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).