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How many actors does it take to perform a home renovation?

Ross Manson (right) and his partner Neema Bickersteth completely renovated their home in eight weeks with the help of a volunteer posse.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

When he put out the call in late May, Ross Manson wasn't sure what kind of response he'd get.

The artistic director of Toronto's Volcano Theatre, known for experimental shows, is also an activist, running a housing list of sublets and short-term rentals for itinerant actors. Now he needed some housing help himself.

He and his partner, Neema Bickersteth, an opera singer, had been evicted when their building was sold and the new owners took over their apartment, which Mr. Manson had fixed up over the 14 years he had lived there. So they pooled their life savings and bought a small semi-detached house in Toronto's west end.

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At about $400,000, Mr. Manson says "it was the cheapest house we could find – about $100,000 cheaper than anything else."

It also needed to be completely renovated.

So Mr. Manson asked for help, using the same housing list that had over the past decade assisted so many others in finding places to live.

"I am hoping to organize a vast posse of volunteer help. ie. we're raising our metaphoric barn, and we need some help," Mr. Manson wrote in an e-mail.

Eight weeks after work began in mid-June with that volunteer posse, Mr. Manson and Ms. Bickersteth sit in their mostly finished house. Their "urban-artist barn-raising" has been a success, Mr. Manson says.

There isn't a kitchen yet, and the bathroom floor is proving a nightmare – putting in a heated floor in the space is tricky – but the house has been rewired, the plumbing overhauled and a wall that ran all the way down the main floor taken out, opening up the living space. Ceilings and walls have been ripped out and replaced. The place is painted.

There's a gorgeous new maple floor in the living room bought from a Buffalo, N.Y., firm that hires at-risk youth and salvages materials from demolished buildings.

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In all, more than 30 people showed up to help over eight weeks, while Mr. Manson was also at work directing A Synonym for Love, a Handel opera currently being staged at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel. Ms. Bickersteth also had to travel during that time to the east coast to perform in Oil and Water, a musical based on the life of Lanier Phillips, the only African American survivor of a shipwreck.

Some volunteers worked only a few hours; other devoted a week or more of their time. One couldn't help at all but brought over several cases of beer.

The renovations have cost the couple $45,000 so far. Of that, $10,000 was spent on electrical work, $8,600 on materials and only $7,500 on labour (the category most affected by the use of volunteers).

Mr. Manson's renovation began with a lot of planning and a detailed budget. "Because I run a theatre company, I'm used to budgeting projects. That's kind of what I do for my living."

He got help from a technical director who made the budget "more accurate. Still, there were a lot of surprises." He also hired a contractor, Kevin MacDonald, an actor who does contracting work between gigs. He worked for well below the industry standard price, Mr. Manson says.

The couple used some professionals: an electrician, plumber, someone to do the framing and drywall. But volunteers, along with Mr. Manson and Ms. Bickersteth, took care of all the demolition, ripped out floors, brought 4,000 kilograms of garbage to the dump, insulated the walls and painted. They also assisted the paid professionals.

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Mr. Manson says it's impossible to calculate how much the volunteers saved him, but he believes the renovation would have cost twice as much without them.

"We had four weeks of solid work – every day, usually one or two volunteers a day. Sometimes up to four a day. Four weeks of pretty much full-time labour. I don't know how much that would cost, but it would be a lot."

Steve Lang, a contractor with the Toronto-based Lang & Sons Contracting Ltd., said that with most home renovation projects, contractors would charge about $30 to $35 an hour for basic labourers. With the number of volunteers who showed up for Mr. Manson, that would add up to tens of thousands of dollars.

"When I saw what he spent, I thought he should get out of the theatre business," Mr. Lang says. "He should be renovating houses."

Mr. MacDonald, the contractor, estimates using volunteers cut Mr. Manson's renovation bill by 30 to 50 per cent.

"I've never done anything quite like this – wrangling all the volunteers. Some days we had puppeteers, actors and opera singers working side by side. "

Mr. Lang warns, however, that volunteers come with their own costs: co-ordinating them is practically a full-time job, they have varying capabilities and skills, and you need to make sure they're safe.

"You need extra sets of hands all the time [when renovating] but they need to know what they're doing and they need to be watched over."

Mr. Manson is unequivocal about the role that volunteers played in his renovation. They saved it, he says. He couldn't afford it without them. Many of them came to help to thank him for the housing list. Others, he says, "really just loved the idea of this barn-raising."

For Claire Calnan, a Toronto-based actor and director who spent a day pulling out a floor, helping Mr. Manson was "just a great way to thank him for his work for the artistic community." She says people in the theatre community help each other as much as they can, although renovating a house isn't the usual way.

"So much we do in arts is intangible. It's good to do something more concrete."

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