As a Canadian theatre artist who often works with regional and summer stock companies outside of my home in Toronto, I have a lot of conversations with my colleagues about our billeting experiences. In my career so far, I have been put up in a hotel room whilst away on contract exactly twice. The rest of the time, I’ve been staying with community members who offer up space for artists in their homes for a host of different reasons. As a result, I’m continuously honing the skill of making a home out of other people’s homes.
In my experience, there isn’t a whole lot of consistency in how billeting is handled by theatres across the country. At the best of times, a theatre will provide me a detailed housing list including testimonials from past artists, photos of the room and common areas, information regarding walking and driving distance to the theatre, and whether or not the hosts smoke or have pets. Once I choose what suits me best, I’ll be connected with the host so we can sort out the details of my arrival. At the best of times, the theatre sets all of this up at no cost to me.
At the worst of times, I might receive nothing but an address (after calling the theatre from the bus station upon my arrival), and I’ll cab over to my new home to find a bewildered host who wasn’t expecting me for another two weeks. I might be surprised to learn that there are no sheets for the bed or space for my clothes in the closet, and my bedroom might not “have a door, per se”. At the worst of times, I’ll be paying $150.00 Canadian dollars a week out of my own pocket for these accommodations – on top of the rent I’m paying for my Toronto apartment if I’m unable to find a subletter.
As far as luck goes, I admit that I’ve won the billeting lottery surprisingly often. My last several experiences have been staying with wonderful people who support the arts, and happen to live in designer homes that I’ll never be able to afford. Having a comfortable (and occasionally, luxurious) place to relax after work really can have a significant impact on my well-being on difficult contracts. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been grateful for a glass of wine and an inspiring conversation with my hosts at the end of a tough day.
Conversely, I’m grateful for the host who lets me have space and doesn’t take offence when I make a beeline for my room. Some hosts are perfectly happy to offer either. These hosts are angels.
However, regardless of the quality of the people or the accommodations, there is an inevitable level of awkwardness that comes with staying in a stranger’s home.
You might be thrilled to be falling asleep on sheets on Egyptian cotton for the first week – until you discover that your partner is unwelcome to join you on the weekend because they’re “old fashioned” when it comes to adult sleepovers. Or at least ones where both parties aren’t sporting wedding rings.
And then there’s always the awkwardness of cooking in someone else’s kitchen. I don’t know much about this personally, as I have what might be classified as an addiction to eating out – but if the conversations I have with my colleagues are any indication, it sucks. Even if you’re granted full access to the dishes and cooking implements, it’s hard to know if you’re allowed to use, say, spices or condiments, which seem silly to buy when you’re staying for a short while. What if you come up to make dinner and they are preparing a meal for their own family? What if you scorch one of their fancy pots or melt their electric kettle by placing it on a burner on the stove (ahem, all strictly hypothetical scenarios, I swear).
There are always small uncomfortable moments like these, and nearly all of them are easily solved with a little communication. In the grand scheme of things, it’s no big deal to, say, ask your billet if they can remove laundry that’s been sitting in the dryer for three days so you can do your own. What’s more difficult to navigate are the more serious issues that are related to personal boundaries. In the past, for example, a well-intentioned billet of mine did my personal laundry (unsolicited), and I was more than a little creeped out to discover my underwear had been neatly folded up on my bed by a perfect stranger. I’ve had another who was constantly knocking on my door asking me to read his screenplay, insisting I was born to be an actress (I’m a stage manager). And another who asked that the door to my room be kept open when I slept at night because the sound of it opening woke her up in the morning.
Faced with these issues now, I don’t hesitate to involve the theatre if I don’t feel at ease sorting things out directly.
At first, though, billeting was so foreign to me that I wasn’t sure what was acceptable and what was not. And sometimes, it was horrible.
