Bunking together, giving up your bed, building your own: P.E.I. theatres get creative to house actors

As she was searching for an apartment, Sandi Becker was wondering whether she would be able to take a job she was offered at the Charlottetown Festival. (Submitted by Sandi Becker - image credit)
As she was searching for an apartment, Sandi Becker was wondering whether she would be able to take a job she was offered at the Charlottetown Festival. (Submitted by Sandi Becker - image credit)

As housing on P.E.I. gets more scarce and more expensive, theatre companies bringing in cast and crew for summer shows are thinking about new ways to put a roof over their heads.

It's an annual problem, particularly for summer shows, because company members are looking for places at the same time as tourists are flocking to the Island. But the market is tighter than ever these days.

Sandi Becker is an assistant stage manager for the Charlottetown Festival's production of Maggie, a new show co-written by singer-songwriter Johnny Reid. She is moving to Charlottetown from Toronto for June and July, and was surprised at the cost of housing.

"Most of the places that were being advertised were more expensive than the rent I'm paying in Toronto for my apartment," Becker told Island Morning host Laura Chapin.

"To be fair, I have one of the cheapest apartments in Toronto, but even so."

Guest rooms were available on the Island for $800 to $1,000 a month, she said, but she was looking for her own apartment. Those were closer to $1,500. Houses that could be shared were listing for as much as $5,000.

Anne and Gilbert
Anne and Gilbert

As she started to work her way up the list, from the lowest to the highest cost, Becker began to wonder if she could afford to take the job.

"I did have to do the math in my head, when does it get to the point where I'm losing money on this contract? Where I just get to the point where it's not worth it for me to travel and I'll just be unemployed in Toronto," said Becker.

She did eventually find a place, and hopes she will be able to get the same apartment again if she returns to the Charlottetown Festival next year.

A second job

Anne and Gilbert producer Campbell Webster has 14 cast and crew coming from off-Island this year.

With only three shows a week, the Anne and Gilbert company is not as busy as your typical Charlottetown Festival cast and crew. Because of that, Webster offers other opportunities for company members to cover some of their housing costs.

Laura Meader/CBC
Laura Meader/CBC

"I happen to own Timothy's. On their off-hours, to give them extra income when housing can be more expensive, we hold jobs for them at Timothy's," he said.

Last year, with the show running into October, Webster's company ran into trouble with housing leases that ended in August. As option after option fell off the table, Webster turned to personal resources beyond his coffee-shop business.

"I have a cottage and a house, and in the end I stayed somewhere else," he said.

"I gave my house to one actor and I gave my cottage to two other actors."

Theatres run on a shoestring all over Canada, said Webster, but the producer giving up his home for actors is probably still pretty unusual.

A DIY option

At the Watermark Theatre in North Rustico, artistic director Robert Tsonos said the process of finding housing starts with the selection of plays.

"As soon as I choose the play, I know in my head how many actors we're probably going to be able to cast on the Island, just because I know the pool of professional actors," said Tsonos.

While artistic merit comes first, it makes a big difference to the budget if he can cast locally. This summer, five of his seven performers are from P.E.I.

Kevin Yarr/CBC
Kevin Yarr/CBC

But finding rooms in North Rustico for even a very few company members can be a challenge, and he is considering other options.

He said he had one big question in his mind: "Do we need to build our own housing?"

Tsonos is thinking about putting a small apartment building on the same grounds as the theatre, perhaps including a total of six bedrooms. It is very early in the process, but he is looking at what funding might be available.

"We are hoping to find a long-term solution at some point," he said.