Literature 9-30-2005

Letters from a Writer: Hi There, My Name’s Jean, I’ll Be Your Actor Tonight

Jean Sramek tells more tales from the actors' trenches: this time it's the delights of interactive dinner theater.

Jean Sramek

For people who do theatre, especially minor league theatre (no such term officially exists, but to call it either “amateur theatre” or “professional theatre” disregards all the really great community theatre talent out there and implies that quality comes only from paying someone to do something; so as much as I hate sports metaphors, there it is), the greatest film of all time is Waiting for Guffman, Christopher Guest’s “mockumentary” about a community theatre production done by a fictional yet eerily familiar troupe of actors.

The second greatest film of all time is the 1991 sleeper comedy Soapdish, about a sleazy daytime soap opera and its equally sleazy cast and crew. The highlight of the film, for us minor leaguers, is the scene in which Kevin Kline portrays a has-been actor who has been reduced to doing dinner theatre gigs in Florida retirement communities. In a wilted production of Death of a Salesman, Kline’s character struggles to deliver one of Willy Loman’s monologues, while an elderly audience member calls repeatedly for the waiter to clean up an overturned water glass at her table. Unable to keep his focus, the actor finally grabs a bar rag, wanders over to the chattering nonegenarian’s table and—in character—wipes up the spill. She says “Oh, thank you, young man,” and the actor climbs back on the stage and continues being Willy Loman.

It’s depressing as hell to watch, and at the same time hilarious, because it’s oh so true. Doing dinner theatre has ruined many lives, including mine. I wrote a couple of scripts for a local dinner theatre company that does, among other things, “interactives.” Interactives are partially- or multi-scripted plays in which characters interact with the audience. They are exhausting and I don’t recommend that you perform in, or attend, one of these plays unless you have no better way to spend 5-hour chunks of your Friday and Saturday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Which, I assure you, you do.

This is me looking a gift horse in the mouth. One of my interactive scripts didn’t do so well, box-office-wise. The other did—with a vengeance. I took the path of least resistance and allowed myself to be cast in the popular show, which meant that I got the fun of creating a role I had written. It also meant that I had to do the popular show 47 freaking times the year it opened. I realize that people who are cast in the touring companies of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals have to do their shows 47 times a month, but those people also get paid more than I did. (And they’re loony. I can barely bring myself to do things I like 47 times a month.)

I swore off interactive dinner theatre over a year ago, saying that I was retired. As good as the money was for that particular show, I couldn’t take it anymore. The banquet hall, the plated chicken breasts and pilaf, the 96 dollops of Thousand Island dressing per performance … it took months to get the stink off me. After the 47th performance, I ripped off my costume and wig and threw them on the floor; if they hadn’t been made of fabrics which, when burned, produce toxic fumes, I would have set them on fire.

Like a lot of Creative Artists, I used to make my living waiting tables. When I quit doing that, I had a similar urge to burn my uniform, and to this day I cannot wear white shirts and black pants together. I swore off it just like I swore off dinner theatre, money be damned. Doing an interactive show, especially one at which audience members are served food and beverages, is starkly similar to waiting tables. Clocks must be precisely punched. Waiters have side work and prep work; actors have to set their props and strike. Both have to spend money out-of-pocket for stuff they have no use for in civilian life, such as pantyhose and shaving cream. Just as a good bartender must also be a psychologist, a good waiter must also be a babysitter—and a good interactive actor must be a waiter. A dinner theatre is a restaurant with one extra course. Dignified, professional, sophisticated adults turn into whiny little babies when they eat in restaurants, and it is the server’s job to minister to their tantrums. Customers and audience members wheedle and pout and demand your attention like a 3-year-old crying for Mommy. Waiters and dinner theatre actors must endure physical proximity to strangers, most of whom obtain pleasure in their perceived dominance over their costumed servants. Waiters and dinner theatre actors get touched. A lot.

Kline’s Soapdish character only had to break character to mop up a glass of water; an interactive actor, if she’s not careful, will end up taking a plate of prime rib back to the kitchen, fetching grapefruit juice for some socialite bitch who doesn’t care for orange juice, and having her ass grabbed by the hands of a ticket holder sweating six Perfect Manhattans.

Here’s why: they think you are real.

If you are skillful at playing the role of waiter or whatever-interactive-character-you-were-stupid-enough-to-audition-for, they will convince themselves that they know you. Subsequently, they will get chummy in a bossy way or a friendly way, and either way, you will have to fulfill their needs, and that is emotionally and physically draining when you add in all the side work and marrying ketchups and shaving and drinking afterwards with your co-workers.

You wait tables; you do dinner theatre. You take care of people when what you really want is for people to take care of you. You convince yourself that you are real. Probably, you are. Ninety-six people eating Thousand Island Dressing can’t be wrong.