50 years later, a new “Rochdale Project”: Director Nina Lee Aquino on mounting David Yee’s new play at SummerWorks

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

The cast of rochdale; photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

What remains of the Rochdale Project, hatched in downtown Toronto during the 1960s? 

Well, there is the “The Unknown Student,” a sculpture designed by artist (and former Rochdale resident) Derek Heinzerling. It sits cross-legged, head bowed to raised knees in front of the 18-storey building which once housed the infamous Rochdale College at the corner of Bloor and Huron Streets. One can almost imagine this 500-pound bronze figure is ruminating on the project’s legacy. 

More recently, Governor General’s Award-winning playwright David Yee’s play rochdale has revisited that legacy. The play is set against the political and social crucible of 1969: the Vietnam War; the Apollo 11 moon landing; the indictment of the Chicago Seven; the election of Richard Nixon with Trudeau Senior in office; and the FLQ’s bombing of the Montreal Stock Exchange. Directed by the multi-award-winning Nina Lee Aquino, rochdale explores the fictions and facts within Rochdale College’s legacy. This Bespoke project, which reunites frequent collaborators Lee Aquino and Yee, premiered at York University last fall, and makes a much-anticipated return to this year’s SummerWorks Presentations programming.

Just how many Torontonians recall the aspirations – and the expiration – of Rochdale College? Those attending the University of Toronto and familiar with Campus Co-operative Residences on the University of Toronto’s St. George campus likely have some notion of this daring – and doomed – late Sixties counterculture experiment in cooperative housing and alternative education. Rochdale College accorded 840 students affordable housing, health and social services and free tuition – its hippie ideals a pointed rebuke of the elitism of traditional academia. Unlike the stuffy discourse of university lecture halls, “classes” at Rochdale were discussions among like-minded free thinkers, led by “resource people”, not professors. A “non-degree” could be obtained for a nominal fee… for those who wanted one. Eventually,however, the burden of idealistic freedom within hard financial realities proved too much. The college became a hedonistic squatter’s den of drugs, crime, and debt, and was shut down in 1975. 

Nina Lee Aquino

In addition to Rochdale’s cultural and historical significance, the opportunity to collaborate with Yee was a major attraction for Lee Aquino. I will always work on a David Yee playespecially if it’s a new one.” She is unequivocal that “he’s my favourite playwright in the whole universe, and it’s always an honour to premiere his new work.” And yes, the fact that Rochdale has sunk into relative obscurity made the play especially appealing. Rochdale was a “legit, important part of Canadian history that birthed a lot of important movements and artists and people” – among them Dennis Lee (Alligator Pie) and science-fiction author, editor and collector Judith Merril, and (through just-next-door Yorkville) future stars like Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Gordon Lightfoot. 

“Canada has a rich, vibrant, colourful and rebellious history,” Lee Aquino avers. “And even though the play is an (re)imagined historical piece, the events that inspired David are based in the truth/reality of that time period. It is always great to work on a piece that gives a window (or windows) into a time and space that we know nothing about. The more we know about our past, the deeper an insight it can give about our future. And this is especially true when you’re working with the young Canadian artists of today.” As with rochdale’s premiere at York, this production will once again be performed, designed and executed by the 4th-year students of York University’s Theatre Program. “It’s important that they know our country’s different kinds of legacies and historical failures” asserts Lee Aquino, so that this knowledge can make their art “even deeper”.

The student-artists’ commitment to the project has been a source of tremendous satisfaction for Lee Aquino. She is always surprised and amazed at how the students “end up really loving and committing wholeheartedly to the creation”. A play is a play, “but this being our 3rd or 4th Bespoke project, I love how the students fall deeply in love with the plays that David ends up creating for them. And that’s satisfying and rewarding, and refuels why we do what we do as theatre artists.” Each new project with each new class is an unexpected adventure. And though she always prepares for the worst, the students always take ownership of the piece and the role(s)/character(s) that they end up playing. “And because of that, the process (and end result) is always top calibre, and the stakes for everyone, including myself and David are always high…it’s always a joy to create in such an environment.”

It has also been a joy for audiences: rochdale sold out its debut run at York University last November, and is stirring a strong buzz ahead of its SummerWorks run. The production and performances are of high quality – and contemporary audiences have a strong appetite for seeing art as an instrument of the future of inclusion and equality that the Rochdale Project itself aspired to, performed by a new generation of change agents. Lee Aquino estimates that the play “speaks strongly because we’re going through another cycle of history where, I think, we’re all hungry for that counterculture rebellious spirit. We’re craving for a space where we can do something important for the world; we’re in a restless place, and we want to do something about what’s happening around us. rochdale, I think, captures that spirit and courage and risk-taking.” 

The cast of rochdale; photo: Jeremy Mimnagh

News You Can Use

What: rochdale, Written by David Yee | Set Design by Mona Farahmand  | Costume Design by Tiana Kralj | Lighting Design by Ella Wieckowski  | Sound Design by Johnathon North | Composed by Debashis Sinha | Production Manager: Julian Iacob & Julia Carrano  | Stage Manager: Caitlin Mears | Technical Director: Michael Reynolds & Adam Breen | Head of Wardrobe: Ellie Koffman  | Assistant Director Jessie Whyte | Dramaturg Matt McGeachy & Adam Corrigan Holowitz | Producer Marlis Schweitzer | Assistant Producer Jayna Mees | Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
Performed by Tomasz Pereira-Nunes, Dean Bessey, Leanne Hoffman, Carina Salajan, Adrienne Ramsingh, Ori Black, Claudia Hamilton, Sabrina Marangoni, Julia Demola, Nelvin Law, Brandon Pereira, Dustin Hickey, and Sofia Gaspar

Who: Audiences 18 years of age and older; Advisory: nudity, coarse language and herbal cigarettes


  • Thursday Aug. 8: 9 to 10 pm
  • Friday Aug. 9: 6:30 to 7:50 pm;  Pre-Show chat 5:30 PM
  • Sunday Aug. 11: 8 to 9:20 pm
  • Saturday Aug. 17: 3:30 to 4:50 pm
  • Sunday Aug. 18: 6:30 to 7:50 pm

Where: Franco Boni Theatre in The Theatre Centre, 1115 Queen St W, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: Summerworks.ca

©️ Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / Sesayarts Magazine, 2019

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