I think that contemporary popular culture often does the 1960s a massive disservice and Rochdale: Livin’ the Dream, a play written by Scott Cavalheiro, Breanne Ritchie and Christopher Rodriguez, which plays at the Tarragon Theatre Mainspace as part of the Toronto Fringe Festival is certainly no exception.
This play centers around Rochdale College, an experimental student-run alternative education and co-operative living space on Bloor Street which was a Mecca for idealists and counterculture enthusiasts in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This story is centered on a group of characters that exceed even cartoon stereotypes of the era. Teenagers in the 1960s spoke differently, dressed differently and operated within a different social structure than the one that we are familiar with today. Dressing up characters from The Hills in slightly more colourful shirts and headbands and inserting the words “groovy man” into one’s vocabulary does not capture any essence of the way people interacted and behaved in the 1960s. The complex dynamics within the social realms of the 1960s are fascinating. The feminist movement, for example, was just beginning to take root in 1969 and despite the fact that many of the residents of Rochdale would have been free-thinkers and idealists, tensions surrounding gender norms and roles were constantly present, as new boundaries were being pushed and traditions and conventions questioned and annihilated every day. There was considerable disparity in opinion, even among the free-thinkers, about what the ideal vision for the future would look like, which would have led to considerable conflict and friction among groups of people, male and female, living together in these Co-Ops. This characteristic of the era seems essential for a play about Rochdale, but is entirely absent.
Every aspect of everyone’s life in 1969 was a political one and this generation of young people was one shining example of a group that refused to retreat into the smoke and to disassociate themselves from the corruption of the world, but instead took to the streets in protest, shared their thoughts and ideas in vibrant discussions and wrote some of the best poetry, music and novels to come out of the 20th Century. Between Civil Rights and Anti-War demonstrations, along with the Feminist Movement and the assertion that the young, the innocent and the idealists were the future of humanity, this generation changed and shaped the world that we take so for granted today. Drugs and sex were not the hub around which these people constructed their lives, and certainly not their only concern or thought. These things existed as part of their ordinary existence, as routine as drinking a cup of coffee, but didn’t detract from the real issues, the real interests that these young people championed.
Of course there was a fringe section of the counterculture movement who were disassociated from the world around them and that did delve deeper into the drug culture without any lofty plans to change the world, but even within this world, a tension existed between those who sought enlightenment, freedom and revolution and those who were simply drug addicts. This is a tension that would have benefited this play. I know that the students of Rochdale were not merely searching for a place to get stoned because many of their students were involved with such iconic cultural institutions as Coach House Press, Theatre Passe Muraille, The Toronto Free Dance Theatre, This Magazine, and House of Anansi Press. This work ethic, ambition, the quest for knowledge and passion for the betterment of the world is also entirely absent from the characters in this play.
It is also interesting that this play takes place in 1969, simply to accommodate a lame Bryon Adams joke (one of over a dozen anachronistic references), yet centers on Rochdale closing due to financial problems. In reality, Rochdale closed in 1975, in a completely different social and cultural environment than that of the late 1960s, which means that even the characters that are represented as being this College’s last tenants are significantly anachronistic.
A complete lack of dramaturgy, even for a Fringe Show, is a strong pet peeve of mine. Yet, what frustrates me so much about this play in particular is that all that makes the 1960s, and even the mid 1970s, such fascinating times in history and the issues and dynamics that, when imbued into characters, make fascinating relationships, is completely dismissed. I know that sex, nudity, drugs and the word fuck can seem inherently “edgy” for a playwright, especially to those whose experience with the theatre is largely straightjacket productions of Shakespeare and Shaw, but these elements on their own cannot make an interesting or compelling play.
According to Now Magazine, in 2006 there was a collective creation based on Rochdale at Theatre Passe Muraille directed by Simon Heath, with Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Melissa Good, Ryan Hollyman, Jamie Robinson, Birgitte Solem and Greg Thomas. This play made me wish I had seen it.
Rochdale: Livin’ the Dream plays at Tarragon Theatre’s Mainspace (30 Bridgman Avenue) at the following times:
Tue, July 6 1:15 PM
Wed, July 7 11:00 PM
Fri, July 9 3:30 PM
Sat, July 10 8:00 PM
all tickets $10 at the door or book in advance by calling the fringe hotline at 416.966.1062 or go online at http://www.fringetoronto.com/.