elsewhere.

"It sprung from my experience working in my father's machine shop, because there was pretty awful manual labour that had to be done... the same repetitive action for eight hours, working on a surface grinder, for example," he says on the phone from his home in Toronto.

The dishwasher, for Panych, was simply "the job that requires the most humility.

"My basic idea was this notion among some people that the world owes them a living."

His central character is Emmett (Rylan Wilkie), a financial high-roller brought low by an economic downturn. He ends up working in the kitchen of a pricey restaurant he used to frequent as a customer.

"When the play begins, this man has lost everything in the financial crash, he's gone down to the bottom and he has to have work. So this is the only job he can get."

For the Calgary-born Panych, this comedown addresses changes in attitude towards what used to be called "honest work."

"You've got people out there who think they should be instant celebrities or instant successes without actually putting in the time," he says.

"Attitudes have changed in the last few years so a lot of people don't see good hard work as the road to anything.

"I thought dishwashing was the perfect kind of a job for what this young man has to go through," Panych says. "I wanted to put him into a situation where he had to find himself through the humility of his work."

The play is being billed as "a comedy for recessionary times" but Panych actually wrote it in 2004.

"And the crash didn't come till 2008," he says. "I won't say it was prophetic, because the writing was on the wall anyway.

"I was kind of responding to what I was seeing around me: a world in which people feel they don't have to put in the work. We have an entire economy based on the idea that people are living on credit, on time, on their own imagination and their own desire to have something, rather than the actual work they've done.

"I know in my own profession, I run into people all the time in theatre who think they should just be famous and be on the stage without putting in the apprenticeship hours or the time it takes to learn a craft or anything like that," he says.

The realm of reality TV doesn't help when it comes to widespread unwarranted entitlement. The mere mention of that particular cultural phenomenon sends Panych into a froth.

"Who the f are the Kardashians? What have they actually given the world? Nothing! Absolutely zero!" he says. "They're just sucking the world dry. They can't even sing! They can't do anything!

"Or you see these people who are contestants on American Idol, which I find a fascinating social study. People arrive assuming they should be a star at 15 years old. Where do you get that attitude? Where do you get the notion that you should be rich and famous right out of the gate with no work involved, no effort and no entertaining the possibility that you're just not that good?"

"Work can be tedious and time-consuming, but there's something soulful one finds just in manual work," he says.

"I know that sounds a little rich coming from some guy who writes plays," Panych admits.

"But I think we all know that, on some level, that there is great honour in work," he says. "I learned that from my father."

The published version of the play contains the dedication:

"The Dishwashers is dedicated to my father, Peter Panych; a hard-working and decent man -- one of the millions quietly, unobtrusively, keeping the wheels turning."

The Dishwashers starts Thursday, Jan. 24, at 8 p.m. at the Prairie Theatre Exchange and runs until Sunday, Feb. 10. There are no shows Monday. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Tuesdays and on Sunday, Feb. 3. Sunday matinees start at 2 p.m. in addition to 3 p.m. matinees Saturday, Jan. 26 and Feb. 9. Tickets are $25 to $47 at the PTE box office, 3rd Floor Portage Place, at 204-942-5483 or online at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 24, 2013 C7


Updated on Friday, January 25, 2013 at 10:37 AM CST: replaces photos

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