National Arts Centre: One actor’s tribute to the legend of theatre artist John Hirsch

Alon Nashman as John Hirsch. Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann

The Canadian actor Alon Nashman will appear this evening in an event that celebrates the life and legacy of the theatre artist John Hirsch, who died in 1989, at the National Arts Centre. Hirsch is a significant figure in the development of modern Canadian theatre starting in Manitoba where he helpd creat the Manitoba Theatre Centre and for his time in Startford. But he began his life as an orphan of two parents were died in the Holocaust. He arrived in Canada alone and made his way to stardom. Just before the performance Alon Nashman talked to ARTSFILE. The event Thursday night starts at 7:30 p.m. in the O’Born Room. Also attending: Peter Herrndorf, the president and CEO of the NAC; Jillian Keiley, artistic director of English theatre at the NAC; veteran arts journalist Martin Knelman and Paul Thompson, the founder of Theatre Passe Muraille among many other things.

Q. Tell me about your career in theatre?

A. I am a graduate of the National Theatre School and I am still chewing on what I learned there. My career has bounced between gigs with theatre companies across the country, and self-generated work, most of which I have toured nationally and internationally. Of course, I have a particular fondness for the pieces I have developed. 

Q. Tell me about the genesis of this portrayal of John Hirsch? When did it begin. Why did it begin? Where has it been?

A. This play began with a notion of Paul Thompson’s that I ought to play Hirsch and that a play about him should premiere at Stratford. It is extraordinary that it came to pass, as Paul envisioned, in 2012. Since then the play has travelled to Winnipeg, Vancouver and Victoria, and to Edinburgh and South Africa, where it played in two festivals.

Q. Did you write the script? What did you draw upon?

A. Paul and I became close collaborators, creating each scene based on research, travel, improvisation and writing. We followed John Hirsch to Hungary and Germany, New York and Israel, as well as many trips to landmarks and archives in Winnipeg, Ottawa and Toronto. We read, watched and listened to everything we could about him and his remarkable theatrical productions.

For the play, each episode had to pass the theatricality test. Conveying incidents or information, fascinating as they may be, was never enough. We found a structure, interspersing his life story told chronologically with excerpts from his productions of plays, which are linked thematically to events in his life. We also decided that Alon, an actor very similar to me, would be a character in the play, someone who has a bone to pick with Hirsch and wants to understand his complicated brand of inspiration.

Q. Hirsch is a towering figure in Canadian theatre. Was he a hero of yours?

A. He is a great hero, someone whose productions drew me into the theatre. When I was 13, I saw his adaptation of The Dybbuk and it changed my life forever.

Q. I did not know he was a Holocaust orphan. Does your script touch upon that?

A. Oh, yes. 

Q. How did that experience shape him?  

A. What we discovered is that he was constantly aware of his refugee status, that he never forgot the people he left behind, and never fully healed from the scars of trauma. The theatre was a place he could explore and express the pain and perspective he gathered as an orphan and survivor. 

Q. Canada was not a welcoming place to Jewish refugees from Europe before and even during the war. Did Hirsch face anti-Semitism here? How did he deal with it?

A. Hirsch was a genius, a great humanist, and a passionate artist who could sometimes be extremely loving, and sometimes be abrasive. The resistance to his style of leadership was, in some cases, tinged with anti-Semitism. However, Hirsch didn’t dwell on it, and most often expressed immense gratitude for his adopted homeland.

Q. Where do you rank him?

A. Robert Cushman, National Post theatre critic, called him Canada’s greatest director. I, too, would put him up there with the greatest, for his searing productions, for his seminal role in developing the whole idea of professional theatre in Canada and in encouraging us to tell our stories to each other on stage. And he had a huge impact in the United States as well. His figure looms large and his influence is still being felt in New York, Toronto, Stratford, Los Angeles and Seattle.

Q. Is he remembered well-enough do you think?

A. There are recipients of awards named in his honour, in Manitoba, through the Canada Council, and in Ontario, who have probably never heard of Hirsch. Part of this is due to the ephemeral nature of theatre, but it is also due to a national amnesia. We tend to forget our heroes and paper over our history. I can only say that in researching the play, I had the gift of encountering many of the people on whose shoulders the Canadian theatre artists of today stand.

I do not know how this event came about but I am thrilled to be part of it. There was a time in North American theatre when the saying went that actors should arrive at auditions with a classical monologue, a contemporary piece, and a John Hirsch story. Hirsch was a colossus and the stories he generated should be remembered and repeated.

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.