Play Immortalizes Forgotten Hero of Canadian Theatre

This piece was first published in The Times of Israel.

Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in "Hirsch." (photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)

Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in “Hirsch.” (photo credit: Cylla von Tiedemann)

‘‘John Hirsch was a colossus whose shadow looms over the culture of Canada. But we forget out heroes,” laments Alon Nashman, whose one-man play about the great theater director has impressed critics and audiences alike in Canada and abroad.

 Indeed, if you were to go up to average Canadians on the street and ask them who Hirsch was, few — if any — would know. They would be unaware that Hirsch founded and shaped major Canadian theater companies. They would have no idea he did this having arrived in Canada in 1947 as a 17-year-old with no English, let alone that he was a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who lost his entire family in the war.

Even theater critics like the New York Times’ Charles Isherwood admit to having been in the dark about this great Canadian cultural figure until Nashman, 54, created the play with director Paul Thompson and Nashman took to the stage as the title character. “But an interest in the workings of theater — and the often unbridled passions of the men and women who work backstage to bring it to life — is all that is really required to enjoy Mr. Nashman and Mr. Thompson’s tribute to an artist whose work they revere, and a man whose demons they depict with clear eyes but sympathetic hearts,” Isherwood wrote.

Having originated at the Stratford Festival in 2012, the play “Hirsch” also ran this August for 25 performances at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. There are plans to bring it this coming season to Vancouver, Victoria and Winnipeg, the home of the Manitoba Theatre Center, Canada’s oldest English-language regional theater — which Hirsch himself co-founded in 1958.

“The show is striking a deep nerve with those who love theater,” Nashman notes in a phone interview with The Times of Israel following a performance in Edinburgh last month.

The Toronto-based Jewish actor sounded tired. “I am so exhausted from it. The one-and-a-half hours of ‘Hirsch’ is like nothing I have ever done before,” he says. “It’s exhausting on the physical, emotional and psychic levels. It’s like coming home from a funeral after experiencing his loss of his family, his loss of trust of his board, his loss of energy, and ultimately the loss of his own life.” Hirsch died of AIDS-related illness in 1989.

Hirsch had “A Fiery Soul,” as the title of a 2012 biography of the theater director tells us, and not everyone went in for his habitually blustery, bullying style. There were those who directly told Nashman and Thompson so in interviews they conducted as part of their extensive research before creating the play through improvisation.

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©2013 Renee Ghert-Zand.  All rights reserved.



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