‘John Hirsch was a colossus whose shadow looms over the culture of Canada. But we forget out heroes,” laments Alon Nashman, whose one-man play about the great theater director has impressed critics and audiences alike in Canada and abroad.
Indeed, if you were to go up to average Canadians on the street and ask them who Hirsch was, few — if any — would know. They would be unaware that Hirsch founded and shaped major Canadian theater companies. They would have no idea he did this having arrived in Canada in 1947 as a 17-year-old with no English, let alone that he was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the war.
Even theater critics like the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood admit to having been in the dark about this great Canadian cultural figure until Nashman, 54, created the play with director Paul Thompson and Nashman took to the stage as the title character. “But an interest in the workings of theater — and the often unbridled passions of the men and women who work backstage to bring it to life — is all that is really required to enjoy Mr. Nashman and Mr. Thompson’s tribute to an artist whose work they revere, and a man whose demons they depict with clear eyes but sympathetic hearts,” Isherwood wrote.
Having originated at the Stratford Festival in 2012, the play “Hirsch” also ran this August for 25 performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There are plans to bring it this coming season to Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg, the home of the Manitoba Theatre Center, Canada’s oldest English-language regional theater — which Hirsch himself co-founded in 1958.
“The show is striking a deep nerve with those who love theater,” Nashman notes in a phone interview with The Times of Israel following a performance in Edinburgh last month.
The Toronto-based Jewish actor sounded tired. “I am so exhausted from it. The one-and-a-half hours of ‘Hirsch’ is like nothing I have ever done before,” he says. “It’s exhausting on the physical, emotional and psychic levels. It’s like coming home from a funeral after experiencing his loss of his family, his loss of trust of his board, his loss of energy, and ultimately the loss of his own life.” Hirsch died of AIDS-related illness in 1989.
Hirsch had “A Fiery Soul,” as the title of a 2012 biography of the theater director tells us, and not everyone went in for his habitually blustery, bullying style. There were those who directly told Nashman and Thompson so in interviews they conducted as part of their extensive research before creating the play through improvisation.
“We had audiences with distinguished people who regaled us with stories of Hirsch. Some people we interviewed were protective of themselves and John, some wanted to preserve a positive image of him, and others had an axe to grind,” Nashman recalls. “We had to negotiate all of this.”
In an effort to get to know the tempestuous genius he would play on stage, Nashman, who had been inspired by, but had not personally known Hirsch, went to many of the places associated with the theater director’s life, including Hungary, Israel (he directed at the Habimah Theatre in 1970), New York, Winnipeg, Toronto, Ottawa and Stratford.
The play’s creators combed through archives, finding a 1965 documentary film about Hirsch, as well as radio and TV interviews with him. They discovered that actors would record his talks on the first day of rehearsals.
“I was able to learn his way of speaking and moving, and I mimicked it,” Nashman explains. “I’ve been told it has been like a séance for those in the audience who actually knew him.”
Nashman also uncovered documentary evidence of Hirsch’s refugee status and his time in Displaced Persons camps before being taken in by the Shack family in Winnipeg through the War Orphans Project of the Canadian Jewish Congress.
For Hirsch, coming to Canada was all about the freedom to take the love of theater he learned as a child in Europe, and to use it as a jumping off point to recreate himself.
Nashman is quick to note that this recreation did not mean an abandonment of his Jewishness. “He’s a man who lived a life marked by his Jewishness. He suffered for it, but he never denied it,” Nashman says.
“He had a complex relationship with Judaism, but he was unabashedly Jewish. Some people called him their ‘rabbi, ’ as they would turn to him for advice because of his incisive and insightful mind.”
Nashman claims to have been drawn in to the theater world by Hirsch’s mid-1970’s adaptation of “The Dybbuk,” the Yiddish ghost story by S. Asnky.
“You bring us the most exotic, erotic production of that play imaginable, at least to me.” Nashman says while onstage for a period as himself, directing his remarks to Hirsch. “…The swirl of Hasidic dancing, the shroud of impenetrable mystery, the horror. You drew me in, in to the story, in to the theater, in to its capacity to seemingly go beyond human possibility.”
“As an impressionable 15-year-old, I was impressed…and haunted. There on stage was my grandfather and my family rituals. My story. Your story. And our abyss,” he tells Hirsch.
“Hirsch” audiences are only now discovering what Nashman and other theater people have known for decades. “There was a fire about him. He believed in the importance of theater, and that when it is in dialogue with the audience it can achieve something,” says Christopher Morris, winner of the 2012 Canada Council for the Arts’ John Hirsch Prize for emerging theater directors.
Morris, as artistic director of his Human Cargo theater company, brings together theater artists from different cultural backgrounds to create original, multi-cultural productions, with the intention of instigating political and social change. “I’m interested in international collaborations and finding the Canadian story in that.”
Contrastingly, Hirsch was more focused on the retelling and interpreting of existing works by non-Canadian writers. “But Hirsch was very outspoken and carved his own path, and I can strongly identify with that,” Morris says.
Nashman points out that Hirsch actually encouraged Canadian novelists to write plays. “He was a prime mover when it came to Canadian theater,” the actor says. “But his support of Canadian culture transcended any particular discipline because he wanted our stories to be told.”
“He came to Canada at 17 by accident, but he ended up adopting and championing Canadian culture more than those of us who are native-born,” the actor reflects. “He was a zealot for Canada.”