Return of the prophet

Canadian theatre's enfant terrible keeps the lid off Stratford

Mark Czarnecki June 29 1981

Return of the prophet

Canadian theatre's enfant terrible keeps the lid off Stratford

Mark Czarnecki June 29 1981

Return of the prophet


Canadian theatre's enfant terrible keeps the lid off Stratford

Mark Czarnecki

Is the government willing to put money at the disposal of vagabonds like myself? We ’re exotic, sure—but without a couple of exotic birds where the hell would this society be? It would be very dull indeed. —John Hirsch, 1965

The self-portrait is apt. Nothing can adequately prepare for the first encounter with Hirsch—the infinitely extended limbs, the piercing nasal voice emanating from the dark bush of a face, the absurd, stork-like gawkiness of this theatrical prophet who has returned once again to his native land to disseminate apocalyptic visions of modern man and his dying culture. The role is a familiar one for Hirsch, who last December was appointed to a three-year term as artistic director of the Stratford Festival.

As co-founder and artistic director of the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) from 1958 to 1965, associate artistic director of Stratford from 1967 to 1969 and head of CBC television drama from 1974 to 1978, his outspoken opinions have been as controversial as his influence on Canadian theatre has been far-reaching.

Hirsch has suffered more than most prophets from indigenous neglect, and nowhere has this been more evident than in his tormented relationship with Stratford. His appointment as sole artistic director was long overdue—seven years overdue, in fact, since he was blatantly ignored by the board in 1973 during its search for a successor to Jean Gascon, despite the fact that Hirsch’s pre-eminence in Canadian and international theatre marked him as the obvious candidate for the job. If the Stratford board had been allowed their druthers last year when they sought a replacement for Robin Phillips, he would have been shut out again. After much dithering, the board finally decided on a four-person Canadian directorate, unceremoniously fired them two months later and hired English director John Dexter instead. The resulting

storm prompted government intervention and a belated plea to Hirsch to save North'America’s leading classical theatre, which last week opened four of the eight plays in its 29th season (see reviews, page 54).

Last year’s furore brought into burning focus issues that have troubled Canada’s theatre community for the past decade. While theatres across the country were experiencing a renaissance based largely on Canadian works

and talent, Stratford was becoming increasingly colonial and isolated under English director Robin Phillips and his imported stars. Because Phillips was gifted, and popular at the box-office, the business-minded board was unperturbed about the festival’s alienation from the rest of Canadian theatre. Now Hirsch’s accession to the Stratford throne is viewed in some quarters as a shift toward a more nationalistic approach at the expense of international contact and influences, an interpreta-

tion that infuriates Hirsch. He points out that his definition of nationalism (or “Canadianism,” as he calls it) has a much wider context: the necessity for a society’s culture to reflect its own image, not images borrowed from another culture. “When I talk about Canadianism, I’m not talking about chauvinism,” Hirsch has said. “I’m not talking about nationalism. I’m talking about self-actualization. I’m talking about self-awareness. As artists we must create those myths which are there to be created.” The principle holds true not just for playwrights but actors, too, whether they are interpreting Canadian work or the classics.

Why these ideas should be so threatening to festival boards is partially explained by the reactions to Hirsch’s previous attempt to “Canadianize” Stratford in the ’60s. In 1967 he directed Canadian playwright James Reaney’s Colours in the Dark despite severe opposition from the board and festival production staff. It was a landmark for Hirsch and the festival precisely because, as he puts it, “Reaney was writing about what he knew. He was writing about his own mythology.” As the theatre filled to capacity each night not just with tourists and Torontonians but with hundreds of first-time patrons y> from the local counties described in the play, a board 9 member snorted, “These are not I the kind of people we want in the I theatre.”

I Hirsch is trying hard to bury I that attitude. He wants ticket “ prices lowered, pointing out that, with $20 seats plus travel costs for most patrons, the festival is catering to an elite. He wants the town of Stratford to volunteer financial support commensurate with the estimated $35 million the festival generates in spin-off income for the immediate area. He wants government agencies to recognize in tangible terms Stratford’s position as a pre-eminent centre of culture and to double their subsidies (currently amounting to 12 per cent of the budget) so that financial concerns will finally play second fiddle to artistic priorities.

