Giving a Canadian Accent to the Stratford Festival: John Hirsch

Hamlet Rehearsal, 1969. From left to right: Joyce Campion, Powys Thomas, Max Helpmann, D. M. Hughes, Mervyn Blake, Kenneth Welsh, James Blendick rehearse a scene with John Hirsch, in white shirt. Photo by Douglas Spillane, © Stratford Festival.  Hirsch, without his trademark beard, is the guy in the white shirt reading from the script.
Canada was “an adolescent in a world of grown-ups” – a “nation of Britishers living slightly to the north of the United States” – and Canadian theatre was much the same, John Hirsch told Brian Brennan. Above a Hamlet Rehearsal at the Stratford Festival in 1969. From left to right: Joyce Campion, Powys Thomas, Max Helpmann, D. M. Hughes, Mervyn Blake, Kenneth Welsh, James Blendick rehearse a scene with John Hirsch, in white shirt sans beard, reading from a script. Photo by Douglas Spillane, © Stratford Festival.

April, 2015   

When I first met John Hirsch in 1977, he talked so passionately about Canadian theatre that I wondered why this Hungarian-born director wasn’t running a theatre company instead of working in television. He had co-founded Canada’s first professional regional theatre, the Manitoba Theatre Centre, as a 27-year-old in 1958, and then spent a couple of years as co-artistic director of the Stratford Festival before making a big splash as a freelance stage director in the United States. When he returned to Canada in 1974, it was to become head of drama programming for the CBC.

He told me he had no interest in running another theatre company. “I don’t want to be at the helm of anything any more,” he said. “Essentially, basically, I am a director. I get my greatest pleasure out of rehearsing, working with actors and doing what I think I do best.”

Hirsch said he was depressed about the state of Canadian theatre because he was unhappy about the state of Canada generally. He said he couldn’t separate one from the other. Canada was “an adolescent in a world of grown-ups” – a “nation of Britishers living slightly to the north of the United States” – and Canadian theatre was much the same. “Our popular theatre is really American theatre. We’ve been bludgeoned into insensibility by Americana.”

John Hirsch. Portrait by Robert C. Ragsdale, © Stratford Festival
John Hirsch. Portrait by Robert C. Ragsdale, © Stratford Festival

Was he suggesting, then, that Canada itself had no real identity beyond what it took from the Americans and the British? “We’re emotionally retarded as a nation,” Hirsch declared. “We seem to be terrified of seeing ourselves as we are, because then we would have the awesome responsibility of changing ourselves.”

He didn’t have any recipe for changing the country, but did have a suggestion for improving the theatre, specifically English-Canadian theatre. (Theatre in Quebec was thriving, Hirsch said, because the people there had a wealth of shared emotional experience, a unifying language and religion.) He said the first step was to cut down on the number of Broadway and West End shows appearing on Canadian stages. “When you do those plays, it’s like saying you shouldn’t have your own children in your own house, but should bring in the neighbour’s kids instead.”

Canada needed theatre, Hirsch said, that reflected the “now” in all its aspects; a theatre that held a mirror up to nature. “The only thing we share is the land, and the land hasn’t gotten onto the stage yet.” Nurturing indigenous playwriting was a key to creating a distinctly Canadian identity on stage, he said.

Our next conversation took place five years later, after Hirsch had been at the helm of the Stratford Festival for 18 months. He wasn’t the first choice for the job. After first hiring and then firing four Canadian co-directors, the board tried to hire a British director, John Dexter. But the Canadian government refused to grant Dexter a work permit, and the job landed in Hirsch’s lap.

Hirsch, as only the second Canadian to head the festival in 28 years, was pleased to be at Stratford, notwithstanding what he had said to me earlier about not wanting to run another theatre company. For too long, he said, successive boards had adopted a policy of “send for the colonial governor” whenever they needed a new artistic director. And while he couldn’t discard the festival’s mandatory Shakespeare programming and replace it with home-grown drama, he could put more Canadian talent on the stage. Hirsch’s predecessor, English-born Robin Phillips, had relied on the likes of Maggie Smith and Peter Ustinov to sell the Stratford shows. Hirsch declared that the festival under his leadership would be “star-free.” “Our mandate is to explore Shakespeare through a Canadian sensibility,” he said. “We are there to produce North American interpretations of these plays.”

Hirsch acknowledged there was a certain irony in the fact that he, as a self-styled “emigrant Hungarian Jew,” was running North America’s major English-speaking theatre dedicated to the works of Shakespeare. But if an American Jew, Joe Papp, could run the New York Shakespeare Festival with the blessing of his board, Hirsch saw no reason why there should be a problem with his Stratford appointment. “It only becomes a problem if the shows are rotten and nobody comes, and so far that hasn’t happened.”

Hirsch spent five years at Stratford. He looked back on it as a time when he brought the festival from the edge of financial failure to the edge of artistic success. The 1981 season had almost collapsed when Canadian Actors Equity threatened to boycott the festival over the firing of the four-member Canadian directorate and the attempted hiring of the Englishman, John Dexter. “My main aim was just to keep the theatre open,” Hirsch told The New York Times. “I came in in the middle of the sinking of the Titanic. I was made to understand that if I didn’t come in, the theatre would go down the drain and the town would go on the dole.” He had been praised by the critics for some of his productions but failed in his attempt to move the festival back to financial stability. When he left, the festival was carrying an accumulated deficit of $2.78 million. Hirsch was replaced as artistic director by John Neville, who eventually eliminated the deficit by reducing administrative costs and pairing Shakespeare with commercially successful Broadway musicals.

Hirsch returned to freelance stage directing after his departure from Stratford. He died of AIDS in 1989 at age 59. “He had dreams of leading the Stratford Festival to a new era of popularity and daring, producing theatre of expansive spirit and soul,” wrote Max Wyman in the Vancouver Province. “But he took control after a period of prolonged chaos, and was never able to get the financial support he needed to make his dreams come true.”

Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015


Brian Brennan

Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut. 

Visit him at his website,

Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.



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