SummerWorks: A bold, revolutionary experiment in housing & education implodes in the spirited, insightful Rochdale

Rochdale ensemble. Costumes by Tiana Kralj. 


GovCon and Theatre@York take us to the turbulent, rebellious times of social change and sky-high dreams in 1969 Toronto as a group of counterculture university students undertake a bold and ambitious new housing and education cooperative model in Rochdale. Written by David Yee; directed by Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Jessie Whyte; and choreographed by Brandon Pereira, Rochdale premiered as part of Theatre@York’s 2018/19 season. We come upon an experimental campus in crisis; still under construction, and facing the serious challenges of funding, self-government, housing infrastructure, crashers and bad press. Rochdale had its second SummerWorks performance in The Theatre Centre’s Franco Boni Theatre last night.

Rumours of Rochdale GM Whitman’s (Leanne Hoffman) death have been greatly exaggerated; and when she returns after a two-month absence, she finds her office in shambles, the place in chaos and her boyfriend Dennis (Dean Bessey) replacing her as GM—plus, her best friend Cryer (Adrienne Ross Ramsingh) didn’t go to her funeral! Dennis and fellow Governing Council (Gov Con) colleagues Suzy (Margarita Valderrama) and Kitten (Julia DeMola) are at a loss as to how to deal with plumbing and electric issues, mounting bills, AWOL contractors, crashers and a dodgy elevator that needs to be sweet talked to work. And reluctant student security and safety officer Gerry (Tomasz Pereira Nunes) doesn’t seem particularly suited to or interested in his job.

Student resident Athena’s (Claudia Hamilton) has a theft to report; she eschews locking her room because they’re supposed to be a cooperative community. Shabby (Carina Salajan) is now the resident nurse after they lost their previous medic. Resident stoner Skye (Sabrina Marangoni) is trying to be helpful, but can’t remember what she needs to tell Whitman. And an Asian student dubbed Mao (Nelvin Law) doesn’t speak English—or does he? Rounding out the situation are slick “suit-minded” UofT student liaison Emmett (Ori Black), who becomes friendly with free love hippie girl Flower (Sophia Gaspar); drug dealer Fitch (Brandon Pereira, multitasking with several roles); and newcomer American Friar (Dustin Hickey).

Amidst preparations for a Vietnam War protest and a rooftop viewing of the moon walk, rebellion brews within. Rochdale’s system of self-government is based on the very model they’ve been howling against—and the Gov Con folks are now viewed as “the man”—placing the administrative/organizational body in jeopardy as discussions of war, classism, capitalism and civil rights turn to a debate on governance models. Viewed from the outside as hippie troublemakers, Rochdale’s public funding is in a precarious position as it finds itself continually defending itself against news stories of drug dealing, motorcycle gangs and overdoses on campus. While striving to live outside of the mainstream, they must still rely on mainstream institutions (government and university) for support—a challenging position, to be sure—and all the bad press isn’t helping their cause. Overwhelmed by the demands of administration, and bogged down by disorganization, this revolutionary experiment eventually implodes.

Joyful and spirited, Rochdale thrums with the hope, energy and struggle of a time of great social and technological change; and this story of experimentation, struggle and heartbreaking frustration is told with humour, insight and authenticity. Great work all around from this ensemble of 2019 York University Theatre grads on this look at Toronto’s counterculture in the late 60s, 50 years later. Stand-outs include Hoffman’s brilliant, poetic and beleaguered Whitman; Hamilton’s fierce Black Panther warrior Athena; Law’s enigmatic, passionate Mao; Marangoni’s loveable stoner Skye; and Ross Ramsingh’s intense, introspective Cryer. And the multitasking actor/choreographer Pereira does an impressive juggling act, going from comic (the silent, hungover Naked Man and the accidental Hare Krishna Harry ), to menacing as the drug dealer Fitch, to savvy revolutionary (Boris) and beacon of hope (Astronaut).

With big shouts to the design team for their evocative work on creating this time, space and vibe: Mona Farahmand (set), Ella Wieckowski (lighting), Tiana Kralj (costume) and Johnathon North (sound).

Rochdale has three more performances in the Franco Boni Theatre at the Theatre Centre, closing on August 18; check the show page for exact dates/times. Tickets available online or in person at the box office; it was a packed house last night, so advance booking strongly recommended. For more info on the production and its process, visit the Rochdale 2019 website.

Also, as part of SummerWorks Exchange Day 2, Rochdale will be hosting  MOVING PUBLICS—An In Transit Conversation on August 12; the bus will depart from The Theatre Centre at 3:00 p.m. and participants are asked to do some preparatory reading and RSVP in advance when booking their Exchange Day Pass.



New Ideas Festival: Connection, reflection & living with illness in thoughtful, funny Week One program

Alumnae Theatre Company opened the 29th New Ideas Festival (NIF) with a strong Week One program in its Studio space last night. The annual juried festival includes three weeks of short new plays and full-length readings, including four plays and one reading each week.

