As general manager for the Blyth Festival, Rachael King’s job is to handle its operations and oversee its finances. She is also tasked with finding short-term accommodation for the more than 75 artists and crew that come to Blyth, Ont., to perform every summer. Six years ago, rent in the village was no more than $900 a month, but now, King says, they’re paying anywhere between $1,500 and $4,000.
Housing has become such an issue, the festival’s five-year plan now aims to address it, she says.
“We don’t have all of the answers to how that’s going to happen, but we’re committed to trying to sort that out so the festival of the future has a place to be.”
Amid a countrywide housing crisis, finding affordable accommodation is getting harder for summer festivals such as Blyth. As a result, Canadian theatre companies are finding alternative solutions – including getting into the landlord business themselves.
A few years ago the Blyth Festival, for example, purchased a four-unit, eight bedroom apartment building for its visiting actors. (After the summer season, they offer the apartments as residencies for playwrights as well as to artists for play development workshops.) Organizers are also renting apartments and houses year-round despite only needing them a few months.
The effect on the bottom line is clear: In 2019, the festival spent $90,000 on rent for actors and crew; in 2023 that number has risen to almost $150,000. “That’s a 50-per-cent increase year over and there has not been a parallel increase in wages or funding for the theatre,” said Gil Garratt, the Blyth Festival’s artistic director,
High demand and low availability has contributed to the skyrocketing prices he’s facing. Over the years, many of the bed and breakfasts, homes and farmhouses that were once used for short-term housing have been torn down, Garratt said, and several of those that remain are now run as expensive Airbnbs or have been converted into long-term rentals.
Sandi Becker, a Toronto-based stage manager who travels to where she’s needed around the country, has experienced the difficulties of finding temporary housing first-hand. This summer, she will spend two months working on the musical Maggie at the Charlottetown Festival in Prince Edward Island.
In February she received a list of accommodations from the Confederation Centre of the Arts in Charlottetown of landlords willing to rent to actors over the summer – but there weren’t many viable options. Some were unaffordable, and in other cases the landlords weren’t looking to rent for just two out of the usual four months during the height of tourism season, she said.
In addition, choosing a rental accommodation remotely is an expensive risk, Becker said. “I have no idea until I get there what it’s actually going to be like and if it’s going to be a livable situation, and if it’s not, I don’t have any other options.”
In the popular tourist town of Niagara-on-the Lake, the Shaw Festival started buying property eight years ago for visiting artists and staff. It now owns two multibedroom houses and leases 95 bedrooms in other homes around the area.
“There’s so little stock available in our area that we really have to control it or help them find it,” said Tim Jennings, Shaw’s executive director.
It’s a similar situation in buzzy Prince Edward County, at the other end of Lake Ontario. There, Jeremy Smith, the artistic director of Driftwood Theatre, purchased the Gillespie House B&B in Picton, Ont., in 2021. The theatre group, which until last year was based in Toronto, rehearses in the building for up to five weeks over the summer before taking their annual production on tour around Ontario. (This year the group will be presenting Living with Shakespeare.)
The Gillespie House is also used for housing, but it only has space for four out of the company’s 15 artists and technicians, most of whom travel from Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario, but some of whom are from the Maritimes.
Still, owning the property has made a big difference. “I don’t think Driftwood would have been able to successfully operate last year if we didn’t have the space that we did,” Smith says.
Without any major improvements, the housing crisis could have even more significant effects on theatre, Garratt says.
“At what point does that begin to impact the art making itself too? At what point does the absolute lack of availability of housing begin to impact the size of the cast of the shows you program? At what point does it impact the playwrights themselves in terms of the size of the stories they are telling?”
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