I think my very first billeting experience takes the cake. On Day 1, I was told that I wouldn’t be receiving a key. She seemed confident we’d be able to coordinate schedules, so I shrugged it off. After the first day of work, I told her I was going out for drinks with the company, and she replied saying she had a cold, insisting that I arrive home by seven.
When I reluctantly returned home, she expressed concern that her dogs might escape when I left the next morning, and then asked if I wake her up so she could “hold them back”. I thought this was odd, but agreed and went to bed. I left at 7 AM the next morning, and feeling uncomfortable with the idea of waking up this strange woman, I slipped out without knocking on her door. She texted me during the day, furious that I had not complied. I apologized and said I’d be home by seven – to which she replied that she’d be out until eleven. So I wandered the streets of a city I didn’t know until late at night.
When I arrived “home”, she asked me another strange favour; would I be willing to remove all my belongings from the basement the next day, and then move back in the next evening? It wasn’t until this point that I contacted the theatre to get some help with the situation. I indeed took my stuff that morning, and I did not return.
After some investigating, it turned out the theatre had found the host on Airbnb, and that the apartment didn’t belong to her at all. My bizarre host was trying to make some extra money on the sly while pet-sitting for a friend – and the friend was stopping in for tea the day I moved out.
The system isn’t perfect, and artists tend to share horror stories like these a lot. In truth, I think most experiences fall somewhere in the middle, and it usually isn’t easy for the hosts either. I, for one, know that I’ve not always been a perfect guest. I’ve (you guessed it) burnt a fancy pot on the stove, sung in the shower a little too enthusiastically, kept a messy room, failed to take out the recycling on my designated day. I even had a cheque bounce once when it was cashed a couple of months after my stay, which was humiliating.
When I’m feeling stressed by the little things, I try to remember that it is an incredible act of generosity to invite someone to live in your home.
And that many theatres in small towns could not afford to house out-of-town artists if accommodation wasn’t provided by members of the community.
Taking all of this into consideration, how can we make the billeting experience more effective and pleasurable for all the parties involved? I don’t have all the answers, but some tips I’ve picked up along the way are to;
If the prices on the housing list look a little steep to you, inquire about getting a full or partial subsidy in addition to your salary. The answer might be no, but if you can get the theatre to contribute even $50.00 a week, your place may seem all the more liveable.
Make sure the theatre provides you with contact information for your billet beforehand. Don’t be shy about asking questions or seeming “intense” in your initial e-mail – it’s best to find out if you’re a match before you’ve unpacked your bags. Ask what size of bed they’ll be providing so a) you know what size sheets to bring with you and b) if there’s enough room for your partner. You’ll find out pretty quickly if bedding is provided and if having your boyfriend visit on the day off is a no-no. Setting up a dialogue and establishing boundaries from the get-go makes it so much easier to address issues as they come up. You’ll be able to relax and enjoy the experience – and maybe you’ll even make a new friend.
Provide feedback on the process.
Theatres typically work hard to find billets, but we need to provide them with our input so the system can improve. If you’re sent an accommodations list that lacks the information you need to make a decision, is outdated, or features places that are already booked, gently let them know. If necessary, remind them that providing a list of reasonable accommodations is required of them as per the Canadian Theatre Agreement. If you’ve seen a particularly good housing list template that another company is using, ask both companies if you can forward it along as an example.
Most importantly, check in with the Theatre at the end of the contract to let them know how it went. If your experience was outstanding, provide them with a testimonial that they can share with artists looking for a place next time. If the place or the hosts have any quirks or eccentricities, let the Theatre know, even if they weren’t a problem for you. And please please please, let the Theatre know if you felt unsafe or were harassed during your stay. All too often, I hear artists complain of the inappropriate behaviour of the same billets, who inexplicably remain on housing lists for years. They aren’t doing the Theatre any favours by harassing visiting artists, so if you’re comfortable doing so, ask that they be removed from the list. Future artists will thank you.
Stay safe, and happy Billeting!
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