From my late teens to my early 20s, I worked as a clown, a haunted house actor, an Edgar Allan Poe re-enactor (okay, I played his wife), a birthday party princess, and a dinner theatre actor. These are the kinds of uncommon jobs that attract a flurry of questions from new acquaintances. Did I drive a tiny car as a clown? Did I ever give someone a heart attack in the haunted house? Didn’t Edgar Allan Poe marry his cousin? Which Disney princess did I play? The exception was the job of dinner theatre actor. The concept is pretty straightforward to most people—or so they think. If anything, they ask, “Oh, so you were like Titus on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt?” (Well, yes and no. Yes, we did essentially the same thing. No, I wasn’t a werewolf.)
But the reality is, you never know the ins and outs of a job until you’ve been in the trenches, or in my case, in the hotel ballrooms.
As a dinner theatre actor, I sang while serving filet mignon, regularly soiled my costume, and learned how to fold napkins into the shape of swans. Most days I went home smelling like hotel food and with show tune parodies stuck in my head, but it was far from the worst job. And I was still working in the performing arts.
My goal then, as it is now, was to be a writer, not an actor, but my professors always emphasized that even behind-the-scenes folks in the arts and entertainment industry needed to know firsthand the thrill and terror of being onstage. So I auditioned for a job that scared me and got it, all in the hope that I would further my arts education and get a few tips while I was at it. All in the name of better writing, I said.
The audition was a cold read that required me to muster every ounce of pep in my body. Let it be known that I am not a perky person. Yet I somehow scraped every bit of enthusiasm I had and embodied the role of—wait for it—Santa’s elf. My ego demanded that I at least give it a shot. After all, my boss was a renowned Thomas Jefferson re-enactor, and one of my castmates used to perform at Radio City Music Hall. It was late September and we would be premiering our Christmas show just before Halloween.
If that seems a tad early on in the year to launch a Christmas play, keep in mind that most of our patrons were hotel guests in Richmond, Virginia. That means the majority of them were retired and in town to see Civil War history sites. After Pat and Marge from Minnesota had spent all day trawling battlegrounds and museums, they were tired. But they weren’t quite ready for bed, either. They wanted to have a nice dinner, nothing too fancy, to cap off their day of adventure. That’s where we came in.
We just had to keep Pat and Marge awake and make them laugh enough that they didn’t mind that they were eating dry chicken breast and canned green beans. They would return to their hotel rooms happy mostly because they had said, “Screw it, we’re on vacation!”; and lunged for several glasses of mediocre wine. They didn’t get this wild back home, mind you. Our content—seasonally appropriate or otherwise—didn’t much matter, as long as we were irreverent enough to be amusing but not so irreverent that we were offensive.
The reason why the dinner theatre owner wrote a Christmas show specifically was because, after nearly 20 years on the job, he knew the hotel would be packed for the holidays. Most of our audience members would see the show at the height of the holiday season. As for the early birds and the stragglers? Well, they’d probably be too drunk to care that it was before Thanksgiving or after Martin Luther King Day. The scripts didn’t have to be Shakespeare; they just had to be entertaining enough that the audience didn’t fall asleep at the dinner table.
My cast and I had exactly two rehearsals for our Christmas show. One rehearsal took place in the same dank basement where the dinner theatre owner stored all of their costumes and props. The other rehearsal was our dress rehearsal. Days before the show, my cheap elf costume arrived at the theatre office. I would’ve been out of luck if it hadn’t fit right. It hadn’t been designed for me, after all. It was an off-brand Halloween costume ordered from a discount website.
Our opening night was a mess. None of the cast truly knew our lines, not even the former Radio City Music Hall fella, who played a sarcastic Rudolph, or Mr. Thomas Jefferson, who played Santa Claus’s social coordinator. Mrs. Claus was a riot because her excessive improv made it abundantly clear that she didn’t care if she knew her lines or not. My male elf counterpart and I spoke over each other half a dozen times, and my voice cracked during such basic songs as “Jingle Bells.” As for the original songs the theatre owner wrote? Forghedaboudit. We might as well have had the audience members sing for us because we completely winged carol parody after carol parody. As a whole, we had chutzpah but zero coordination. To add to the catastrophe, I had never, ever worked in a restaurant, so running hot, spill-able food to tables terrified me. Yet even when I dumped minestrone down the front of my elf costume, I reminded myself that the show must go on!
Week after week, I gradually grew into my role. I struggled because I was not a trained actor, barely knew my castmates, and had the added stress of juggling dinner orders. With every show, I learned how to stand taller, project my voice, and perfect the way I served a plate full of steaming pasta. About a dozen days before Christmas, we had a show that was worth Pat and Marge from Minnesota paying $40 each to see. That is, if they were willing to pay attention. For an actor seeking a rapt audience, dinner theatre can be incredibly frustrating. Well-to-do tourists at dinner theatres often get drunk, grabby, and snappy, but at least they pay for the privilege.
I could complain about my dumb costume or my hackneyed lines, but I couldn’t complain about the money. Though dinner theatre is not often mentioned as a career option to sparkly-eyed theatre majors, it puts food on the table—quite literally. Typically, you get paid a flat fee, plus tips, and you occasionally get booked for higher rates to do shows at special venues or private parties. You often get dinner, or at least a soup or salad, too. Then there are the tips. When most of your audience members are retired tourists, you get accustomed to receiving a 20% tip on the low end. In a tourist town, which is where dinner theatres tend to thrive, you can actually make a living as a dinner theatre actor.
However, that was not my ambition. I worked two back-to-back shows, one as Santa’s elf and the other as a bride, for a total of six months before my college graduation. And then, like many people in the biz, I put my dinner theatre days behind me. But can I still pretty up a steak so it doesn’t look like fell on the floor and hold my own when talking to a bunch of rich, drunk people? You betcha.