Do you know John Hirsch?

Following  the opening of HIRSCH, a play about Canadian theatre legend John Hirsch (1930 – 1989), we have been overwhelmed by the response to the show from people who knew or worked with Hirsch. Here are two more Hirsch stories that audience members have kindly shared with us.  

old-hirsch-photo (1)I met John Hirsch in Winnipeg when he was a student at the University of Manitoba, first as an undergraduate and then as a student for the M.A. in English.  Later he involved me in plays he directed, first in a small roll in AN ITALIAN STRAW HAT at Theatre 77, which was evolving from the Winnipeg Little Theatre on the way to becoming the Manitoba Theatre Centre.  After that he directed VOLPONE and devised a role for me and another person as two beggars who on stage throughout the play were observers of the decadent world of Ben Johnson’s play. We had no lines. At the end as the lights went down we were digging around in the filth the play suggested.  Both experiences, that is watching him direct and explain the meaning of the plays, helped me in teaching French Literature at the University. It was so rewarding to rehearse, see a play take shape, and then watch the performance from the wings, such a different experience from watching a play, suspending disbelief as part of an audience.  I also had a small part in OUR TOWN that he directed at Rainbow Stage in Kildonan Park. John and I were friends and I often was invited to Sunday dinner at the Shacks, the family that took him in when he arrived in Canada after World War II, with whom he lived as long as he was in Winnipeg.   In 1963 I moved on to the University of Western Ontario and John was in and out of nearby Stratford.  I saw him often.  On two occasions I remember being at the home of the Director of the Stratford Festival, which he had become, after performances with members of my family  The atmosphere was warm, the discussion lively.  Once he turned up at our home in London, Ontario with the actress Frances Hyland, and they spent the evening.  Once in Stratford in informed me that Air Canada was having a seat sale and told me I should take advantage of it and visit Winnipeg.  I could stay in his room at the Shacks’, which I did.  I saw for my self the heritage John Hirsch had left and the fruition of the professional Manitoba Theatre Centre. Of course he had left a heritage that went far beyond the Winnipeg we had known.
Photo credit: John Hirsch in Winnipeg in the 1950s, courtesy of Robert Walters

Robert Walters, Richmond, B.C
In the early 1980’s I attended a director’s workshop hosted by the Seattle Repertory Theatre. John Hirsch was leading one of the sessions. He was there to direct Our Town for the company. There were about 80 of us directors gathered in the theatre that morning for a session with John about how to direct crowd scenes.  In the morning papers was a scathing review of a play he has just directed at Stratford.  We were passing around the reviews from several papers, American and Canadian.  The dull roar of gossip in the room became hushed as John walked on to the stage.  He was carrying the same newspaper we were all reading.  It was an awkward moment, as we all knew, he knew, we knew. He started by saying the purpose of the workshop was how to direct crowd scenes, but he knew we were more interested in talking about the show he had just directed, and what had gone wrong.  He sat at the front of the stage and began to take us through the process he had been through.  He said that, as a director, you make your choices with your team, and you commit to them.  Then you enter the “dark Kim-Headshot-11tunnel” of rehearsal and creation, where you begin to doubt.  He said that he began to suspect that he was wrong on the path they had taken. But he had had that feeling before, and stuck to his path, and things had gone well in the end. That is the risk to you take.  To “change trains” in the dark tunnel, was to ensure mediocrity. That the real risk was to stick to your first instincts. You might have a great success or a gigantic failure.  He said that days before they opened, he knew it was going to be a disaster, but he had no regrets as he has stuck to his path. That he had gone through the “dark tunnel” and come out the other side. It was hard, but that was the only way to make great work. Those words have always stuck with me and served me well.  He then went on to lead a very lively and informative workshop on staging large crowd scenes, as if the review were water off a duck’s back. Also, something I learned a great deal from. He was larger than life.
Kim Selody
Artistic Director, Presentation House Theatre

Hirsch has just three more performances – Fri Feb 28, 8pm and Sat Mar 1 at 5pm & 9pm. Tickets are $15-30 and can be purchased online or by phone (604-689-0926).If you have a John Hirsch story you’d like to share, we’d love to hear from you. Email us ( and we’ll post it to our blog!