Call by Rosemary Doyle, directed by Rebecca Ostroff. A hilarious look at the never-ending hum of talking without communicating, set in a busy office environment where chatterbox Millennial receptionist Sandra (Jennifer-Beth Hanchar) is constantly in conversation with a friend in between fielding business calls. Frazzled HR Manager Laura (Shalyn McFaul) is unplugged on a meditation retreat, struggling to maintain silence and stay off electronic devices. Meanwhile, her skeezy colleague Mark (Andrew Batten, who also wrote a play, included in this week’s program) is covering for her at work, wreaking havoc in her absence with a laissez faire attitude and inappropriate remarks, including a hysterical comedy of errors over some texted photos. In a digital world, with so many devices to connect us, how connected are we really?

Or Not to Be by Andrew Batten, directed by Julia Haist. A heartfelt and genuine, at times funny, look at the Big Question. Thirty-two-year-old actor Ben (Arun Varma) contemplates his life in the big picture as he prepares to play Hamlet in a production directed by his best friend Sebastian (Jason Pilgrim). Putting on a brave face for the world, you’d never know he had a physical and emotional battle raging inside him; and he keeps much of this even from his loving and supportive wife Sarah (Jada Rifkin). Ben finds he must make some choices, no matter how much it hurts the ones he loves. Lovely work from the cast in this thoughtful examination of the meaning of life and death.

Teach Her My Name by Michael Kras, directed by Paige Foskett. A touching portrait of young couple Beth (Kate Schroder) and Andrew (Steven Pereira), new parents whose lives are changed forever when Beth, who lives with mental illness, assaults a woman at a bar. Now only able to see her baby during weekly visits, Beth is desperate to there for her daughter and worried she’s losing her husband. Andrew is doing his best, but is at his wit’s end working long hours and trying to be a father on his own, with the help of their parents. It’s not what they had in mind when they learned they were going to be parents; and Andrew can’t make Beth stay on her meds. How much can love take? A beautiful and intimate piece, with quiet moments full of repressed longing and disappointment.

D Cup by Alicia Payne, directed by Eilish Waller. There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the women we meet at the mall lingerie store. When Peaches (Barbara Salsberg) leaves her elderly mother Mama (Margaret Sellers) with store clerk Lacey (Claudia Yang) to try on bras at the store while she goes to the washroom, Lacey realizes Peaches has been gone a long time. The highly discerning Candi (Kim Sprenger), a store regular, arrives and is put out that her favourite clerk called in sick. She is soon delighted by Mama, who has a knack for selecting the perfect bras for Candi. Friendships and revelations, and the deep connection between mothers and daughters, emerge in this charming dramedy.

Connection, reflection and living with illness in the thoughtful, funny New Ideas Week One program.

The Week One program also includes a reading on Saturday, March 11 at noon: Riverkeeper by Katherine Koller, directed by Rebecca Grace.

The NIF Week One program continues until March 12 and the festival continues to March 26; evening performances are at 8 p.m. and matinées are at 2:30 p.m., including talkbacks after the readings (noon on Saturdays) and the Saturday matinées. It’s an intimate space and a popular fest, so advance booking strongly recommended: get your advance tix online or arrive early at the box office (opens an hour before show time; cash only).



More fine plays in progress – New Ideas Week Two program

Another series of fine works in progress at Alumnae Theatre Company’s New Ideas Festival (NIF) Week Two program this week.

The Deepest Trench (Chloë Whitehorn, dir. by Justen Bennett) is a sharp-humoured three-hander, an “almost love story” featuring a brother (Ryan, Ryan Bainbridge), sister (Kate, Stephanie Barone) and sister’s BFF (Emma, Jen Viens) – with relationship dynamics shifting when Emma comes to live with the sibs. The witty repartee includes some fun current event and pop culture references (the new Pope, the Bugs Bunny Abominable Snowman episode and Buffy ep. 4.04), as well as some very sweet in-jokes between Ryan and Emma. Ryan’s sweet, sensitive nature appears at first to be in direct contrast to the women’s brasher, aggressive approach to life – but things can change when times get rough and life-changing situations are at hand. Lovely use of storytelling. Excellent ensemble. Interested to see where this goes.

Two Actresses (R.J. Downe, dir. by Pamela Redfern) is a charming, fun satire of two community theatre divas and their visit to the E.R., which interrupts their dress rehearsal. Margo (Anne Harper) and Susan (Jane Reynolds) clearly dislike each other. A lot. And it turns out that, over their decades-long frenemy relationship, they’ve wanted more than the same parts. Nice work from Harper and Reynolds. Would love to see Margo and Susan interact over the course of their history together.

Over the Edge (Catherine Frid, dir. by Pomme J-Corvellec) is a timely one-hander, given that the World Figure Skating Championships are on this week (in London, Ontario). The play is a moving, intense and thought-provoking look at the inner and outer workings of a young competitive Singles skater, Janet (Caroline Toal), as she faces an extremely difficult decision. Nice work from Toal, who gives a lovely combination of passion, determination and desperation to the young athlete. Would love to see this done with multi-media, with skating footage, music and medical imaging.

