The prickly producer who makes theatre grow where none grew before

SHIRLEY MAIR March 6 1965

The prickly producer who makes theatre grow where none grew before

SHIRLEY MAIR March 6 1965

The prickly producer who makes theatre grow where none grew before

Immigrant John Hirsch has, incredibly, caused the Manitoba Theatre Centre in Winnipeg to flourish and this summer, from all the theatre jobs offered him, he’s chosen to direct “The Cherry Orchard” at Stratford. He’s become the success he never doubted he would be — but in a world he finds “terrifying” By SHIRLEY MAIR


JOHN STEPHEN HIRSCH is a volatile and sometimes irritating thirty-four-year-old theatrical director who is passionately convinced that every city and town in the country should have a professional theatre. In Winnipeg he's already created the Manitoba Theatre Centre, one of the liveliest resident playhouses in North America, as a result of which some other towns have already asked him to help them plan theatres to be ready for the 1967 Centennial. If he does so, he's likely to stir up enough controversy to make “theatre” as warm a topic as last Saturday’s hockey score.

Late last year he provided one of Canada’s

first genuine hard-nosed theatrical feuds when he clashed with Len Peterson, a veteran Toronto playwright who has, in twenty-six years, written more than a thousand radio, TV and stage plays. Peterson had also, or so he thought, written All About Us, a Canadian Players production currently touring sixty-five cities from Victoria to Quebec City. Hirsch had conceived All About Us. as a “vaudeville of Canadian history,” and with sketches outlined on Louis Riel, Sir Sam Hughes, Lester Pearson and other historic Canadian figures. He had taken his material to Peterson to be transformed into a manuscript. For two years Peterson labored and last October, three weeks before opening night, he sent Hirsch the final manuscript which he claimed contained 136 pages — or a “smooth running time of 120 minutes.” Hirsch claims Peterson sent him 175 pages which, according to bis timing would take more than four and a half hours to perform — about the same time as Gone With The Wind.

Hirsch was in a frenzy to get on with rehearsals, so he edited the manuscript. Peterson, he says, became “so involved with his research and the state of the country” that the material was more serious than the vaudeville Hirsch wanted. When Peterson arrived in Winnipeg from Toronto and watched final rehearsals, he couldn’t recognize very much of the manuscript as his own. Indignantly, he took the unprecedented step of announcing that although the playbill and ten thousand posters advertised him as the author, he definitely was not. “I am,” he said, “disgusted.”

When the show went on a tour which is still underway, Hirsch immediately began rehearsals of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage, and by Christmas he was giving Winnipeg audiences Shakespeare’s Taming Of The Shrew. If Hirsch lived in culture-conscious New York, where the Lincoln Center For The Performing Arts is foundering, or Toronto, scene of last year’s Crest Theatre crisis, getting people to watch such playwrights as Shakespeare and Brecht would be difficult enough. Hirsch likes to live in Winnipeg.

The city's half a million citizens have a hometown symphony. For short annual spasms they have a ballet. Film and poetry societies hold sessions on wintry nights. These form small pockets of resistance to cultural oblivion. But a Winnipeg alderman once told Hirsch, “When a play brings in as many people as a yo-yo contest. I’ll vote you funds.”

Yet the seven-season-old Manitoba Theatre Centre with its artistic director John Hirsch received $43,750 in city and provincial aid last fall. Another $35,000 came straight from The Canada Council. Thirty - two thousand theatregoers attended MTC's first season of

eight plays and sixty-three performances. Last year eight productions played two hundred and eighty-six performances to one hundred and thirty-five thousand people. The middle-class audience further confounded experts by happily attending Tennessee Williams’ Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage, and shunning the musical Little Mary Sunshine.

MTC’s success doesn’t baffle Hirsch. “Just one person who wants theatre enough can make it a reality.” he said recently. Since Hirsch is that one person, his name in Winnipeg, and outside Winnipeg, at least in theatrical circles, is important. Only eight weeks ago he briefly flirted w'ith the idea of moving to New York when he was interviewed for the artistic directorship of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theatre. He’s been appointed to direct Anton Chekhov’s Russian classic, The Cherry Orchard, at the Stratford, Ont., Shakespearean Festival this summer. At its inception he was made a board member of the National Theatre School in Montreal and occasionally he guest-lectures there. The Canada Council calls him to attend its conferences. Last fall the Canadian Centre For The Performing Arts in Ottawa, which hopes to have three auditoriums built in time for Centennial celebrations, appointed him its theatre adviser. Wallace Russel, technical adviser to the Ottawa centre, estimates that by 1967 as many as eight hundred other centres could be built across Canada, and it’s certain Hirsch will be asked for advice by many of the sponsors.

Much of what he’ll say will make Canadians angry. His formula for building theatre, at least in Winnipeg where he’s been successful, has been to give everyone colorful hell. “I was born near Budapest,” he told Winnipeggers, “a city in the 1930s of a million people who supported twenty professional theatres. Half a million live here and you can’t support one . . . Theatre is a natural resource. You waste it.”

