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).