A game-changing encounter with Hirsch

As the opening of HIRSCH, a play about Canadian theatre legend John Hirsch (1930 – 1989), nears, we continue our series of blog posts featuring a series of Canadian theatre makers talking about the impact the great man had on their career.  

From Firehall Arts Centre Artistic Producer Donna Spencer

Donna Spencer

I remember my first vision of John Hirsch – the man we in the Vancouver theatre scene at that time, had heard so much about.  It was at a party after a closing night and he had been invited by Ray Michal, who was the Artistic Director of City Stage and the host of the party.  Ray had encountered John in Winnipeg and John was the person who had encouraged him to get involved in theatre and so he had – going back to school as an older student to study and eventually start his own company – the quixotic City Stage.  And there Mr. Hirsch was standing very tall (or so it seemed to me, a lowly house manager at the time) and very proud as the current head of CBC drama, drink in hand, talking passionately to a group gathered around him about the power of theatre.  I stood to the side and listened just as passionately.   This man was talking about what I felt – how did he know? He even spoke with his head tilted to one side as my drama teacher kept telling me not to do. I was wowed and at that moment believed everything I wanted to do in theatre was possible.

Alon Nashman as John HirschSo when he began working with Seattle Repertory Theatre and they announced him as lead speaker of their Director’s Conference and a bunch of us cobbled together enough cash to head south of the border and listen to him speak and watch as he guided actors through scenes. We sat on the edge of our seats, pens poised to capture the words of wisdom as they fell from his lips. He talked about our role as directors and Artistic Directors. He spoke of having vision and being daring, challenged us to use our work to make people think, to question the status quo and to tell good stories whether through using classical or original scripts. It was obvious he had a love of all kinds of performance, a passion for the power of the word and that he wanted to share this passion, this love for the theatre with all kinds of audiences.

And now, I am so proud to have the opportunity to share Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson’s HIRSCH with Vancouver audiences through our partnership with Touchstone Theatre and the Chutzpah Festival.  This production allows us all to take a small glimpse at the life of this incredible man who gave so much to Canadian theatre and radio drama and I applaud the creators.

Donna Spencer

Artistic Producer

Firehall Arts Centre

Hirsch is on at the Firehall Arts Centre Feb 25 – Mar 1. Tickets are $15-30 and can be purchased online or by phone (604-689-0926).

How Hirsch’s The Three Sisters Changed My Life

As the opening of HIRSCH, a play about Canadian theatre legend John Hirsch (1930 – 1989), nears, we continue our series of blog posts featuring a series of Canadian theatre makers talking about the impact the great man had on their career.  

How Hirsch’s The Three Sisters Changed My Life

Stephen Heatley

By Stephen Heatley, UBC Department of Theatre and Film

It was a Friday night in the summer of 1976 and two of my best friends and I were travelling from St. Catharines, Ontario to the Stratford Festival for the evening.  It was always exciting to make this quintessential Ontario summer pilgrimage to see the work of Canada’s best actors and directors.  I was two years out of my undergraduate and everything in the theatre was magic to me.  During that same Stratford era, I saw a very quirky and engaging A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which the whole thing was staged as if it were the dream of Gloriana, Sir Edmund Spencer’s version of Elizabeth I in his epic poem The Faerie Queen.  I also saw a mind-blowing version of Measure for Measure which has made me want to direct that play ever since.  It was as if director Robin Phillips had unearthed every possible question theatre-goers could have ever asked about this problematic play, and then answered them all so that the whole thing made total emotional sense, something I have never seen since!

But it was the trip to see John Hirsch’s production of The Three Sisters on September 10th that year that would change my theatrical life forever.

