BWW Exclusive: How Waitressing Saved My Acting Job

By: Mar. 05, 2020

BWW Exclusive: How Waitressing Saved My Acting Job By Kimberly Doreen Burns

I am an actor. One that has lived in New York City a long time. Long enough to call myself a New Yorker.

Having a dream - and constantly having to maintain one's focus and ambition - can be challenging. Pursuit of an acting career is particularly exhausting. Working at a restaurant until midnight, psyching yourself up to go to an early morning audition, checking your email all afternoon to see if you heard from your agent, and returning to work again that night. All while teaching here and there, performing when you can, serving and catering . . . Working three jobs to support yourself while pursuing your goal.

I'm here to tell you. Keep going. Be tenacious. Sometimes your survival jobs can save a show. It happened to me.

I've been at every theatrical audition or casting situation under the sun. I've worked my ass off, and as a result casting offices know me, theatres know me. I've had my successes and have worked my weeks. I've done lots of great shows, played lots of great roles. And I've been down to the wire for countless Broadway shows. I've pounded the pavement at 5am with the survivors and spent thousands of dollars on flights coming in and out of town for that "chance."

I have dedicated my adult life to this career. During all of it, I've proudly waitressed. Thankfully, I have found restaurants that support my lifestyle, most notably, the West Bank Café, owned by Steve Olsen and Janet Momjian. They have been my saving grace since I answered their ad on Playbill almost four years ago, while I was performing in Japan. They hired me at a time when I was trying to get back on my feet after finishing graduate school. I work very hard, have made a family there, and they have supported my career throughout all of it.

Now, in the business, I've been dubbed a "musical theatre actor," which unfortunately means that I have had an extremely hard time being called in for or cast in straight plays. Since I can sing and dance, I'm more often categorized out of audition consideration for non-musical plays. This has always irked me, as I wanted to be taken seriously as an actor, separate and apart from my singing voice. Finally, in 2018, I was given that chance. Hunter Foster and Theatre Aspen cast me in my first straight play and I got to add the classic, Our Town, to my resume. Finally, a first step in a goal to be considered a "serious actress."

BWW Exclusive: How Waitressing Saved My Acting Job
Kimberly in Irish Rep's Finian's Rainbow © Carol Rosegg

Last November, a casting breakdown was released for the New York premiere of Sideways (based on the novel that inspired the Academy Award-winning film). If you were alive in 2004, you remember the movie. Paul Giamatti, wine, Pinot Noir, no f*cking Merlot, and a stellar supporting cast. I loved the film, and when I read the breakdown for the play I was immediately interested in auditioning for Maya.

I connected with Maya. She was recently divorced, claiming her place, becoming a woman in her own way. So was I. Thanks to the casting director, Stephanie Klapper, who cast me earlier that summer as Georgie in The Full Monty, I was given the opportunity to go in for the role. At the audition, I found myself up against some pretty "heavy hitters" - amazing women with lots of straight play credits. After two callbacks, and a director who believed in me, I booked it.

I was OVER THE MOON. My first straight play credit in New York City had finally come to fruition! I was ecstatic thinking about how many doors it would open. Maybe I could break into a new realm now; even TV and Film. It was a huge opportunity for me.

I had a jump in my step. I was happy. I was going to do something meaningful ... Fast forward to five days before rehearsals were to have started. The lead corporate sponsor had pulled the rug out from under us, and we received the horrible news that the production had been canceled.

My chance was over. Done. My heart was broken. Something I had worked so hard for had been taken away from me and I could do nothing to fix it. But, because I have lived here for so long and my heart had been broken many times over, I swallowed my pride, and urged myself to push forward.

Throughout the holidays, I tried hard not to be down. I should have been doing a show, but instead I was working day and night teaching private lessons by day and waitressing at night. I was working so much that my legs were in pain and I wasn't sleeping well. Christmas came and went.

Then, during my shift on December 29th, an angel must have been watching over me. Because another one walked in the door.

Around 6pm that night, during prime theatre dining time, a party of four sat down at Table 19 in my assigned section. I had served the husband and wife before, and they had two other guests joining them. The couple was going to see Harry Connick, Jr. and was very excited for their night out. They knew I was an actor, and after an hour and a half of serving them chicken and Chardonnay, the gentleman asked me, "What are you working on?"

Now, ANY actor knows that most of the time we hate this question. Usually the answer is "Nothing," and that's the easy response. I almost replied, "Nothing," but for some reason my inner voice told me to open up to them. On a whim, I decided to tell them how I was supposed to be in a show . . . a show that was going to open a lot of new doors for me but had been canceled at the very last minute. I told the sob story about how we were supposed to be in rehearsals now. They seemed sympathetic. They told me they both had been actors themselves and understood the pain I was going through. They also said that they were producers. I told them more about the project, and noticed their eyes light up. He handed me his business card and asked me to connect him with the producer of the show. I took the card, put it in my wallet, wished them a pleasant evening, and finished my shift.

The next morning, I woke up late. I drank my coffee, took some Advil, and started to enjoy what was my first day off in a while. My boyfriend casually reminded me about the business card I had received the night before.

I'll be honest, I almost forgot. We meet a lot of people at the restaurant, and you never know who's who. Somethings really do seem too good to be true. More often than not, nothing comes from what seem like opportunities. It's easy to be skeptical. Certainly safer.

But, I heard my Dad's voice in the back of my mind saying his famous line: "Do you know what the rules are, Kimberly? ...There are no rules."

I heeded this advice. I took a picture of the card, and sent it with a note in an email to the show's director, Dan Wackerman, the artistic director of the Peccadillo Theatre Company, the company in residence at Theatre at St. Clement's. I took a chance, and I moved on.

A week later, I received a call. I was given the unbelievably joyous news that my customer actually saved the show, having covered the amount lost by the first corporate sponsor. His name is Alexander "Sandy" Marshall. He is a theater producer, both in London and on Broadway (last season's Network and this season's Hangmen and American Buffalo). His wife, Susan, a partner and producer at LUMA Partners, championed his every step.

My opportunity was saved. The New York premiere of the play - and the dozens of jobs involved in it ... Saved. All because a lovely couple happened to go to dinner at West Bank Cafe one night, happened to sit in my section, and happened to start a conversation with their waitress.

BWW Exclusive: How Waitressing Saved My Acting Job
The cast of Sideways celebrate on
the first day of rehearsal © Russ Rowland

THIS NEVER HAPPENS. The theatre also took my email seriously and trusted the actor to help. This also NEVER happens.

I write this story to let you know good people do exist. And because they do, good things do happen. Whether your dream is acting, or something else ... Keep pushing forward. Please talk to people around you, and keep working to support your career goals. Believe in yourself and keep pushing on!

(And creators, directors, producers: please TALK to the people who are serving you. Get to know your cater waiter, your dinner waiter, your brunch bartender. We are trying, and we are talented.)

Together, we can help each other make amazing dreams come true.

The universe is listening. I promise.

BWW Exclusive: How Waitressing Saved My Acting Job
Kimberly with Brian Ray Norris in Sideways © Jeremy Daniel