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John Hirsch

Jane Enkin

Theatre Community Gathers For MTC's Celebration of The Life and Times of John Hirsch -Book Launch of A Fiery Soul

Jane Enkin, February 12, 2012


A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson (Vehicule Press 382 pg. $22.00)

Hirsch Created and conceived by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson
directed by Paul Thompson
June 20 to September 14, 2012    Opens July 12
Studio Theatre      Stratford Shakespeare Festival


On January 29, 2012, members of the Winnipeg theatre community gathered to celebrate director John Hirsch and welcome the new book about his life and work, A Fiery Soul, The Life and Times of John Hirsch. (There are several reviews of the biography available in print and online, and the Winnipeg Free Press ran an excerpt on January 28.)


At the Winnipeg book launch, hosted by Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre director Steven Schipper at the Tom Hendry Warehouse, the co-authors spoke about their different approaches to their research. Fraidie Martz dug through archives – Hirsch himself kept many papers throughout his life and donated to the National Archives in Ottawa items as diverse as his undergraduate essays and multiple copies of scripts from the height of his career. Andrew Wilson interviewed people who knew Hirsch. Stories poured out from his interview subjects, and even more were told at the launch.


Hirsch was born in Hungary in 1930. As a little Jewish boy he was fascinated by the glamour of the Catholic church, and although he was never allowed to set foot in one of their buildings, he recreated the splendour in puppet shows in his own room. An orphaned survivor, he was adopted by the Shack family in the North End of Winnipeg, and kept a life-long connection to them. Why Winnipeg? It was the middle of the country, and the middle is always the safest. But Hirsch also challenged the dominance of established views of North American culture. Winnipeg was the centre of the continent – so why shouldn't it be the centre of everything else? He went on to contribute a great deal to Winnipeg, in ways that rippled far beyond our city – he established the first regional professional theatre in Canada, creating a model for theatres across the continent. He developed actors and treated them as professionals. He considered theatre for child and family audiences crucial. “Theatre is as important as libraries and sewer systems to a city,” quoted Steven Schipper.


Hirsch left Winnipeg and went on to success in New York, the Stratford Festival and CBC television. I was lucky to see his deeply moving production of the Three Sisters by Chekhov in Stratford.


While a list of Hirsch's achievements can make him sound like an idol, stories about him bring out character traits both terrifying and warm, off-putting and encouraging. Wilson was inspired when he asked designer Mark Negan about Hirsch: “ He was a monster! But I loved him – what would you like to know?”


Seana McKenna, visiting to star in Shaw's Mrs. Warren's Profession, told the launch audience about her first audition for Hirsch. She presented her Shakespeare monologue and he asked, “What is it you want to do?” She told him she wanted revenge, “to hurt him as he hurt me.” He gave her a wooden hanger and told her to hit a chair as she spoke. “By the end, the chair was on its side, the hanger was in pieces, I was panting and flushed with a throbbing heart. 'Good', said Hirsch, 'Now that's where you start.'”


At a certain point, Martz and Wilson had their “Robinson Crusoe foot-print in the sand moment” -- they discovered that someone else was researching Hirsch's life. Actor Alon Nashman and director Paul Thompson, famous for his work with Theatre Passe Muraille in Toronto, are developing a one-man play about Hirsch to debut at the Stratford Festival this summer. The two teams of researchers found ways to collaborate and share information.


After Schipper, Martz and Wilson spoke, Nashman appeared in character as Hirsch. He addressed Winnipeg listeners in 1954, stressing the growth that would come from treating theatre people as professionals. “People act for fun. I hate the word fun in this context. Creation is as hard as digging ditches...This is not a dream, at least not the kind that could never come true.”


Actor Terri Cherniak said Nashman captured Hirsch's voice, his gestures and his presence. Visiting Stratford actor Stephen Russell was reminded of even more stories. “He came to my dressing room and said 'I don't understand women!' 'And you think the Three Sisters is a good choice?'” Putdowns came rapid-fire during rehearsals. To three prominent Canadian actors in a row: “You're speaking to a person, not a camera! You're a Michelin man, all puff! And you – you're Wonderbread!” Once the cafeteria cook was making borscht. Hirsch sent her away and took over the kitchen. One and ½ hours of precious rehearsal time later, he emerged, pronouncing, “Now this is borscht!”


Many stories are in the book, many will be in the play, and even more remain in the memories of Winnipegers, theatre professionals and theatre lovers.


Who know what stories will emerge when audiences hear Nashman as Hirsch on stage. Fraidie Martz pointed out Hirsch's deep-seated love for his adopted city, his true Canadian home. We deserve to see this play here, where Hirsch formed so many of his ideas and began to reach for his ideals. As director Paul Thompson says, “This play won't be complete until it's played for a Winnipeg audience.”


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