I guess for every theatre aficionado there is that one experience that cements their devotion to the live stage forever, and this Friday night was mine.  The show was playing at the Stratford second stage, the Avon, which is a 1000 seat proscenium house.  My recollection of the set is vague, just that it was very open as opposed to having walls – light and airy, as opposed to oppressive and “Russian”.  It was a star-studded cast – William Hutt as Chebutykin, Pat Galloway as Natasha, Alan Scarfe as Andre, Frank Maraden as Soliony, and the sisters were played by the glorious trio of Marti Maraden, Maggie Smith and Martha Henry.  What was so vital to me about that experience was that I had been told about Chekhov’s importance as a playwright.  I had studied him in “theatre history” and didn’t get it at all.  We had done a workshop version of act four of The Cherry Orchard as a performance lab project in 3rd year – still didn’t get it.  I had seen The Three Sisters in Toronto in 1973, I had performed in The Seagull in my 4th year at Brock University under the keen direction of Peter Boretski, but it wasn’t until September 10, 1976 that I got it.  I really got it.  So what happened?  Well, we fell in love with those characters that night.  When William Hutt threw that clock on the floor in act two, it was as if his whole life and ours were shattering.  In act three, when Masha was confessing to her sisters that she was in love with a married man and Olga told her she couldn’t/wouldn’t hear of it and the three sisters cracked up under the pressure of the evening’s events, we all were swept up in their hysterical laughter and we laughed along  with them (and cried, more than a little bit).  When that first lone leaf drifted from the sky early in act four, followed by another and then another until the whole sky was falling, we wept along with the sky for the loss that the sisters and the town and Vershinin were about to experience.  And when the shot that killed Baron Tuzenbach rang out off stage, it was as if it hit each of us in the heart.

John Hirsch, image Winnipeg Free PressBeing a recently graduated theatre student who knew everything, I had big opinions about standing ovations.  They were to be saved for only the most auspicious of theatre events.  As far as I was concerned, audiences stood far too often for things of trifling theatrical value.  Not me.   Standing was only for the undeniable best!  On the night of September 10, (actually, by then, the morning of September 11), I didn’t stop for even a heartbeat to consider whether to stand.  It was as automatic as standing for royalty.  And I would have stayed all night to know more about these women, their family, the town, that regiment.  I’d have stayed for acts five and six and seven had they existed.

I thought I had unequivocally found my muse in John Hirsch.  A year or so later, I went to see his production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum at Toronto Arts Productions expecting to experience the holy grail again.  I’ll confess I was a little disappointed that evening.  But it just underlined for me that none of us can produce gold every time; that any of us can be inspired directors at times, and at times direct like a workman.  But no number of evenings of theatrical disappointment will ever diminish the absolute thrill of Hirsch’s 1976 production of The Three Sisters.  Every time I go to the theatre, I know I am searching for the same hit as that night.  It was transcendent.

Stephen Heatley
Coordinator of the MFA Directing Program
UBC Department of Theatre and Film

Hirsch is on at the Firehall Arts Centre Feb 25 – Mar 1. Tickets are $15-30 and can be purchased online or by phone (604-689-0926).

Hirsch and CBC Drama

This month at the Firehall, we have the privilege of presenting HIRSCH, a show about Canadian theatre legend John Hirsch (1930 – 1989). This one-man play starring Toronto’s Alon Nashman and directed by Paul Thompson is truly an ode to Canadian theatre and Hungarian refugee Hirsch’s prolific theatrical achievements. In the lead up to the show (runs Feb 25 – Mar 1), we celebrate his legacy, talking to a series of Canadian theatre makers about how they have stood on the shoulders of this theatre giant. 

Stuart Aikins on Hirsch

stuart aikinsIt was the early 70’s and I had returned from Temple University with a brand new Masters in Directing, looking to storm the Canadian theatre scene in Toronto. All I could find was small work at Studio Lab Theatre working on Dionysus in ’69. I had heard about John Hirsch out of Winnipeg taking over the CBC Drama Department so I sent him a note asking for an interview. His right hand at the time, Murielle Sharron, sent me a reply and I talked to both of them. In retrospect, I was a complete unknown and they took a meeting. Must have been the 70’s as that never happens today.  John was very gracious and knew everyone I had worked with in the US and was most interested in my experience running Williamstown Summer Theatre School, a summer rep that often acted as a jumping-off point for many off Broadway ventures, run by Nikos Psacharopoulos.

John Hirsch (Courtesy Cinematheque)
John Hirsch (Courtesy Cinematheque)

John recognized the need to develop Canadian Artistic Directors in TV drama as much of the work was being brought in from England. Those were the days we did live studio dramas with multiple cameras. He asked me to help develop a training program for those Canadian directors much like National Playwrights Conference at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. I suggested we contact Lloyd Richards who ran it and he was happy to come up and help set up such a program in Toronto.  John always knew there was plenty of training in the technical side of TV drama but none in the dramatic side so Lloyd and I began our work. John also saw that classic plays done in a studio were not the future of TV drama so he brought in Ralph Thomas to create the then-never-heard-of Movie of the Week.  We took local stories from the newspaper and developed them into scripts that aired in a 90 minute slot. I think it changed the landscape of TV drama across North America.

