Every night, as he takes to the stage with his show Hirsch, Alon Nashman feels a special presence - even though he's technically alone on stage.
"I definitely feel his presence in the streets, in the theatre - his ghost is everywhere," Nashman says of the late John Hirsch, who co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre (now the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre) in 1958, and is the subject of Nashman's one-man show.
The play - which he co-created with another Canadian theatre legend, Paul Thompson - premiered at the Stratford Festival in 2012, and has travelled to theatre hotspots like New York and Edinburgh. But it's seeing its first Winnipeg run at the RMTC's Tom Hendry Theatre - just down the street from the RMTC Mainstage, now named after Hirsch.
Nashman describes Hirsch as both a “colossus” and a “complicated” man, who lead a remarkable, and sometimes tragic, life. Born in Hungary, Hirsch lost most of his family during the Holocaust. He ended up in Winnipeg in 1947, where he brought the idea of creating world-class theatre to the city.
Hirsch, who died in Toronto in 1989, went on to direct at the Stratford Festival and in New York, and to live in Israel - all places Nashman and Thompson visited in researching their play.
But they also hit spots closer to home.
"Here in Winnipeg, we went to the homes he lived in on Polson, and on Churchill Drive. And the people who live in those homes still have a few remnants of his time there. One of them had a collection of matchbooks that he had either sent or collected from all the places that he visited in his lifetime."
They also interviewed many of the people who knew Hirsch, and worked with him during his remarkable career.
"There used to be a stipulation that actors would show up to an audition with a classical piece, a contemporary piece, and a John Hirsch story," Nashman quips. "Everyone had one." He spoke with such stage luminaries as Len Cariou, Brian Bedford, Seana McKenna, and Martha Henry as part of his research.
One meeting particularly stands out for Nashman - speaking with Zoe Caldwell, the Broadway star who came to perform in Hirsch's landmark 1964 production of Mother Courage at MTC.
"She has early onset Alzheimer's, so it's not easy for her to remember everything," Nashman says. "But she remembered every detail of that production. She sang for me the song of Mother Courage, from 50 years ago, and that's now part of the play."
But performing Hirsch in Winnipeg has brought other stories forward, too.
"We had a man at the talkback the other night telling me that he was brought here 49 years ago to build sets and props for Mother Courage, and that he stayed. But he actually built the cart for Mother Courage, after which our cart [in the play] is modelled."
And more than that, Nashman says he feels bringing the play here is a milestone.
"Paul Thompson, my co-creator and director, said the show will not be complete until we play for a Winnipeg audience, and he's absolutely correct," he says.
"This is a homecoming. And this audience's reaction to the show means everything. It's the most informative, the most, let's say, sophisticated audience I'll ever play to in terms of John Hirsch. And I cannot tell you how gratifying it is to feel as if I am performing a kind of community service - re-awakening awareness of one of the founders, someone on whose shoulders the culture of Winnipeg is standing."
Hirsch runs at the RMTC's Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre until Dec. 14.