Hirsch the Teacher and Taskmaster

In January and February, 1974 I was an acting student at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. I was in the last year of a three year program. I really cared about the craft of acting and worried that I just did not have what it takes to do the craft justice.

John Hirsch was a guest director for our third year production of Three Sisters. I still cannot believe the incredible good fortune this was for us. We were all young. There was talent in the class but there was not enough of life’s experience among us then to hope to do justice to the complicated social stultification the characters in the play inhabited. What we could do was grow as actors and that is where John Hirsch was a revelation.

I watched as he worked with my class and brought out the depths of passion seething under the surface but mostly unspoken in the words of the play. I personally could not get it for my character. I had the role of Chebutykin, the 60 year old army doctor, at first goofy and lovable, but whose incompetence is revealed as inexcusable, even to him – and then he has to get on with his life. In rehearsal I could not reach the dark place this soul really inhabited. But John pushed. I do not recall how. It was not abusive; it was just demanding of me more than I could give. I was not holding back. It just was not there in me to give to this character. Yet, John Hirsch kept demanding.

Then once into production, whatever that black soul that was needed to do this part, showed up in me on stage where it was needed. It would not have arrived but for the demands made by John on all of us to go deeper.

After that, with absolutely no regrets, I came to the conclusion that mucking around in one’s deepest emotions and fears that much in order to do the job as an actor was just not for me. I became a trial lawyer instead. It is a much easier profession than being an actor, believe me. But John Hirsch taught me what great acting demands. He taught me not just to recognize it but to understand what it takes out of an actor to get to greatness. He taught me why we have to cherish great theatre. He also taught me as an audience member to be constructively critical of productions that fall short of the work necessary to try to find the greatness of any show or character. That is why I will always be thankful for those 6 weeks with him and why I am so glad that Touchstone is doing this production.

Arthur Ross

Arthur Ross
Former Actor
Lawyer with Pryke Lambert Leathley Russell LLP

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