By any measure, Vancouver’s real-estate crisis is a serious matter. But local actor-playwright Jenn Griffin was not about to pen a tragic play about the situation—mostly because the idea of million-dollar-plus shoeboxes and $2,200-per-month apartments has reached such absurd heights.
“We find ourselves in such an exaggerated circumstance right now,” Griffin says with a wry laugh over the phone from her Vancouver home. “For me, I don’t think it befits a drama. We’re in farce with the real-estate crisis.
“With comedy at its best, fingers crossed, then we’re at the peak of stress,” adds the woman behind plays like Drinking With Persephone and Via Beatrice, “and in crisis there’s a lot of humour, because the filters are gone. That’s where the humour is earned: in crises.”
The hard question her new play House and Home, which originated as an Arts Club Silver Anniversary Commission, really poses to the overstretched inhabitants of the second-most-unaffordable city in the world is: how far are you willing to go to own a house, or just to put a roof over your head? In the case of her cash-pinched protagonists Hilary and Henry, the answer means abandoning their values. It also encompasses a foray into the lucrative short-term rental market, packing up their entire house, and a back-yard yurt. Throw an all-too-familiar rat infestation into the mix and you’ve got the makings of the kind of existential meltdown Samuel Beckett might have appreciated.
Griffin drew inspiration from her own life, starting with a string of crappy rentals over the Edmonton-raised artist’s first 25 years in Vancouver, from about 1981 to 2005.
“It was a series of evictions, terrible landlords, and crazy rents,” she recalls. “We’re talking about guys that would come in with keys before having to kick them out. I lived in this place in Gastown where we had to wear business clothes so other people would think it was an office. There were evictions and couch surfing and actual homelessness.”
Then, Griffin and her partner found themselves unlikely homeowners. “By hook and by crook, my partner and I got a down payment together and got in under $500,000 at a time when the West Side was cheaper than the East Side,” she marvels. “And like your average Vancouverite, we didn’t know that it would triple [in value].”
As a homeowner, Griffin suddenly found herself feeling like she’d sold out. As an artist, she had felt like a change-maker, and now she felt awkward to be “part of the owning class”.
In her play, the central couple, Hilary and Henry, are struggling to reconcile their values. The obsessively altruistic Hilary is a former waitress-poet who now does social work, but she’s getting burned out and is going on stress leave. “She’s off her axis and the Earth is off its axis,” Griffin explains.
Meanwhile, Henry is a lawyer who has a single, bankrupt client. They are house rich, cash poor. “They’ve overspent, and a lot of it was emotional spending,” Griffin says. “The selfish people they’ve become is nothing they’re happy about.”
The solution involves that back-yard shack, built with the last of Hilary’s RRSPs. But Griffin recognizes that their “plight” poses the kind of problems that pale in comparison to those of, say, their tenant, who has to give notice because of rodents, or those of House and Home’s homeless character. Hilary and Henry are landowners, after all.
“I’m writing about our privilege as it relates to Generation Z, who face such an uncertain future,” says Griffin. “I’m looking at how we’ve abandoned our values—it becomes like a treadmill, and we’re all on it.…One’s domicile becomes one’s future. It’s our retirement fund.”
How do you manage without real estate, mortgages, and sky-high rents ruling your life? Director Donna Spencer has assembled a strong, diverse team of actors to navigate the crisis that builds on-stage—including Jillian Fargey, Andrew Wheeler, Sam Bob, Sebastien Archibald, Kimberly Ho, and Darian Roussy.
And know that, as much as Griffin allows you to laugh at the situation in House and Home, she empathizes with your pain. We’re here, largely, she suggests, because the powers that be didn’t take care of us soon enough. And she tries to suggest there’s hope amid the mortgage madness.
“By the play’s end, Hilary has to come to an understanding that her form of altruism—to look out for other people—is the way through,” she hints. In other words, the answers lie far beyond Airbnb and a back-yard yurt.
The Firehall Arts Centre presents House and Home from Saturday (January 11) to January 25.