Back when he was in his 20s, just starting his acting career, stage veteran Arne Gundersen was touring the country with a show. As with any traveling production, actor housing was provided. On the surface, Gundersen thought he had lucked out. "They put us up at a what we thought was a quaint hotel in the South," he said. "It turned out to be the local 'cat house.'"
Matters have improved considerably since then. But a performer can still be dwelling far beyond the comfort zone when venturing into the hinterlands for a job with a regional theatre. Recently, an actress working at a theatre company in a western state was housed in a condo rental. It turned out to be infested with bat bugs, a blood-thirsty relative of the bed bug. Another New York-based performer employed for an engagement with a Midwestern theatre was deposited in a low-income apartment complex that did not have cable, a phone or internet. "I pointed out that the theatre was in violation of the terms of the contract and then called Equity about an hour after I got there," the actor told Playbill.com. "They moved us the next day."
"So frequently, the money in nonprofit theatres goes into buildings for the audience, not for the actors," said Nick Wyman, president of Actors' Equity Association, himself an actor. "You see gorgeous lobbies. Then you go to the actors' residence and you're back in the 19th-century-tenement era. You're surprised there's running water."
Two regional theatres recently spent millions of dollars to improve housing for its visiting artists. Last year, Pioneer Theatre Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, renovated a historic building into actor housing at a cost of $2.6 million. And this year, Goodspeed Musicals in East Haddam, CT, turned $5.5 million into a veritable village of artist houses near its theatre. Michael P. Price, longtime artistic director of Goodspeed, had been thinking of improving the housing for his productions' thespians for a decade. For many years, the company has relied on six, boarding-house-like apartments in East Haddam and nine condos across the Connecticut River in the town of Deep River.
"It wasn't good enough," said Price. "In negotiations with actors, their top [wish] was what room they were going to stay in. We knew we had work to do." Price told his board of trustees that housing was a priority. The theatre received half the needed money from the state's Department of Economics and Community Development. The rest of the cash was raised privately, and the complex permit process took a year and a half. "In all the small towns in Connecticut, there's a lot of interest in land issues and housing," explained Price.
By next spring, however, 17 new homes, totaling over 29,000 square feet — all in East Haddam within walking distance of the theatre — will be ready for residency. (Four are open at present.) They range in size from townhouses to three-, four- and six-bedroom homes. All told, there will be 65 fully-furnished bedrooms. Each will have its own bath, heating, air-conditioning and wi-fi. The apartments are also certified Green. "We wanted to get away from fossil fuels," said Price.
Goodspeed will continue to use the condos in Deep River for the time being. But the old housing in East Haddam, some dating from 1900, will be sold or torn down.
Wyman approves. "It looks like the town Celebration in Florida — it has that small-town-America feel," he said. "It's just charming."
Pioneer's new actor housing was also, like Goodspeed's, a project long-aborning. "We had been renting apartments in a big apartment building two blocks from the theatre," said Chris Lino, PTC's managing director. "It was always perfectly fine housing. But a couple things were going to happen: It was a big building and needed some infrastructure repairs which couldn't be done without evicting everybody; heat and hot water were becoming an issue; we also knew it was only a matter of time before the owners sold the building. It was prime real estate."
So Pioneer began to look for something more permanent. Equity requires that housing be within a half a mile of the theatre or transportation must be provided. It wasn't easy finding a property. Pioneer is located in a choice area. On one side was the University of Utah. In the other direction were pricey, desirable neighborhoods. The company spent six or seven years looking for a site. Finally, it found an ideal structure just one block away: a 1908 building once known as University House, and first used as a dormitory for female students at the university.
"It had become an eyesore, rundown," said Lino. "It was now a boarding house. There were 11 registered sex offenders in the building." Pioneer bought it in 2010. The theatre gutted the inside, but preserved the historic facade. "There was a change not only to solve our housing problem, but improve the neighborhood."
Now named Meldrum House — in recognition of the lead gift from Peter and Catherine Meldrum — it opened in August. There are 18 one-bedroom apartments and two large studio apartments inside, each with a kitchen, bathroom, flat-screen TV, wi-fi, an individually controlled thermostat, air-conditioning, and controlled water heaters for each bath. All the money for the renovation came from private donors. "I think it will become the catalyst for revitalizing that block," said Lino.
The investment is already paying off. "After the quality of the stage work you do, and the level you pay, quality of life is one of the most important things to an actor," stated Lino. "The word-of-mouth grapevine between actors about housing is almost instantaneous." Price said he is hopeful other theatres will follow the example set by Goodspeed. "I hope we set a standard for it. We have to house three casts simultaneously [Goodspeed is a two-theatre operation, often rehearsing its next show while running a current one]. Our dream is to create a colony similar to the McDowell colony, where creative people such as writers and composers can come and have a residency to work on their projects."
"If you want to get good actors to come up like they do to Goodspeed," said Wyman, "you're going to have to step up."