My Old Friend John Hirsch

Old Hirsch Photo

Photo credit: John Hirsch in Winnipeg in the 1950s, courtesy of Robert Walters

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.

Robert Walters,
Richmond, BC


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