This populist approach to Stratford was anathema in the ’60s and ’70s, but times and the board have changed. The latest incarnation of Hirsch the prophet has also changed. In his new world picture, Stratford now figures as a potent weapon against the encroaching powers of darkness: “We live in a fragmented world of random, meaningless violence. As our values crumble, this process will be reflected in our theatre. It is essential that Stratford exist because it makes these values available to its audience. People are absolutely dying to hear truth, to connect, to make contact with one another.” In his fight to preserve these values, Hirsch still intends to present the classics “in a Canadian way with a Canadian sensibility,” but he has no intention of closing Stratford’s doors to foreign artists: of the five directors this season, in fact only Gascon and Leon Major are Canadian. (Brian Bedford, Peter Dews and Derek Goldby come from British theatre.) Eventually he hopes to build a solid corps of Canadian theatre personnel capable of presenting the classics on equal terms with any invited stars from abroad.

The moral fervor this enfant terrible cum elder statesman imparts to his messages, which he delivers to anybody who cares (or doesn’t care) to listen, has a scalding effect on administrators and bureaucrats. Says director Stephen Katz, a Hirsch protégé: “John is always fighting the bureaucracy. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, he hates mediocrity and clichés and he gets enraged by stupidity.” Although the sparks from internal conflicts during Hirsch’s years at the CBC rarely erupted into public conflagrations, it was no secret that he was unhappy with budgets he felt were insufficient to develop new talents. Understandably apprehensive at having let this lion into their den once more, the Stratford board nevertheless has not disputed Hirsch’s assessment of Stratford’s vital cultural role. It professes nothing but support for his plans to decentralize the festival by establishing a winter season in Toronto, to promote its product nationally and internationally and, in Hirsch’s words, to “connect this richest of theatre resources to the rest of Canada’s theatre ecology.” Says board president John Lawson: “There has been a substantial increase in awareness on the part of the community here—Stratford is a national theatre and it should be going out to all Canadians.”

In the halcyon Phillips years, artistic policy at Stratford had been a matter of Phillips presenting a season and the board rubber-stamping it, but last fall’s debacle demonstrated decisively that

tratford is the last of the tents of the Mohicans-there is no other place’

this was no longer possible. According to his contract, Hirsch is now allowed to appoint his own nominees to the board’s planning committee. The board is still deeply mistrusted by the acting company but peace gestures continue. Says literary manager Michal Schonberg: “Board members now come to my office to talk and borrow copies of the plays. This apparently was unheard of before.” «

If the bizarre spectacle of Hirsch and a Stratford board actually speaking to each other is followed up with artistically successful productions and a thorough implementation of Hirsch’s plans, he may finally receive the respect that has long been owed him. The irony is that Hirsch does not need Canada’s respect—his reputation is such that, from a career viewpoint, he didn’t have to accept Stratford.

He has been offered, among others, the directorships of Israel’s Habimah National Theatre and nearly every major nonprofit theatre in the United States, where his status nudges the Olympian. “It’s absolutely shocking that he’s not recognized in Canada for what he is,” says Peter Zeisler, co-founder of Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater and executive director of the Theatre Communications Group, a service organization for U.S. nonprofit professional theatres. “John is our universal conscience, one of the few major international artists this continent has produced. He’s a national treasure and you’re damn lucky to have him.”

Canada almost didn’t have him at all. Hirsch was born in Hungary in 1930 into a middleclass Jewish home, and most of his immediate family perished in the holocaust. He lived by scavenging and barter until he was placed in a United Nations refugee camp, where he made money by touring a puppet theatre from camp to camp. During the Atlantic crossing, a large map of Canada was spread out on deck and the orphans were allowed to choose their future homes: Hirsch selected Winnipeg because it was central and therefore seemed to provide some assurance of security from invasion. Within a year of his arrival in 1947, knowing little English, he formed a puppet theatre. Supported by the Junior League of Winnipeg, he then started a children’s theatre with Tom Hendry, now producer of Toronto Free Theatre, a collaboration that eventually resulted in the founding of the MTC, Canada’s first regional theatre and the model for North American nonprofit community theatres.

