Artist Housing: The Mountainview Suite
first things first, Where are we going to put folks?
“Where I am from, these are the projects.” That actor is from Georgia. She was talking about the little houses that a theater uses to house its artists. If you were a “company member” for the year, you could stay there rent free. She had a little house one-bedroom house to herself, and I had the mirror image next door, but with 2 bedrooms because I had a kid with me.
For the actors with a full year contract, the theater also offered a stipend to rent a place in town. One married pair of actors rented a house in town with their 1 year old. This in-town couple made me and my 2 year old a lunch of tomato salad, goat cheese, fresh bread, artichoke dip and some bean crackers I had never seen before. They bought everything from the co-op down the street and the farmer’s market that was in permanent residence in the parking lot. They apologized profusely for all of the plastic, electronic toys that the neighbors had brought by. We ate outside on their little lawn and said hi to other actors as they passed by on their way to their own rented places. The house was decorated by the full-time owner, who was working elsewhere that year, with colorful paintings and patterned blankets and rugs.
Another married pair of actors stayed in rent-free artist housing with their 1 year old. The rent-free folks decorated their house with decals in the baby room, big potted plants and a huge poster of their wedding night. They made scrambled eggs and Bisquix pancakes with Aunt Jemima syrup - I remember well because a friend and I watched in shock as the cook emptied half of the bottle onto his own stack, turning the pancakes into islands. We all sat at the formica kitchen table and then played with the plastic and electronic baby toys on the carpet in the living room - no apologies. Their 1 year old knocked over one of the potted plants, pouring dirt all over the tan carpet. It took all four grown-ups to figure out how to clean it up - the apartment only came with a broom and dustpan.
The co-op does not carry Bisquix or Aunt Jemima. I pointed my father in the direction of the co-op the day he arrived to visit. He was going to stock the fridge with his favorite things and see what cookies this town had to offer. He returned from his walk without a bag and a free-school-lunch-sized carton of milk. He had walked the aisles, taken in every single price, voiced a hard ‘no.’ and walked out with enough milk for one coffee. He figured out fast how to take the bus and headed to the normal grocery store a few miles away. The rent-free actors had done the same dance the first day they arrived, too.
Both families had exactly the same income that year. Maybe one family was collecting more residuals from past television or commercial work, but the theater was paying all four of them the same. I know all of them well enough to know what all of their parents did for a living and where they lived. A few of them may have been supplementing with family money - I believe the renters in town mentioned that it was a more expensive choice for them, and I forget how they said that they made it work. But, it was notable that both families, in more or less similar $ circumstances, had figured out how to make little pop-up homes that suited them that year.
The little houses looked like the projects where I am from, too. And the post-war baby boom housing that fills the suburbs of the city I grew up in. You enter into the main room that has a couch on one wall, a little kitchen on the opposite wall and a kitchen table with two chairs in between. I requested a blender and my friends requested a rice cooker. They were waiting for us in our cabinets when we arrived. Next to the kitchen sink was an upright washing machine, no dishwasher. The bedrooms have a dresser and a closet and enough room to walk around the bed on 3 sides. The bathroom was as economically spaced. Not a 450 square foot Manhattan studio, but smaller than every other non-Manhattan place I have ever stepped into.
I loved it.
The big window on the couch wall framed the mountains. I could toss dirty clothes directly into the washing machine in the kitchen without leaving the bedroom. The carpeting was old enough that potting soil spills could be classified as ‘patina’.
Of all of the places theaters have put me up this place was the least stylish with best view, the safest late night walk home with the most calories expending mounting that hill, the easiest to keep pretty clean with the mustiest smell
Where and how theaters stash their visiting artists makes an out-sized impact on how a theater operates. And the difference in the places is wild! The actor that compared our places to public housing did not end up coming back for another season, nor did the family that stayed rent-free like us. But the folks who rented in town did stay and bought houses. I got a photo a few months ago of sheep grazing in a huge field at the foot of mountain taken from their barn.
The Tromsø Ibsen Festival. That is the name of a crazy idea that is a little about theater, and a lot about housing. I am going to keep writing about it until it stops sounding crazy and starts to make sense.
The first item to tackle is where do you put your visiting artists? and a bigger question to start to put in the simmer pot is do you want them to stay?