August 3, 2012

A Fiery Soul: The Life and Theatrical Times of John Hirsch

Anyone who's from Winnipeg and enjoys the theatre should definitely read A Fiery Soul. John Hirsch came to Winnipeg from Hungary as a war orphan at the age of 17. All his family either died at Auschwitz or were killed in the war. His early upbringing near Budapest was a culturally rich one and he transplanted some of that richness to Winnipeg, becoming a founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre and an early director at Rainbow Stage in the late 50s and 60s.

Both these theatres were formative in my life - we were taken to them as children and they kickstarted my lifelong love of drama. I saw Fiddler on the Roof at Rainbow Stage at least 40 years ago, and it feels like yesterday. Hirsch believed in educating about drama, and wherever he worked in Canada and the U.S. in the course of his eminent career, he encouraged the teaching component of the theatre company. I took Ryan to drama lessons in Winnipeg when he was 10 or 12, and also once invited a group of actors from MTC to work with the cast of Scapino and teach us commedia del arte. So many southern Manitobans have benefitted from the seeds sown by John Hirsch.

Hirsch also directed for many years at Stratford in Ontario, for CBC, on Broadway, in California and eventually around the world. He was energetic, alternative, wildly creative and intense, ruffling many feathers along the way.

This book, by Fraidie Martz and Andrew Wilson, is incredibly detailed, describing the writing, budget, casting, scenery, special effects, interpersonal relationships, reviews, and audience reception of most of the 120 or so plays Hirsch directed in his life. But it's also intensely personal, never losing sight of its fascinating central figure, and I enjoyed it all. I think I had nurtured an idea that I knew a lot of plays, but realized after reading this, that I have read or seen only a handful. So many plays, so little time!


  1. Sounds like this one really resonated. I'd like to hear more about what drama meant (and means) to you.