The truism that adoptive ties are stronger than blood ties certainly applies to Hirsch, who was adopted both as son and citizen. Devoted to his second family, the Shacks, Hirsch phones his 90-year-old mother in Winnipeg every Sunday and visits whenever he can, returning to Toronto laden with pickles and borscht. His enthusiasm for Canada is equally unabashed. Says Hirsch: “It’s an aberration to be called a nationalist by people in your own country. To this day I do not understand why we cannot say more openly—and repeat it more often—how much we love this place.”

eople are absolutely dying to hear truth, to make contact with one another’

His guiding sense of the importance of traditional values has also been shaped to a large extent by the ongoing evolution of his Jewish faith. Although his family had been assimilated Jews in Hungary, Hirsch says that with the Shacks “I became very Jewish. I had a huge self-hatred as a child; with the whole world collapsing I was constantly being told I was guilty. But in Winnipeg you declared your Jewishness. This wasn’t possible in Hungary—in the end they shot you.” This process culminated in his adaptation, and production in 1974, of The Dybbuk (a traditional Yiddish play about a girl possessed by a spirit), which Hirsch feels was “a tremendous source of personal liberation.” His public image reflects this inner search for meaning; Peter Zeisler calls him the Theatre Communications Group’s “house rabbi,” a fitting epithet

for Hirsch’s messianic proclivities. “John is infused with spiritualism,” says Gail Singer, a film-maker and close friend. “Among his friends in Toronto he’s a kind of patriarch in a huge family.”

Hirsch’s spiritual quest is only one of many endeavors that enrich his art and private life. He is a poet, playwright (he has written a dozen children’s plays) and painter whose naïve, colorful and intricate works decorate the walls of the ravine-side Toronto home he shares with artist Brian Trottier. An accomplished cook, when he can’t sleep he sometimes spends nights in the kitchen. “I like cooking because in the theatre you don’t get instant results—in cooking you do,” he says. “However, you’re also in total control of the ingredients, so in a sense it’s the same process as directing.”

Hirsch claims he always wanted to spend his life in the theatre. “The strong influences really go way, way back to when you’re young and very impressionable,” he says, recalling that as a child in Hungary he was exposed to theatre of all kinds from variety shows to opera. His directorial debut came at the age of 5 when he put on a puppet ¡«show in an elaborate green-velt; vet-lined box with burning can9 dies which eventually engulfed 5 the set in flames. Hirsch’s life! long fascination with theatre *has given him a cosmopolitan understanding actors recognize and welcome. Says Martha Henry, who performed in Hirsch productions at Stratford and initially 20 years ago at the MTC: “Certain directors, like certain scripts—Shakespeare or Chekhov—you can always trust. You know the fault is not theirs; if I can’t immediately grasp what John wants, I know I will get it eventually.”

A hallmark of Hirsch’s directing is his impassioned opening remarks to the cast and technical crew. Says Hirsch: “They’ve got to know why I’ve spent six months or 20 years thinking about this play. I do plays because there’s something in the process deeply connected with me—it’s like a child with a calcium deficiency licking walls. You have to be personal or you’re not doing art.” Perhaps because of this intense involvement, Hirsch loses patience quickly, especially with technicians and stage managers. “I’m very fast,” he notes, “and once I get going a lot of people get lost along the way. I work very openly— ideas come tumbling out of me, references, connections. I go back and forth—a bit of Jung, a bit of cooking; it can be bewildering.”

The lost and bewildered have driven Hirsch to strange remedies—he once tied his female lead in Saint Joan to a stool because she kept performing “some kind of underwater ballet” during the trial scene—and he can tromp heavily on sensitive psyches. Keith Turnbull, artistic director of Toronto’s NDWT Company and assistant director at Stratford under Hirsch, comments: “Working with him is a very intense relationship. He can be cruel, simpleminded to the point of mindlessness, yet he is never inhuman.” Says Heath Lamberts, Canada’s leading comic actor: “I’ve seen him cut artists to the bone. He told one actress, ‘For Christ’s sake, I don’t want Minnie Mouse—keep giving me that s— and you can stay at the Crest for the rest of your life.’ In front of a whole cast that really hurts.” Hirsch grudgingly admits to past transgressions but dismisses them as the excesses of youth and overweening selfimportance: “When you’re a young director, it’s just the power of it—your attitude changes as you grow. When I first went to Stratford I thought I could get hold of that stage, do plays with 60 people and hundreds of yards of velvet and tell the world how I saw history.

