Rochdale revisited

A young collective plays with the history of the alt institution

THE ROCHDALE PROJECT directed by Simon Heath, with Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Melissa Good, Ryan Hollyman, Jamie Robinson, Birgitte Solem and Greg Thomas. Presented by Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson). Opens tonight (Thursday, March 2) and runs to March 19, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$30, gala fundraiser March 8 w/ cocktail reception and auction $100. 416-504-7529. 

Art is imitating life in the Rochdale Project, a collectively created work based on the notorious and short-lived alternative education centre in 1960s Toronto.

For actor and co-creator Aviva Armour-Ostroff, the experience of making the play has mirrored the experience of the college itself.

Rochdale students spent hours haggling about self-governance in the belief that they could improve on the status quo, though not really knowing how. In the same way, the Rochdale collective spent hours improvising on vague themes and stories, often wondering if it would amount to anything.

It did, and unlike Rochdale, which never quite got it together, faith triumphed over frustration.

“We had to have faith that it was going somewhere, but we couldn’t push too hard to get there or we’d lose things,” explains Armour-Ostroff.

Faith in the process led the collective – which includes Melissa Good, Simon Heath, Ryan Hollyman, Jamie Robinson, Birgitte Solem and Greg Thomas – to a plot featuring a regular girl from rural Ontario named Ruth (Good) who discovers the Rochdale building and its tenants for the first time when a taxi driver arbitrarily drops her at the front door.

Ruth encounters everything Rochdale has to offer, including drugs, riots, suicide, biker gangs and a naked guy.

“It’s a great premise for a television show,” Armour-Ostroff reveals, sounding a bit sheepish. “But we’re all too old to actually play the characters.”

Maybe, maybe not. Younger actors might not catch the thematic connection between the demise of Rochdale College and the challenges posed today by funding cuts and audience apathy to the cultural institutions it inspired.

“A lot of good things came out of Rochdale, including the Hassle-Free Clinic, which started there,” she points out. So did Toronto publishers Coach House Press and House of Anansi. As a matter of fact, so did Theatre Passe Muraille one of Canada’s oldest alternative theatres – where the play’s being performed.

Fortunately, these institutions are more resilient than Rochdale was. The college, decrepit and neglected, closed and was sold in 1973.

The Rochdale collective has been luckier, and efforts to band together to keep the play on the rails financially have been very successful.

“Greg (Thomas) held a fundraising poker tournament,” Armour-Ostroff recalls. “It all added to the depth of the characters.”

It’s been a busy four years both on and offstage, and unlike Rochdale the college, participants in Rochdale the play have experienced only positive changes. Director Heath’s four-year-old son is as old as the project itself actor Solem has a newborn, and actor Hollyman recently married.

The family feeling makes it hard to face disbanding after the run closes, but Armour-Ostroff has her plans.

“I started producing my own work because I wasn’t getting hired,” she explains. This fall she will produce the Lab Cab Festival at Factory Theatre, followed by another collective production about being housebound, which she’s working on with seven other women.

But for the time being, it’s all about Rochdale.

“It’s amazing to have a history play about people who are still alive,” she says. “Anyone you talk to who’s over 50 has some kind of experience with the building.”

Let’s hope that those same people – and their children, now adults themselves – will sign up for Rochdale the play.

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