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 man at this year’s Chutzpah! Festival.
Born in 1930 Hungary, Hirsch found himself an orphan after the invasion of his homeland claimed the lives of his brother and sister at Auschwitz and a father executed by the Nazis. Displaced and alone at the age of 17, Hirsch was rescued by the Canadian Jewish Congress who brought him to Winnipeg, a location he felt would be safe from potential invasions.
Going on to establish the Manitoba Theatre Centre, as well as having a hand in the early days of the Stratford Festival and the National Theatre School, Hirsch died of AIDS in 1989. Survived by Brian, his partner of many years, some of the most touching moments in the show comes from his collaboration with the project.
“Brian was kind enough to share letters that were both beautiful and illuminating,” says Nashman who says that Hirsch’s life as a gay man is a significant part of the play, even though he kept that part of himself very private. “That he died of AIDS, that he was part of the bloodletting in the 80s, is also quite significant to the play.”
Nashman’s co-creator Paul Thompson agrees saying that the letters Brian shared were “one of my favourite gifts of the many generous collaborations” for the show.
“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,” says Thompson. “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 would often tell 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,” remembers Nashman. “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.”
(A version of this article first appeared in the February 13, 2014 edition of Xtra!)