Pieces of Penelope (Gina Femia, dir. by Janet Kish) takes us across time, space and realities as we visit the parallel worlds of mythic Penelope (Caitlin Robson) and present-day Penny (Kristen Zaza) as they both await their husbands’ return from war. Storytelling and magic realism are put to extremely effective use in this touching, dramatic and sexy play. Rounding out the excellent all-female ensemble are Sarah McCully as Penny’s friend Sarra, and Jessica Quartel, playing multiple roles – Melantho (Penelope’s friend & servant), Odysseus and Penny’s husband Owen. Watching this version of the Penelope story, I could not help but think of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – only in this case it’s a myth meets modern world take on the tale. Looking forward to seeing the evolution of this piece.

The Week Two reading Lullaby for the Abandoned (Rain Chan, dir. by Brenda Darling) is up and running as I post this. I was unable to attend today’s reading, but will check in on the Alumnae blog to see if they posted on it later this week. The Week Two program continues with two performances today and closes tomorrow afternoon.

The NIF Week Three program and reading – the final of the 2013 festival – go up next week (March 20-24).

What have you seen at NIF? Any favourites?

New Ideas Fest opens with a very strong Week One program

Alumnae Theatre’s New Ideas Festival (NIF) turned 25 last night as it kicked off its opening night of three weeks of new, short plays in progress with its Week One program.

NIF Week One includes a remount of Shirley Barrie’s Revelation, directed by its original director and NIF co-founder Molly Thom – part of the 25th anniversary celebrations. Husband and wife John (Steven Burley) and Mary (Patricia Hawk) awaken side by side in the hereafter and become reacquainted as they await their final judgement. Charming, imaginative and funny – and featuring sound design by the late Martin Wolfman, a great friend to the theatre and Alumnae in particular – Revelation is as more about the post big freeze personal accounting of lives lived than it is about the Big Guy’s take on things.

Still Waters (Suzanne Gauthier, directed by Stacy Halloran) is also a sweet, fun husband/wife two-hander. After downsizing from their quiet Leaside home to a condo in downtown Toronto, Frank (John Illingworth) has set up a sleep aid contraption for his wife Monica (Sandra Burley) – with the unfortunate result that it’s having the opposite effect for which it was intended. The  parts (purchased at the classic “Dad store” Canadian Tire) and running water sound are driving Monica nuts! A comic, touching slice of an older couple’s life.

Say the Words (Tina McCulloch, directed by Kimberley Radmacher) is a beautifully written and acted monologue of a young woman’s (Em, played by Alexandra Manea) reflections on love and loss. Words spoken and unspoken are recalled, and interpretations considered as Em remembers the relationship and considers how she could have responded in a way that reflected how she really felt. Speaking to a former female lover, now dead, the actor can be cast as a man or a woman – and the piece has room to evolve in terms of length and staging.

Stalled (Eugenie Carabatsos, directed by NIF co-founder Kerri MacDonald) takes us on a journey of memory as Maggie (Julie Cohn) takes her beloved car to be junked. As she recalls various moments from her life related to the car (also a character in the play), we meet her family (Dad – Rob Candy and sister Katie – Jillian Welsh), friends and ex-boyfriends (Johnnie – Richard Niu and Doug – Alex Sims), and a friendly stranger (Mark – Andrew T. Gaunce) as this drive down memory lane becomes an assessment of her life. Great ensemble work and really fun, creative staging of the car – which you really need to see for yourself.

A very strong week of work all around, NIF’s Week One program runs until Sunday, March 10 and includes a one-time reading of Jamie Johnson’s Falling, directed by Ed Rosing, on Saturday, March 9 at noon. There will be talkbacks after all the NIF readings and Saturday matinées.

NIF continues with its Week Two program next week (March 13-17).



Art, words & stage

Busy times continue, but I wanted to give a shout out to some upcoming events and shows, including two that open today:

Inez/Recent Paintings: this exhibit has been up since October 5, but has its official opening tonight (Thurs, Oct 18 from 6-9 p.m.) and runs until November 4 at Fran Hill Gallery (285 Rushton Road, Toronto). For more info and gallery hours, please visit the gallery site:

International Festival of Authors (IFOA): Also opening today (October 18 – 28) at various locations, including venues at Harbourfront Centre and the Ex. Check the website for full programming, venue and reservation info:

Act2 Studio production of Dinner with Goebbels: October 25-28 at Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen St. East – at Logan). Written by Mark Leith and directed by Les Porter. For more info, visit the Studio2 site page:

I’ll be back at Alumnae Theatre next week, working with designer Ed Rosing on the set for Alumnae’s upcoming production of The Drowning Girls, which runs in the studio November 16 – December 1. Written by Beth Graham, Charlie Tomlinson and Daniela Vlaskalic, and directed by Taryn Jorgenson, with assistant director Antara Keelor – and featuring actors Jen Neales, Tennille Read and Emily Smith. For a peek at this show, take a look here: