The impact of John Hirsch at Cinematheque

See a night of films about the legendary co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, John Hirsch at Cinematheque.
John Hirsch co-founded the Manitoba Theatre Centre. (Oscar Anderson)

In conjunction with Hirsch, Alon Nashman’s one-man play currently running at the Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre, Cinematheque is offering a night of films about the legendary co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre.

Mort Ransen’s 1965 documentary, John Hirsch: A Portrait of a Man and a Theatre, is a rarely seen marvel from the National Film Board archives. In a series of intense interviews with the artistic icon, Ransen demonstrates that—as the title suggests—the man and the theatre are impossible to pull apart. In those early years, MTC was John Hirsch and John Hirsch was MTC.

MTC was John Hirsch and John Hirsch was MTC- Alison Gillmor

Hirsch gives an immediate sense of the passion that drove him to create North America’s first regional theatre in 1958, just a decade after he had come to Canada as a teenaged Hungarian war orphan.

At the time, Hirsch recounts, there was a notion that founding a theatre in Winnipeg would be akin to founding a theatre “in Timbuktu or Siberia.” But his belief that theatre is absolutely crucial to the life of a community proved irresistible. “It is not some exotic orchid-like plant,” Hirsch explains, “but something everyday, important and useful.”

John Hirsch was the legendary co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre. (Courtesy Cinematheque)
Hirsch talks of theatre’s ability not just to entertain us but to shake us awake. He argues for its value in education (we see wonderful footage of children’s theatre) and cultural exchange (we watch French-Canadian actors performing for English-language audiences).

Ransen’s film is possibly even more fascinating to watch now than when it was made, and not just for its endlessly elegant black-and-white footage of 1960s Winnipeg. It’s interesting to compare the problems Hirsch faced getting a theatre company up and running with the challenges faced by the now long-established Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, and to wonder how well our current theatre scene matches Hirsch’s founding ideals.

Ransen’s straight-up portrait pairs well with Hirsch, local filmmaker Noam Gonick’s interpretive look at the man’s life. Framed by a story of children exploring an attic, the 11-minute film combines animation, models, projection and puppets with narration from an imagined last interview Hirsch gave as he was dying, too young at age 59, from complications due to AIDS.

The resulting hybrid piece is more creative and personal than a standard doc, but not quite as wild as the usual Gonick film, and it sometimes feels a little in-betweenish. But it’s also effective, especially in suggesting the profound, lifelong effect of Hirsch’s experiences as a Jewish child in Nazi-occupied Europe. (Hirsch chose Winnipeg as his destination because it looked safe, right in the middle of the continent and too far away from anything to be invaded.)

Hear Alison Gillmor on Up to Speed on Wednesday December 4 at 4:30. See John Hirsch: Haunted by Dreams, a triology of films about John Hirsch and the importance of independent theatre at 7 p.m, Cinematheque.


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