Unsure about buying a house? Watch Karen Hines relive her real-life real estate nightmare in Crawlspace

Ten years after living a real-estate nightmare, acclaimed actress/playwright/filmmaker Karen Hines is reliving it all in her one-woman show Crawlspace. But she wouldn't be immersing herself in the "gruesome" experience if it weren't for her friend, Kids in the Hall comic Bruce McCulloch.

Bruce McCulloch inspired the actress to turn her experience into a new show

Karen Hines, and her raccoon, in Crawlspace. (Gary Mulcahey)

The price of real estate is scary enough, but home ownership brings its own brand of terror. Karen Hines understands it better than most. Ten years ago, the actress, filmmaker and Governor General's Award-nominated playwright bought her first house, the smallest one she could find on the Toronto MLS listings. As for what happened next, she earned a National Magazine Award nomination for telling the true, real-estate horror story that followed.

"It would be my home, my security, my future. Instead, I barely got out of it alive," she wrote in that Swerve magazine piece.

The roof fell apart, as did the back section of the already-cozy coach house. And then there was the matter of an inaccessible crawlspace, a family crypt for neighbourhood raccoons whose carcasses left a funk invulnerable to any air freshener or aromatherapeutic potpourri on the market.

"I was a happy story," says Hines, believe it or not.

And now, all these years later, she's reliving the nightmare in a new play called Crawlspace. It opens the final season of Toronto performance lab Videofag this September.

So many people have had that experience, or they're afraid of having that experience.- Karen Hines, whose first home purchase went awry

Crawlspace is "my meditation on what it all meant," she says; "what losing everything meant. And what that everything is. And I didn't lose everything, I just lost all my money, and I lost a property. I didn't lose friends or family."

One of those friends deserves a special acknowledgement in the making of Crawlspace.

"I never really thought about doing [the play]," Hines explains. "But do you know Bruce McCulloch, from Kids in the Hall?" He's an old pal, and back when the comic was mounting his stage show of Young Drunk Punk (now a CBC TV comedy), Hines played a cameo role. "We were hanging out a lot at the time while he was developing it, and he kept urging me to turn that magazine piece into a solo [show]."

At first, the idea was as appealing as a maggot-ridden raccoon corpse. "It was hard enough to go back into that experience for the magazine piece," Hines says.

"I was really skeptical that it was going to work. But honestly, Bruce over a period of three years kept saying, 'You've got to do that, you've got to do that.'"

Convinced, Hines announced Crawlspace as an upcoming project on her website. It caught the attention of Jordan Tannahill and William Ellis of Videofag, who invited the Calgary-based Hines to present the show in Toronto. "How often do you get invited to do something that you haven't even finished yet?" says Hines. "I just thought I should carpe the diem."

Videofag is more of a gallery than a theatre, a performance venue of about 200 square feet in a building that was once a Kensington Market barber shop. (Hines' old house, by comparison, was 400 square feet.) For Crawlspace, the gallery is transformed into a surreal version of her former living room. "Imagine if you lived in an Ikea showroom," Hines suggests. "It's kind of like that." Only 15 audience members will be in the room during a performance.

"The 15 mark makes everyone really part of the experience," she explains — and the action aims to put everyone in Hines' headspace from back of the day, feeling it all through a surreal and immersive retelling of actual events. "The experience is really rendered through language and lighting and other sort of visceral experiences, but not 'visceral' as in fluids or smells or things like that." (It's an important disclaimer for those worried about recreations of rot and the like.)

Experiencing it once was troubling enough, so what is it like to relive her story night after night?

"I knew that this was an opportunity that would be propulsive — and also terrifying," Hines says.

Still, she says, "enough time has passed. I really think time is the biggest thing."

"It was kind of horrible to go back in and write it, but it's really wonderfully cathartic and fun to perform it," she says. "It's just such rich territory and you feel like, so many people have had that experience, or they're afraid of having that experience, or they didn't buy because they didn't want to have that experience, so they're grateful for the show," she laughs.

That's not to say Crawlspace is a cautionary tale. Hines describes it as more of a "salve."

"It's a story about how, maybe it's okay if you don't buy a house, because all we really need is shelter. All we really need is home. And those things are possible to create without owning real estate."

Crawlspace. Featuring Karen Hines. Written by Karen Hines. Directed by Sandra Balcovske. Presented by Videofag. Sept. 11 - 29. 7pm. $30. Videofag, 187 Augusta, Toronto. www.videofag.com

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