John Hirsch is a monolith in Canadian theatre. A co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, he started an establishment that would be a standard-bearer for many regional theatres across North America. Additionally, he was a reputed director, notably serving as the head of television drama with CBC and also as the artistic director for the Stratford festival. However, for all his accomplishments, much like everything cultural that stays in Canada, not many people, including Canadians, have actually heard of him before.
Until recently. Hirsch, which debuted at the 2012 Stratford Festival, is a one-man biographical show which helps to shed light on the character that helped to shape Canadian drama. Performed by Alon Nashman, Hirsch is a collection of vignettes of the life of the title subject. Dramatic, witty, and always active, Nashman brings you into his universe, where he acts both as storyteller and dramatic actor, spinning a tale which recaptures the greatness and humanity of a man who was at turns honored, feared and reviled in acting circles.
(Hirsch, promo video)
The show begins at the end, quite literally, depicting Hirsch on his deathbed. Giving us an initial picture of a man who is world-weary and ready to give up, it also captures his fighting spirit, most notably in humorously snapping at the artless monotony of the rhythmic beeping of a heart monitor. What, we ask, could have created a man who, at the end of his life, could still be so intelligent yet stupid, wise yet immature, harsh realist yet fantastic dreamer?
Cue the next scenes, which recall Hirsch’s birth into the Jewish community of 1930s Hungary. From the start we get the sense that Hirsch was destined to be an artist as Nashman manages to weave a coherent narrative while playing at various turns, Hirsch, his loving parents, and his passionate, temperamental grandparents. All that changes, however, with the pending Nazi invasion and Holocaust, where Hirsch is then the only surviving member of his direct family. While the Holocaust itself is retold only through a simple tale about a game Nashman’s daughter plays with her friends, it does not serve to diminish the severity of what happened; rather, it magnifies it, as the audience comes to the realization of what happened on its own.
An orphan at thirteen, Hirsch’s strife is vividly recalled in his scrambling to find food, shelter and a home to call his own. However, through the hopelessness his natural pluck shines through, with turns of wry observation leading to darkly comic moments. Through the tension we see Hirsch’s survivor mentality develop. Having a goal to live his life at every moment, later events are thus framed alongside such resilience as he starts anew in Canada, building his artistic visions one step at a time with his own hands. At the same time, we also see his paranoia and unease which plays itself up when he fights with the CBC and various theatre companies that he routinely struggles with. Additionally, what comes through is his need to maintain a distance and keep him safe, which ends up distancing himself from the staff he works with, from the students who idolize him, and even from famous actors to whom he provided mentorship.
Through Nashman’s sensitive re-enactment, we see Hirsch in many lights: as a survivor, a genius, a romantic. We also see him as a bully, a dictator, and as insensitive. Even as Nashman depicts Hirsch so artfully, he transitions effortlessly between the temperamental director and himself, an actor who also got caught up in one of the creator’s many maelstroms. Nashman acts, but doesn’t give us the feeling of him acting – rather, he becomes the story that he tells, and draws us into the contradictions and the emotions that form the core of the play.
Most importantly, Nashman gives us a real sense that while Hirsch could easily plan out a play or even a whole theatre department, he was always struggling to define himself. The lost boy that wandered Hungary as an orphan just wanted to be found. In a telling episode from a vacation in the Dominican Republic, we can see Hirsch, as a titan in the theatre world, still struggling to come to terms with the loss of his parents, with the loss of his childhood. That he still struggled to find those stars in the night that he was forced to paint over in his childhood synagogue at gunpoint.
Hirsch, as such, gives us a very real portrait of the life of John Hirsch – not a vilification, nor a beautifying, but just simply, the life of a fascinating man. It is also a flawlessly executed vehicle – props are sparing and minimal, but Nashman imbues each with special meaning as he tells his tale. The space is stark and empty, but Nashman grows and shrinks, in turn, as the roles dictate. Through his masterful domination of the stage, he ensures that all eyes are fixed on him through the whole ninety minutes.
In retrospect, it is striking that little to no reference is made to the Shacks, the Winnipeg family who adopted Hirsch when he moved to Canada, the people that he maintained close ties with through his life. Surely, one thinks, maybe Hirsch was able to identify with them? But then, perhaps not – after all, he had the option to board the Exodus and move to Israel, but instead chose to come to Canada. This was a man who was looking to forge something new for himself, rather than something old.
However, as Hirsch elegantly tells us, no matter what, your past is who you are.
A scene from the RMTC production Hirsch is as follows:
Hirsch is on at the Firehall Arts Centre until March 1. Details can be found at http://firehallartscentre.ca/onstage/hirsch/.
The 2014 Chutzpah! Festival’s website can be found at http://chutzpahfestival.com/.