John was always a visionary and brought the richness of his theatre experience into a new visual age and without his expertise and understanding, there would have never been a successful CBC Drama division. Also, I cannot imaging where I would be today after 35 years as a Casting Director, if it wasn’t for John and Murielle taking a chance on a young 23 year old.

Stuart Aikins
Chair, School of Performing Arts
Capilano University

Hirsch is on at the Firehall Arts Centre Feb 25 – Mar 1. Tickets are $15-30 and can be purchased online or by phone (604-689-0926).

Hirsch’s Gift To Future Generations of Directors

This month at the Firehall, we have the privilege of presenting HIRSCH, a show about Canadian theatre legend John Hirsch (1930 – 1989). This one-man play starring Toronto’s Alon Nashman and directed by Paul Thompson is truly an ode to Canadian theatre and Hungarian refugee Hirsch’s prolific theatrical achievements. In the lead up to the show (runs Feb 25 – Mar 1), we celebrate his legacy, talking to a series of Canadian theatre makers about how they have stood on the shoulders of this theatre giant. Katrina Dunn who is Artistic Director, Touchstone Theatre kicks the first post.

Hirsch’s Gift To Future Generations of Directors

Katrina Dunn
Katrina Dunn

I never met John Hirsch or saw any of his plays.  I’m also convinced that the Canadian theatre community does a pretty poor job of chronicling, learning and respecting our own history, even though it is fabulous and full of amazing stories and individuals.  So I first found out about John Hirsch when I was a much younger director, though the Canada Council’s John Hirsch Prize.  On his death in 1989, John Hirsch left a bequest to the Canada Council for the Arts to assist and encourage Canadian directors. The John Hirsch Prize is a tribute to the extraordinary contribution Mr. Hirsch made to theatre in Canada, most notably as founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, head of television drama for the CBC and artistic director of the Stratford Festival. The Prize was created in 1995 to recognize new and developing theatre directors who have demonstrated great potential for future excellence and exciting artistic vision. Two $6,000 prizes are awarded every two years, one for each of the Anglophone and Francophone theatre communities.  You can find out more about it here.

The Ontario Arts Council also has a similar program – The John Hirsch Director’s Award.

In 2012 Toronto director Christopher Morris won the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize. Those that saw Touchstone Theatre’s co-presentation of Night at the PuSh Festival will know Morris’ work and his daring investigation of uncharted communities and issues.  Finding out about Hirsch through the legacy of this Prize has forever connected his name with the cause of young directors in Canada, and with the many brilliant artists who have been recognized and encouraged by the award.

Katrina Dunn, Touchstone Theatre

Alon Nashman  next to the statue of John Hirsch in front of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, image from Winnipeg Free Press
Alon Nashman next to the statue of John Hirsch in front of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, image: Winnipeg Free Press

Creator of Hirsch, Alon Nashman, agrees with Katrina that many young directors who are awarded the John Hirsch Prize are unaware of his legacy. He recently told the Winnipeg Free Press: “Unfortunately, in Canada there is an amnesia,” says Nashman, “We don’t acknowledge our heroes. Many people who are up for his award don’t know who he is and what he did.” (read full article here).

Hopefully this play will help change that! Get a sneak peek of Hirsch with Touchstone Theatre’s short preview video below. Hirsch is on at the Firehall Arts Centre Feb 25 – Mar 1. Tickets are $15-30 and can be purchased online or by phone (604-689-0926).


BC Buds Spring Arts Festival

BC BUDS Poster_Firehall

The Firehall Arts Centre’s BC Buds Spring Arts Festival returns for another jam-packed year. Over thirty different music, theatre, dance, interdisciplinary artists and everything in between take over the every conceivable nook and cranny of the Firehall, turning it into a giant arts factory for three days of inventive and innovative live site-specific performances from emerging and established BC artists. This year’s BC Buds explores the theme of Myth, Magic & Mystery.

All performances are by donation. All ages.

Full line up will be posted by mid April.

*ARTIST applications for BC Buds from Performing Arts are now closed.

**VISUAL artist applications are now open (deadline is April 4, 2014). See the infosheet for more details: BC BUDS 2014 VisualArt Application