Christopher Dafoe, editorial writer and theatre critic for the Winnipeg Free Tress, said recently that through the fifties “Hirsch made people in Winnipeg feel ashamed.” By I960, with MTC in its third season, he was unrelenting. “The city,” he said then, "can’t remain a hick town forever.”

The harangue keeps up. And now he’s getting the opportunity to arouse the rest of the country. Last April in Winnipeg he said, “Quebec has a very active ministry of culture . . . Winnipeg has a bunch of fossilized mooseheads.” Then he flew to Quebec where he told a reporter all about Manitoba’s lively theatre and lambasted “English Montreal’s stodgy complacency.” Privately he admits / continued on page 32

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his histrionics are designed to persuade Canadians they must match the building boom in auditoriums with an outlay of money enough to educate actors. technicians and backstage administrators. Otherwise, he fears that when the Centennial enthusiasm blows over, the centres may stand empty.

Publicly, his argument won't sound as bland as that. The word “Centennial” was mentioned during a panel discussion Winnipeg teachers asked Hirsch to attend last fall. As if on cue he humped his more-than-sixfoot frame around a collapsible chair and brooded. “The arts are respectable now,” he said. “It’s rather tiresome.” His audience, mostly women, giggled self-consciously. “All of a sudden,” he bellowed, “Canadians want boatloads of Fathers of Confederation going up rivers, telling people on shore who they are. Suddenly, because of this blasted '67, they w'ant hallet performed in moose pits.”

The rest of Canada may have a cultural inferiority complex but Hirsch’s own ego almost makes up for the lack. When asked how long he's been a professional director, he says, “Since I was six years old.”

That w'as in 1936 when Hirsch was directing puppets he’d made from wire and cork and wood. His father Joseph ran a hardware business in Siófok, a resort town on Balaton Lake in western Hungary. Ten-year-old John went off to high school in Budapest in 1940. Joseph Hirsch, his wife and youngest son Stephen stayed in Siófok. From there they were taken to Auschwitz and put to death.

Since life will never again surprise John Hirsch, the series of flukes that kept him alive through World War II don’t amaze him. In 1947 he wandered around Paris with a poorly forged Chilean passport, making the rounds of foreign embassies, taking blood tests and leaving his address at an orphanage in case any country wanted to give a visa to an unskilled seventeen-year-old. None did until the Canadian embassy told him the Canadian Jewish Congress was offering to transport and settle more than a thousand Jewish children in its country. Did Hirsch want to be one of them?

On hoard ship someone put a map of Canada in front of him and, because he couldn’t speak English, they made him understand he was to point to the place he’d like to live. He assumed that the city nearest the geographic middle of the country would be in the middle of everything else, and pointed to Winnipeg. Half a year later he was the least intelligible member of the Winnipeg Little Theatre. Through the Canadian Jewish Congress, Mrs. Pauline Shack and her family offered him room and board and, on acceptance, enough love to redeem much of his faith in living, although today he still refuses to marry for fear of bringing children into “this terrifying world.”

He still lives with Mrs. Shack (who becomes “Ma” to everyone after the first handshake) and her daughter,

Sybil, nineteen years Hirsch’s senior and a principal at Isaac Brock elementary school. It was Sybil who saw to it that Hirsch attended nightschool English classes on arrival in Winnipeg. Both women still boast it was obvious Hirsch was exceptionally clever and the most cynical listener would have to agree. Five years after his arrival in Winnipeg he graduated with an honors BA from the University of Manitoba and was lecturing there in English.

At college he met Tom Hendry, a laconic young man working leisurely toward a chartered-accountant’s degree when he wasn't hitch-hiking through Europe. Hendry introduced himself to Hirsch in a canteen one day by saying. “If you’d lend me two cents I could afford a cup of coffee, too." The next time Hirsch spotted Hendry he said. “I’d like my two cents hack.”

A common interest—theatre

They found they had—along with a consuming interest in the destiny of two pennies—a common interest in theatre. Later when Hirsch was artistic director of MTC and Hendry, who’d been administrator at MTC, took the same job with the Canadian Players, Hendry told why the two offbeat characters meshed. “When I was at MTC,’’ he said. “John was in charge of production, so I wouldn’t think of interfering. I was the ad-

ministrator, so he meddled all the time.”

Still the closest friends. Hendry and Hirsch hided time through the 1950s. They operated Hirsch’s puppet theatre. With and without pay they worked behind the scenes of the Winnipeg Little Theatre and the Rainbow Stage, an open-air musical-comedy summer theatre in a Winnipeg park. Eventually they concluded they might produce better theatre than anyone else in town and they decided to try. In 1957 Hirsch quit his job with CBC’s Winnipeg TV station CBWT, where he’d directed everything from a hobby show to a brief national-network ethnic-dance program he’d created. called Dances Of The Nations. Hendry, by then a chartered accountant, kept his partnership in the firm Hendry and Evans and worked nights as Hirsch’s administrator.

