In a dingy upstairs room at the rear of the RMTC Warehouse -- fringe-goers would know it as the Son of Warehouse venue -- Alon Nashman has fashioned a makeshift shrine to the subject of his one-man show Hirsch.
The walls where the 54-year-old Toronto actor rehearses are plastered with scores of photos of the co-founder of the Manitoba Theatre Centre, his newspaper interviews, letters to friends, notes to members of his casts, telegrams and other memorabilia.
There is a snapshot of a young Hirsch with his younger brother and parents, who were all killed in a German concentration camp. Later in Winnipeg, where the teenage Hungarian refugee found a welcoming postwar home with the Shack family, he received a 1957 missive from British playwright John Osborne, who expressed gratitude to Hirsch for his kind words about his critically panned play Look Back in Anger.
"I was most thrilled to read that at least somebody had got through to what I was trying to do," Osborne wrote. "Very few people have, and at first this is rather depressing, but letters like yours can be tremendously encouraging."
Nashman likens the performance of Hirsch, which opens Nov. 28 at RMTC Warehouse, to a seance, with the array of posted remembrances serving as talismans, reminders and evocations of the man who has been called Canada's greatest director and a founding father of Winnipeg culture.
His contributions are not well known, especially outside Winnipeg. He is remembered with the John Hirsch Prize, which is awarded every second year by the Canada Council to a pair of emerging professional theatre directors.
"Unfortunately, in Canada there is an amnesia," says Nashman, who co-wrote Hirsch with the drama's director, Paul Thompson. "We don't acknowledge our heroes. Many people who are up for his award don't know who he is and what he did."
Nashman has performed the 90-minute, intermissionless monologue about 100 times, as far away as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. When he staged the 2012 première at Stratford, the show included more references to his time there as co-artistic director from 1967-69 and artistic director from 1981-85. Bringing it to Hirsch's adopted home of Winnipeg heightens the stakes.
"Here, it is way more personal because many people knew him from school, from Child's Restaurant, from seders and fundraising events," says Nashman, who might be best remembered for his outstanding 2007 fringe performance in Kafka and Son. "Every night there will be people in the audience who knew John better than I know John. I feel the responsibility is greater than ever and the impact is greater than ever."
That's why every time he walks by the statute of MTC's co-founders that stands outside the theatre, Nashman high-fives Hirsch, hoping to solicit his continued blessing of the play.
When Nashman was asked how he thinks Hirsch would have viewed being a title character, he pauses momentarily and then breaks into the heavy accent of his stage persona, saying, "I didn't know I was so interesting. It was hard enough to live that life, who wants to see it?"
The ever-quotable Hirsch was a zealot for his adopted country and someone who was the first to raise the flag of Canadian culture, says Nashman. He came to Winnipeg because he thought it would be safer to be in the middle of the continent in case of military invasion. He arrived at a time when the city was a near blank slate, artistically. It was a place he could leave his mark and he threw himself into amateur companies like Theatre 77, where he would paint sets, do the casting, market the shows and sell tickets. He directed some early shows at Rainbow Stage before Theatre 77 and Winnipeg Little Theatre merged into MTC, which launched its first season in 1958.
There wasn't much to put on its stage but American and British plays. He declared loudly that Canadians had to tell their own stories and wrote letters to Canadian literary stars such as Mordecai Richler and Margaret Laurence, asking them to consider becoming playwrights.
"He said at one time, 'I feel like I'm a cheerleader for a team that wants to run off the field,'" The enthusiasm of the politicians and the citizens didn't seem to be as great as his own, and this wasn't the culture he was born to. He was the most outspoken and the most vigorous promoter of Canadian theatre," Nashman says.
His legacy is the blue-chip array of directors, actors and producers who publicly call him a mentor. Tony Award winner Daniel Sullivan, who worked with Hirsch in Seattle, is one of them. So is Des McAnuff, the director of Big River, The Who's Tommy and Jersey Boys. Add RMTC's artistic director Steven Schipper, who served as an assistant to Hirsch at Stratford, to that list.
"I spoke to major actors in Canadian theatre for whom he was their first and greatest influence," Nashman says. "I spoke to people for whom he was the parent they couldn't please and I spoke to people for whom he was the tyrant that crushed them. I can't tell you how often conversations with prominent artists ended in tears because his influence was so profound.
"Many actors are out there on a stage across Canada still trying to please him."