BWW Interview: Michael Patrick Gaffney of THE OLDEST LIVING CATER WAITER at 42nd Street Moon
San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon is currently presenting the final production of its 2018-2019 season, Michael Patrick Gaffney's original one-man show "The Oldest Living Cater Waiter." Written and performed by Gaffney, it offers up delicious insights into his complicated and hilarious careers as both a professional actor and a high-end waiter to the stars. A longtime "Moonie," Gaffney recently spoke by phone with BroadwayWorld about the show's creative journey and the joys and challenges of his dual career path. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
What initially gave you the idea to create "The Oldest Living Cater Waiter"?
It actually started about 15 years ago when I was fairly new into catering and it just seemed like a great idea for a show. At the time, I called it "Dish" and I workshopped like 15 minutes of it at Monday Night at the Marsh. About 5 years ago, I really started to revisit the idea at a time in my life where a lot of things were changing and [I had] a lot of fears to be honest with you - about getting older and worrying that I wouldn't be able to support myself in the careers that I had chosen. So it was a way to find some acceptance with that.
You've been developing the show for some time now, and it's already had some previous productions. How has it evolved over time?
5 years ago, I did about 20 minutes of it in my living room with 4 people. From there I did a reading at Mike Finn's house. He's this wonderful guy who has a beautiful Victorian home in its original state with like gas sconces and velvet wallpaper and it's this big, beautiful performance space. A director that I'd worked with before was at the reading and I asked if he'd be interested in working with me on it, and from there we did a workshop at Berkeley Playhouse one night with book in hand. Then Lisa Steindler at Z Space - I pitched the idea to her and she said what she could give me one public performance. From there I entered it in the Fringe Festival two years ago, which was a really wonderful experience and I got a "Best of Fringe." The thing with the Fringe, though, is it's wonderful but you have to have it 60 minutes or under or they'll turn the lights out on you so we had to do some cutting. I've for many years worked with 42nd Street Moon, and Daren Carollo, the artistic director, was kind enough to say "We're thinking about doing kind of side shows with Moon" and he asked [me]. I've always said I'd love to see this piece fully realized - fully staged, with a real lighting design and sets. I don't want to give too much away, but I've always wanted to do some circus skills in the piece, and I do a lot of clowning in the piece throughout, and to be able to do that in a way that is fully realized. And not being limited in time. To be honest, the piece really is probably about an hour ten, but at least I can let it breathe and I don't have to go "The clock's ticking, if it goes over 60 minutes, they're going to turn the lights out on me!"
What is your favorite part of performing the show?
Honestly, it's very different than doing other pieces because it's my story, you know. I'm not really "acting" per se. As an actor you always want to tell the truth and be honest onstage and when you play yourself there's that kind of thing where "It's my words, it's me." That's my favorite part - to be willing to stand up onstage and tell my story and feel like it's worthy and for people to sit there and listen to it and be entertained and maybe moved.
Given that it's a solo show and you're alone on that stage, you can't draw inspiration from any fellow actors in the moment. How do you keep it fresh for each performance?
I think fear! [laughs] It's just that adrenaline pumping and it's just so FUN, so I think that's what keeps it fresh for me. I just kind of threw the kitchen sink at it. I sing in it, I dance, I do clowning, I recite Shakespeare, I do multiple characters, I do a lot of "schmacting," a lot of over the top stuff, so it's kind of outrageous and fun.
What do you hope audiences take away from the show?
You know it's interesting because I was worried when I first did it that it wouldn't be relatable because it's so niche - you know [only for] people in the industry, whether it's theater or catering. But I think what I've learned is that it's a universal story that nobody's life turns out the way they thought it would. That's what the piece is about. My first line is "I am an actor. I am also a cater waiter" so it's also about "Who am I, and how do I balance that and find peace within that?" I hope people can relate that it's their story, too, and maybe if they were a writer or a singer or whatever and that they're in their 50's and they felt they had left that dream behind, maybe they'll go back to it a little bit, you know?
Which job do you find more challenging - actor or cater waiter?
