Arts & Entertainment
2 min

Tormented trailblazer

From Winnipeg to Stratford, John Hirsch shaped Canadian theatre

Alon Nashman captures John Hirsch’s darkness and creativity in Hirsch, playing this month at the Chutzpah Festival. Credit: Theaturtle/Cylla von Tiedermann

A life filled with darkness and creativity is celebrated in Hirsch, an exploration of gay Canadian theatre trailblazer John Hirsch’s journey from Nazi-occupied Hungary to his death from AIDS in 1989. 

“He touched so many people’s lives who have become major players in the theatre, and at the same time he lived through so much darkness and he wore his darkness on his sleeve,” says Alon Nashman, who plays the title character in the production that will be presented at this year’s Chutzpah Festival. 

Born in 1930 in Hungary, Hirsch found himself orphaned when the Nazis invaded and killed his father, brother and sister. Displaced and alone at the age of 17, he was rescued by the Canadian Jewish Congress, which brought him to Winnipeg, a location he felt would be safe from potential invasions. 

 There he would establish the Manitoba Theatre Centre, in addition to playing key parts in the early days of the Stratford Festival and the National Theatre School. 

Though Nashman says Hirsch was very private about his sexuality, his being gay figures prominently in the play. “Brian was kind enough to share letters that were both beautiful and illuminating,” he says of Hirsch’s long-time partner. “That he died of AIDS, that he was part of the bloodletting in the ’80s, is also quite significant to the play.”

“There is a letter that John wrote from Tel Aviv that is in the show, and it is one of the most touching letters I have ever seen on the stage,” Hirsch co-creator Paul Thompson says. “It is a beautiful piece about their relationship, a love letter that shows the depth of his mind, the pressures of work and the demands that his career took on his personal life and emotional stability.”

Nashman says that Hirsch often shared stories from his own life that would underscore a theatrical production he would be working on at the time.

“In Mother Courage, John told that as a young refugee, one of their favourite games was when they came across a pile of dead bodies, they would try to guess which feet came from which faces,” Nashman says. “During The Three Sisters, he told the story of how he was only allowed one suitcase when he left Hungary and that he had chosen one filled with toys instead of photos of
his family and heirlooms.”