I was a very greedy, hungry, ambitious young man who’d spent a century in Winnipeg.” The consensus now is that Hirsch has mellowed over the years, and those who have stuck with him are unequivocal in their praise.

Len Cariou, another MTC and Stratford veteran who hit Broadway gold with Applause and Sweeney Todd, has returned to Stratford this season at Hirsch’s request and says simply: “John has been my mentor in the theatre. He’s been sensational to me. He literally took me by the hand and taught me how to talk.” Despite his thorough intellectual probing during a production, Hirsch has no patience with theatre that does not reach its audience—any audience— at the most basic emotional level. “He’s so middlebrow,” was a moan often heard around Stratford’s hoity-toity design department in the ’60s. Says director Katz: “John can’t stand pretentious drama—he has a keen eye for the public. When I was at CBC, he told me T don’t want anything artsy-fartsy—I want them all to cry at the end.’ ” Equally at home with Shakespeare or Pal Joey, Hirsch’s sense of what the public most enjoys and how far it can be persuaded to explore new territory was demonstrated during his years at CBC, where he was responsible for A Gift to

Last and For the Record as well as King of Kensington. In 1978 and 1979 he directed the musical spectacular that featured more than 500 artists from across the country and crowned the Festival Canada celebration on Parliament Hill.

As theatre magician, Hirsch has few peers. His vibrant guest production of Three Sisters at Stratford in 1976, critically acclaimed for its comic insights, ensured that Phillips would never invite him back. But what distinguishes Hirsch from most superstar directors is his total commitment to a role for theatre in a society’s struggle to define itself and maintain lasting human val-

do plays because there's something in the process deeply connected with me. '

ues. It cannot be just coincidence that many actors who have worked and trained with Hirsch are also committed to theatre as a social force, sometimes at the expense of a more glittering career. Lamberts, who studied along with Martha Henry in the first class to graduate from the National Theatre School (an institution Hirsch helped found), comments: “John is one of the main reasons I’ve stayed in Canada. I caught fire from his flame early on—this country needs its own artists to express its culture. He taught me there was much more to acting than going to Hollywood. If it hadn’t been for him, I’d probably be there now with a white convertible, four blondes in the back and a serious drug problem.”

One of the many paradoxes about Hirsch is that he doesn’t always practise what he preaches. While pontificat-

ing about the need to support Canadian culture, he acknowledges that until the early ’70s, “The idea was always in my brain that if you didn’t go to New York then you were absolutely nothing.” So he went many times, directing to critical acclaim off-Broadway and at Lincoln Center until he had nothing left to prove. However, he still feels “because of my commitment to this country, from time to time I’ve got to get out—you’re working against such incredible odds, against this country’s negative perception of its own culture.” And although his statements reveal genuine altruism and social concern, he is anything but a sober moral crusader. An indefatigable showman and huckster, his recent plugs for Stratford have featured beguiling appeals to his audiences’ nobler instincts blended with strong personal salesmanship. As director Turnbull notes, “John always keeps his self-interest very strong.”

Although these appearances are already stirring controversy, for perhaps the first time in his life Hirsch has been granted a year of grace. Because of prior commitments he was unable to assume full-time duties as artistic director at Stratio ford until May 1, and he will not t; be directing this year. The 1981 9 season is largely the result of I efforts by producer Muriel Sherrin, a longtime associate, I working in consultation with I Hirsch, and it is an acknow“ ledged miracle that she and the festival staff are presenting a season at all. Hirsch is insistent that the festival almost died and that it is not out of danger yet. “Standards disappear when models disappear,” he has commented. “And that’s frightening because eventually people will no longer know what good really is. They simply won’t recognize the difference. Stratford is the last of the tents of the Mohicans—there is no other place.”

The enormity of last fall’s crisis should ensure that, even if this season fails artistically, the media vultures led by the rabidly pro-Dexter Toronto Star will have a hard time justifying picking at the carrion. Meanwhile, the government has made its own position clear. Says Walter Learning, head of theatre for the Canada Council: “Whatever happens, the board must not run scared and inhibit plans for the future. They can’t say at the end of the season, ‘We don’t think they pulled it off.’ John has to have a fair go.” After more than a decade in the wilderness, this exotic bird of prophecy may finally have come home to roost. Q>