In 1999 Canadian playwright Michael Healey wrote a play entitled The Drawer Boy about a young actor from Toronto who is working with a theatre collective engaged in making a play about the plight of rural farmers in Ontario circa 1972. He billets with a farm family and subsequently discovers some dark secrets in this story about history, memory and personal identity. It premiered at Theatre Passe Muraille, the very theatre upon which the premise of the play is based. TPM had its origins as a collective within an alternative post-secondary institution (loosely speaking) of the period called Rochdale College. The play went on to much popular success and was the most produced play in U.S. regional theatres several seasons ago.
Now the collectively created The Rochdale Project (directed by Simon Heath) has again revisited the seen of the crime and attempted to re-create the tribal-love-rock free-for-all of a day that was as much about movements as it was about individuals.
In his classic work on alternative education, A.S. Neil wrote in Summerhill: "The function of the child is to live his own life -- not the life that his anxious parents think s/he should live, nor a life according to the purpose of the educator who thinks s/he knows best." In the end Rochdale College took that mantra to dystrophic extremes.
The play invites us to jump into this bowl of soup that was the early identity politics of the time and enjoy a humorous but fairly conservative romp through women's liberation, peace, race relations, psychedelics, ecology, sexual freedom, health foods, marijuana, the man, the establishment, communal living and so on. There is some obligatory nudity that sets the scene nicely at the beginning while the play proceeds briskly to get into its story.
For me this was the most interesting and revealing part of the creative process of this production. Collectively created theatre pieces that emerged from the sixties: Joseph Chaikin and The Open Theatre's production of The Serpent comes to mind as does Julian Beck and Judith Malina's work with the Living Theatre - clearly attempted to break down boundaries and create new theatrical styles. Paul Thompson's play, The Farm Show (1972), was the collectively created piece that came out of Theatre Passe Muraille upon which Michael Healey based The Drawer Boy and it too had a composition and feel to it that was new, extolling a style of acting and engaged interpretation that had not been seen before.
Such is not the case with The Rochdale Project and I say this with a great sigh of relief. What this group has done is take a mature look at a period that had a lot of egoism and immaturity about it and attempted to give it structure, form and content by making a play that involves complicated characters and conflicting emotions within a story that is framed by an important historical period. Ironically, it encompasses this within a style and form that artists of a previous generation were trying to break apart.
It should be mentioned here that a number of notable Torontonians were once in residence at Rochdale College and later went on to greater things. Greg Thomas plays the earnest young architect (a character that may or may not be based on internationally acclaimed architect Jack Diamond) who is influenced by Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes. Melissa Good is the young woman who is mysteriously dropped off by a taxi cab at the College one night and only reveals her tragic secret at the end of the play. Ryan Hollyman, Aviva Armour-Ostroff, Jamie Robinson and Brigitte Solem all contribute admirably in multiple roles that tell the story of a generation of young people who envision a better world but encounter a few obstacles along the way in obtaining the necessary materials to construct it.
I've always been a bit suspicious of plays that bill themselves as collectively created. At some point in the creative process, artistic leadership tends to emerge. And it's my guess that the success of this endeavour ultimately rests with director Simon Heath. The script is well crafted, the characters are interesting and the pace of the show holds our attention throughout. The humour is there when you need it, and the tragedy - which could easily have lapsed into melodrama - really grows out of the circumstances surrounding the characters.
If anyone challenges my assessment of this production I suggest we compare it to that other sixties era tribal-love-rock period piece being revived by CanStage later this month in Toronto to see if it captures the period any better. As they say, Hair today, gone tomorrow.