[Bursts into laughter] It depends on the night! I did "Shear Madness" in the city years ago at the Mason Street Theater and it's like a great gig. I was in it for a year and a half, off and on, and it's like 8 shows a week. I didn't have to do anything else, it was a nice paycheck and it was great, right? It was also "sheer madness," and sometimes, like a second show on a Saturday night, you had a bunch of drunk people in a hot room, and I'd be like "God, I'd rather be washing dishes right now!" So it just depends. When you're catering the dinner, it's typically served around 8 o'clock, the same time the curtain goes up in the theater, and I think about all those actors waiting in the wings, ready to go on and give the performance of their lives. And a really hard catering event, for some reason, there's always stairs. It's like you're lugging stuff up stairs. In Elaine Stritch's one-woman show "At Liberty" - her first line in it is "as the one-legged prostitute once said, it's not the job, it's the stairs." And I've always heard it "as the one-legged cater waiter once said, it's not the job, it's the stairs." Oh, my god! So, it depends on the night.
Have you ever used your work as a cater waiter as an opportunity to practice your acting craft, perhaps adopting another persona or taking on different accents?
Always! I train waiters for Paula LeDuc Fine Catering and I talk about how I love to bus. It's mindless work that I can do well, but while I'm doing it, I can also go over my lines in my head. And I just talked with a waiter yesterday who's overly chatty and I said, "You know, just take on a character. All the sudden you're a focused waiter or a shy woman who doesn't like to talk. You have to take on that persona because you're too chatty with the guests and your co-workers." I mean there are so many similarities between [the two]. We put on costumes, we put on uniforms, the guests and the audience are kind of the same person, we're standing up in front of them and we're performing a service, and there's a ritual aspect to both catering and theater, so it is very similar.
You've appeared in many 42nd Street Moon productions over the years. Looking back, is there a particular role or memory that stands out for you?
I've done like 17 shows, something crazy like that, and I can't tell you how many times people will come up and say "I loved you as Finian in 'Finian's Rainbow.'" And it's so funny because that was my very first Moon show. All my grandparents emigrated from Ireland so I'm really connected to my Irish heritage. It was great to take on that role and I think maybe I was channeling my grandmother really, you know? Maybe that's why people connected to it.
Which behavior rattles you more: theatergoers talking on their cell phones during a performance or party goers complaining about the free food you've just served them?
Honestly, I would say rude audience members. Just because rude guests are rude guests, but for me, the theater's my church. There's something I hold reverent about that.
Well, first of all, I beg to differ as far as [being] a stage actor, because as a film actor you've at least got cue cards. I don't think I'll hold on too long as an actor because you lose the ability to retain lines. My dear, sweet friend Pat Parker, who just passed away recently, we did "Driving Miss Daisy" several years ago, and it was very challenging. Because you just lose that ability, but she held onto it, she wouldn't use cue cards or anything cause it was just her pride or whatever. That's kind of the unspoken thing within theater actors - you don't talk about it, but you fear it and you know it and you see it in other people. And you're always looking for those signs [in yourself], you know? And because of that in the last several years, I always come in off book. My first day of rehearsal I have all my lines down because I don't want to have sleepless nights.
As far as [working as a] cater waiter, that's one of the reasons I really wrote the piece, too. I would work with these older people and it scared me because I saw what I thought was my future. A friend is 79 and still a functioning, wonderful waiter. But I do keep my eyes on him if I'm onsite, and I watch him and I kind of look after him because I don't want him to trip or be overheated, or whatever the case may be. I think it just depends on the person. And who's to say? I hold being a cater waiter with a lot of dignity and pride. So - if I have to do it into my late 70's, so be it. I'll give it the old college try. What I lack in talent, I make up with tenacity. [laughs] That's one of my last lines in the play. And maybe it's true for catering as well.
"The Oldest Living Cater Waiter" runs through July 9, 2019 at San Francisco's Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson St, San Francisco, CA 94111. Tickets can be purchased through the Box Office at (415) 255-8207 or online at www.42ndstmoon.org.