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.
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 tunnel” 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.
It was the early 70’s and I had returned from Temple University with a brand new Masters in Directing, looking to storm the Canadian theater 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 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 studios 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.
School of Performing Arts
On February 5th Touchstone’s goPLAY Youth Theatre Club took in Pacific Theatre and Honest Fishmonger’s production of Measure for Measure. Afterwards, a bunch of the cast joined us in the lobby to talk about some of the exciting issues around interpreting Shakespeare that the production brought up. This production employed unconventional rhythmic delivery of the text and overlapping dialogue, giving the language a very contemporary feel. The actors talked us through some of the experimenting they did, including workshopping parts of the show in open rehearsals in the downtown eastside. Of special interest to the goPLAY youth were the tension between integrity and manipulation in the show, and how the actors made choices about what to reveal in their characters.
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.
Being 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.
Coordinator of the MFA Directing Program
UBC Department of Theatre and Film
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.
Lawyer with Pryke Lambert Leathley Russell LLP
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, through 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.
Touchstone collaborated with the PuSh Festival, Full Circle First Nations Performance and the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance to present a panel discussion in conjunction with our presentation of Night with PuSh. The discussion was looking to map the changing landscape of producing and presenting Aboriginal performing arts in Canada. Led by artist and curator Chris Creighton-Kelly, the event began with his contextualization of contemporary Aboriginal performing arts in Canada to this point. Panelist Margo Kane, Diane Roberts and Lori Marchand took the audience through their range of their experience – working in the community, in the margins of the professional arts scene, and in the mainstream. After discussion of the many obstacles facing Aboriginal artists and producers, the panel looked forward to some big ideas (a National Aboriginal Performing Arts Centre – why not!) and hopes for more integrated and authentic ways of partnering with a multiplicity of organizations. Amazing stories were shared by both panelists and audience members, and avenues for further discussion are being sought. Thanks to the really engaged group of audience members that joined us (on a lovely sunny Saturday morning) to be a part of this event.
Canadian plays should run the gamut of our country’s experience, but so often they are confined to specific cultural groups in a few urban centres. What I love about Human Cargo’s Night is that it takes us north – FAR north – into Canadian spaces that many of us have little experience of. The company’s process is extreme – they invest in their subjects by living in, with and for the people they are profiling, and it results in a product with a depth and integrity rarely found in this bio/geo/graphic style of work. Their company vision is unabashedly agit-prop: “The effect of Human Cargo’s theatre is overt. We want to instigate social and political change”, but the style if the work is something more haunting, more deeply human.”
Night tells the story of a Torontonian museum worker who, at the request of an individual in a northern community, has taken it upon herself to return something of value to that community. Her effort is an attempt to reconcile a historical crime, but her naivety results in a series of culture shocks that call into question her entire project and, by extension, the reconciliation efforts of other southerners. What began as an exploration of life in 24 hour darkness has finished as a complex and penetrating look at our relationship with our North.
Building on the tough questions Night asks, PuSh, Touchstone, Full Circle First Nations Performance and the Indigenous Performing Arts Alliance are presenting a Panel Discussion mapping the changing landscape of producing and presenting Aboriginal Performing Arts in Canada. Titled “Into New Territory” the panel will take place at 11am on Saturday January 25th Roundhouse Community Arts & Recreation Centre. Join leading Aboriginal artists and some of Canada’s key presenters and producers for a consideration of some new inroads for Aboriginal performing artists, and how producing and touring organizations can work together to foster best practices in the face of change.
Find full info about Night including ticket info here.