The street that runs behind Winnipeg’s Ashdown Warehouse where I live, is named after an orphan from Hungary whose father was shot in Germany and whose mother and brother were gassed at Auschwitz.
John Hirsch Place honors one of the founders of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, the first regional theatre in Canada. John Hirsch came to Winnipeg in 1947, at age 17 as a war orphan and was taken in by Alex and Pauline Shack . He remained a close member of their family till the day he died of AIDS in 1989.
Hirsh who is immortalized in this statue outside the Manitoba Theatre Centre, went to St. John’s High School and the University of Manitoba while working as an office boy for a real estate agency. I first heard Hirsch’s life story from writer and politician Roland Penner who was my teacher in a class called Winnipeg Fact and Fiction at McNally Robinsons Community Classroom.
Hirsch was in the drama club at St. John’s and directed plays at the University of Manitoba. John’s adoptive family, the Shacks were skeptical when he said he wanted to have a career in theatre, but he got a grant from the Junior League of Winnipeg and created a puppet show to take to schools and community clubs. He and a friend got the City of Winnipeg to sponsor them to put on three musical comedies at the band stand at Assiniboine Park one summer, and then he landed himself a gig as the first paid artistic director of Winnipeg’s amateur Little Theatre. This led to a job with CBC television when it was launched in 1954.
After studying in London John came back to Winnipeg in 1957 and founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (MTC) with Tom Hendry. Hendry is sitting on the chair in front of Hirsch in this art piece called Imagine created by Ruth Abernathy that is just outside the present day MTC building. MTC was where well-known Canadian actors like Martha Henry, Len Cariou and Gordon Pinsent had their start.
In a review of a biography of Hirsch called A Fiery Soul, National Post writer Robert Cushman quotes Hirsch as saying he was part of four mafias, Jewish, Hungarian, homosexual and Winnipeg. In the Globe and Mail review of the same biography, reviewer Keith Garebian uses the mafia quote as well, and adds that Hirsch often behaved like a ‘godfather’. He had hot-tempered outbursts, bullied his actors and skillfully manipulated events for his political and financial advantage. Despite this, many actors admired him, and were honored to work for him. In an interview for the Theatre Museum of Canada, actress Martha Henry calls Hirsch a genius.
John Hirsch eventually went on to jobs at the Stratford Shakespearean Festival, The Lincoln Center Theatre in New York and directed plays at the Shaw Festival, and at theatres in many Canadian and American cities. He was accorded honorary doctorates at the universities of Manitoba, Toronto, Victoria and Winnipeg and was an officer of the Order of Canada. He is perhaps best known for his play The Dybbuk.
The main stage of the Manitoba Theatre Centre is named after John Hirsch as this banner outside the theatre attests. Many consider him Canada’s greatest director.
I’m glad John Hirsch founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre. I have seen dozens of plays there in the past. Now I love living so close that I can leave our condo just minutes before the curtain is about to rise, pop home for a drink at intermission and be home and in bed shortly after the performance.
What next? When my husband and I were in university we served as volunteer ushers at MTC so we could get into the shows for free. We’ve been thinking that being MTC volunteers is something we might like to do again now that we’re retired.
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