They risked their life savings of fifteen hundred dollars apiece, and Aubrey Halter, a Winnipeg lawyer, guaranteed their bank loan for another fifteen hundred. An anonymous angel had given the Winnipeg Little Theatre the eight-hundred-seat Dominion Theatre for a nominal rent. It was an old vaudeville palace with good acoustics. Hendry and Hirsch rented it, in turn, from the WET, their former playmates and current competition. One evening, striding down Portage Avenue from the corner of Portage and Main, it took Hirsch and Hendry seventy - seven

steps to reach the Dominion. For no better reason than this, their enterprise became Theatre 77. In the 1957-1958 season they produced two children's plays, a French farce. Arsenic And Old Luce and Death Of A Salesman. Hendry claims Salesman was the only production theatregoers in Winnipeg ever scalped tickets to see. Ticket holders sold $1.75 seats for as much as three dollars. The play was held over. At the end of that season Theatre 77 showed a tiny profit, which made Hirsch and Hendry decide to pay their performers the next season, thus bringing professional theatre to Winnipeg.

Before that their own performance set the Winnipeg Little Theatre to wondering if professionals Hendry and Hirsch mightn't be better on its side. The Wl.T's biggest drawing card and financial success had been The Great Morton, a traveling hypnotist who sang Australian folk songs and did rope tricks. Since the WLT had the Dominion Theatre and community support as well, Hendry and Hirsch agreed to merge and become the Manitoba Theatre Centre. As J. Ogden Turner, an English professor and longtime amateur-theatre devotee, puts it, “The wedding took place despite fears of some of the relatives.”

A cloudy “Mary Sunshine”

The amateurs lost a theatre and an organization that would let them perform in front of an audience. A few hopefully took out membership in Actors’ Equity, the professional-performers’ union. One who didn't recently recalled, “Hirsch made it known he’d import professionals as soon as he could. For the past two years, ninety to ninety-five percent of MTC’s actors have come from out of town.”

If Hirsch killed amateur theatre in Winnipeg, he and MTC quickly replaced it with w'hat was for the city a high standard of professional production. “Those guys know' what they’re doing,” one man told a friend. “I was there the other night. An actor opened a refrigerator door and do you know, someone had actually remembered to put in real food.”

Such favorable reports led once lethargic theatre supporters to give MTC forty-five hundred dollars during its first year and to donate $25,377 to see it survive a second. That second season the Canada Council made a ten-thousand-dollar grant. This year (MTC’s seventh season) the council’s contribution is thirty - five thousand dollars for Hirsch’s eight productions—Hay Lever. AH About Us. Mother Courage, Taming Of The Shrew, Irma La Douce, Heartbreak House, Summer And Smoke and two yet-to-be-announced plays. With attendance records broken season after season, the only gloomy figure is MTC’s accumulated deficit—$29.732 at the end of its 1962-63 season and $71.654 last year, partly because Little Mary Sunshine, a musical budgeted to bring in thirty thousand dollars, only managed a box - office dribble of twelve thousand.

William Wylie. MTC’s new administrator who fired seven front-office staff including his own secretary in an effort to gain back the deficit,

hopes to wipe out the ignominy this season by means of two tough projects: (1) to persuade six thousand Winnipeggers to buy season tickets, and (2) to persuade Hirsch to stay within budget.

Hirsch insists the theatre needs well-trained professional actors and technicians, and. just as important, a critical audience out front. For this reason MTC runs its own school (the only one of its kind in North America, attached directly to the centre)

which gives evening and weekend theatre-appreciation classes to a hundred and fifty youngsters. Its Studio Theatre Workshop gives free professional direction to adult amateurs, and an MTC troupe of professionals tours Manitoba high schools, reciting Shakespeare. As if all this wasn’t enough proof that MTC is publicspirited, it puts on children’s plays, hosts an annual Manitoba high-school drama festival, and for the past two years has organized a visiting tour of

Quebec’s Les Jeunes Comédiens to Manitoba. Right now, Hirsch, who has just inaugurated fencing and play - writing classes, is planning a permanent puppet theatre.

During the Hirsch-Peterson feud, Peterson said. “John has a lot to learn yet as a man of the theatre. He’s used to a lot of sycophantic actors bowing to his whims, and he’s tried to behave in a high-handed manner.” But this summer, no matter what the continued on page 34

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critical consensus of Hirsch's direction of The Cherry Orchard may be at Stratford, it's certain that until now his detractors have only been partially fair when they've argued that Hirsch has succeeded only because he has no competition. He has, after all. created perhaps the only spectacularly successful professional theatre in the country. Actors of the calibre of Zoe Caldwell, Douglas Rain, Bruno Cierussi and Frances Hyland willingly fly

to Winnipeg to take his direction, and he frequently flies out of Winnipeg to attend Centennial committee meetings in larger centres around the country that ask for his help.

His stepped-up schedule of travel doesn't mean that he intends to move away from Winnipeg. He may have done quite a bit to bring culture to Winnipeg, hut Winnipeggers being what they are have given him in return a place in the sun — and restored

his war-torn self-dignity. For seventeen years the nightmare of another hometown haunted him. Last summer he returned to Siófok, the resort town on the lake where he'd directed puppet shows for his father and mother and younger brother Stephen in a house on the main street. Now' the house is a co-op store. Warehouses stand on w'hat was the back garden.

Hirsch went away at peace. “Siófok.” he says, “is my cherry orchard." ★