Ben Lockshin wrote Caveat, about his experiences with DC’s underground world of group housing. Here he talks about his upcoming Fringe show.
Tell us about the moment where you said to yourself: “I just have to do this!”
Probably around the time I was assured by a would-be roommate that the rats scurrying around us weren’t “that big a deal,” or maybe earlier than that, when I made my first Excel spreadsheet to manage a seemingly endless parade of Craigslist listings and open houses. The whole process of finding housing in DC that is affordable, in a decent location, and not full of crazy people was way more daunting than I first imagined. The more people I talked to, the more I realized that the wild DC housing market affects everyone in unpredictable ways.
What story are you telling in the performance?
The show is about an open house where four prospective tenants are trying to impress the two current residents of a house that ultimately choose a new roommate. I tried to include a cross-section of the different kinds of people and personalities that you encounter in a gathering like this. Everyone’s trying to be a weird mix of friendly and competitive, a bizarre combination that I noticed at many open houses that I’ve been to.
Why this play now?
I think it’s especially timely because good housing feels so out of reach to so many people. Unless you’re pretty well-off, a one- or even two-bedroom apartment is too expensive, so group housing fills in the gap. And so many people move here for work or college without much of a support network in place, meaning it’s a necessity to move in with strangers that you may have only met once at a 20-minute open house – or sometimes not even then.
It often works out, but it can make for some pretty strange experiences along the way, too. And more seriously, a lot of people are put into uncomfortable or quasi-legal situations – moving in without a lease, sleeping in a partitioned living room – that leave them in the lurch if anything goes wrong.
Wait, I thought this was a comedy?
It is! I like to think it’s pretty funny, too. It’s more about the characters and how they respond to this absurd situation than making any overt political points. A big inspiration for me was the show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, which is about as silly as you can get – literally cartoonish at times – yet it also manages to make some serious points about things like trauma and misogyny and neighborhood identity.
Want to go on a rant about DC housing policy?
Sure! One thing that coalesced for me over the course of doing the show is that we tend to blithely accept our housing situation as the natural state of affairs in DC – but it doesn’t have to be. To me, where we are is a direct consequence of freezing many neighborhoods in amber and only allowing new housing to be built by select developers in select places, which hurts affordability for a lot of different reasons. That’s how you end up with Hill staffers and grad students and baristas all cramming into a relatively limited supply of row houses – often in neighborhoods where they used to house families. That’s a recipe for gentrification and displacement, while we know there are ways to grow more inclusively.
OK, so what should we do about it?
Groups like DC Housing Priorities are doing great work in highlighting these issues and advocating for solutions. They have a 10-point plan that is definitely worth a read.
Then come see Caveat to laugh so you don’t cry!
Caveat is written and directed by Ben Lockshin, a D.C.-based playwright. An Ohio native, Ben has lived in the District for four years and works in public affairs by day. Based largely on his own experiences navigating the local group house scene, Caveat marks his D.C.-area debut.
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