Alon Nashman as John Hirsch in Hirsch. (photo by Cylla von Tiedemann)
When theatre and its creative engines become the main focus of a theatrical show, the results can be fascinating. An audience is always hungry for a glimpse behind the scenes.
This is exactly the case with Hirsch, which tells the story of the well-known Hungarian-born Canadian director John Hirsch. Premièred at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2012, it played in Edinburg and then Winnipeg, and it’s been a smash hit in each location. It’s coming to Vancouver’s Firehall Arts Centre Feb. 25-March 1. Presented as part of the Chutzpah! Festival, it is co-produced by Touchstone Theatre.
Created by Alon Nashman and Paul Thompson, Hirsch is a solo show, directed by Thompson and performed by Nashman. In an interview with the Independent, Nashman described the show’s origins: “This play was built from research, blossomed into improvisation, and then was recorded, refined and ordered,” he said by phone from his home in Toronto. “It retains in performance something of the anarchic energy of improv.”
As do many theatre people, Nashman admires Hirsch, a legendary figure in Canadian theatre. Born in Hungary in 1930, Hirsch was the sole Holocaust survivor of his entire family. In 1947, he arrived in Winnipeg as a refugee. He didn’t speak any English, but that didn’t keep him from pursuing his passion, theatre. Eleven years later, he co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) with Tom Hendry. Afterwards, according to Thompson’s research, the MTC audience doubled for seven years in a row – an outstanding achievement in the world of theatre. Later, Hirsch directed phenomenally popular shows in Canada and the United States and from 1974 to 1978 was the head of television drama at CBC. He died of AIDS in 1989.
“Hirsch is a fantastic subject for a play,” said Nashman. “He lived more than nine lives and was constantly reinventing himself.”
Nashman said that the main goal of this project is “to convey the scope of his [Hirsch’s] life and the power of his work. And our solution was to refract his life through his productions. So there’s a back-and-forth between real-life segments and recreations of his rehearsals or performances.”
“I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre.”
Hirsch has received rave reviews as well as public acclaim, and Nashman attributed its success to the hero of his performance. “I think that, for theatre lovers, it provides a rare glance into the mind of a brilliant director. It is also the story of a man who faced great loss as a child and tried to put the pieces of his life back together through theatre. And there is the immigrant experience of someone who championed Canadian culture and creativity more than the people born to it. For all these reasons, it transcends generations and ethnic boundaries to become an Everyman story.”
As co-creator of the show, an author as well as an actor, Nashman said he doesn’t feel compelled to adhere too strictly to the text of the play. He wrote it, so he is free to improvise, to adapt to the pulse of the audience. As a result, every performance feels different, fresh. “The play-script does not convey the crackle of anything-could-happen, which fills the live auditorium,” he said. “In fact, my opening monologue changes each night in slight but significant ways, depending on the mood and people in the house.”
“Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov. That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
The show not only forges a link between the stage and the audience but it also streamlines the history of Canadian theatre performance, from Shakespeare to contemporary works. Despite being a modern play, it allows the actor to experience classics the way Hirsch envisioned them. “Yes, I would love to play more Shakespeare and Chekhov,” Nashman said. “That’s why I am doing Hirsch. I get to embody his productions of Cherry Orchard and The Tempest and King Lear, imitating some of the greatest actors in Canada.”
Of course, introducing multiple characters in one show is challenging, but Nashman doesn’t shy from challenges, on stage or off. “Ideally, every project is a scary challenge, and I actually look forward to the moment in rehearsal when I say to myself, ‘this is impossible.’”
Nashman’s creative road is studded with such moments of daring and triumph. In 1999, he founded Theaturtle, a company whose mission it is “to create essential, ecstatic theatre that touches the earth and agitates the soul,” according to Nashman’s website. He serves as the artistic director and is the only constant member of the company, but Theaturtle has instigated many collaborations. One of these produced another Nashman solo show, Kafka and Son. Initially developed more than a decade ago, it toured successfully across Europe and won the Outstanding Performance Award at the Prague Fringe in 2013. Based on his performance in the show, Nashman was selected Toronto’s number one theatre artist of 2008 by NOW Magazine.
Nashman’s love for theatre began in childhood. “My father was a summer camp director and had a flair for showbiz,” he explained. “But my urge for theatre was self-generated and started when I was very young. It was so natural for me to perform that I had trouble considering it as a profession. Even now, when I’m busy, I say: ‘I have a lot of fun to do today.’”
Olga Livshin is a Vancouver freelance writer. She can be reached at [email protected].