Writing & Photography by Sandy Daenerys
Taking place at the Gateway Theatre (formerly Eureka Theatre) in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, The Old Living Cater Waiter: My Life in Three Courses - just completed its fifth year. With just 194 seats, this friendly and intimate venue will make you feel like part of the production.
It’s seventy-five minutes of an unforgettable one-man show by Michael Patrick Gaffney. A performance that is dynamic, heartfelt and compelling. A show that depicts the true life story of Michael, a determined actor pursuing his career in theatre while juggling a side job as a cater waiter in the San Francisco Bay Area; that showcases the beautiful, the ugly, and everything in between. Filled with playful character dialogue and engaging storytelling, the play is executed with great charm, wit and artfulness. It is equally refreshing and invigorating; both thoroughly entertaining, yet vehemently thought-provoking.
The Oldest Living Cater Waiter documents the heartfelt truth of being a caterer to the stars. The incessant grind of waiting on hand and foot to some of the world's wealthiest and most influential clients. These illustrious group of individuals have an insatiable need for the highest demands of attention from you at every second, requesting that you bend your knee to serve and cater to them. The long and challenging hours that are involved in this profession can be brutal; taking an immense toll on one’s body, mind and soul. The countless stresses that come with the job can eventually become unbearable and start to slowly erode your sanity and sense of self-value and confidence.
The fine details and subtle eccentricities of each of the unique and eclectic characters are portrayed flawlessly by Michael, as he often effortlessly plays two characters in the same scene. Michael fully embodies the appearance, energy and aura of each character. Suddenly and constantly transitioning in between characters, in order to portray real-time conversations between them seamlessly.
He carefully navigates to and fro, from each character, from scene to scene, with accuracy, tact and precision, while simultaneously imbuing each scene, with zest, acumen and finesse. He is somehow able to make you believe that there are two unique characters before your very eyes. In order to flip between two characters within seconds of one another can be quite challenging for an audience member to follow, let alone for an actor to accomplish. Now, that my friends, is talent, and Michael has plenty of that to share throughout this entire performance.
The details of getting the right voice, posture, accent and mannerisms will leave you in awe. Your eyes are glued to the stage, your ears are perked up; you cannot wait to see and hear what he will say and do next. You can not spare to miss even one second.
The first scene opens to a large dining room at an elegant gala, two large chandeliers drop down from the ceiling on either side of the large round table in the center. The first scene starts off with a sharply dressed old-age cater waiter in large rim glasses navigating the stage and serving food and drinks on his mobility scooter.
The production slowly unfolds with an energy that is robust, lively and keeps you on the edge of your seat. At one point, Michael stands on top of the table and swings on one of the chandeliers like a Cirque Du Soleil acrobat practicing his moves. It is a memorable image as Michael showcases various acrobatic moves in a full-blown tuxedo suit.
The cover of the program for The Oldest Living Cater Waiter, tells it all. The main star, Michael, is decked out in his full waiter attire, holding a small tray with incredibly tall champagne glasses in one hand, all the while balancing himself on a thin black tight rope.
Like balancing a tray of champagne glasses, Michael must also balance the surmounting list of demands that are thrown at him by his clients, as well as balancing what he wants to do (be an actor) versus what he needs to do (make a living). You can see the inner struggle of an artist who would like to be pursuing his dreams as an actor instead of waiting tables but yet must still find a way to survive from day-to-day. Michael shares this inner dialogue and opens a window to his soul. He captures the dilemma of a struggling artist with such delicate vulnerability that by the time the show ends you have fallen hard and fast for this artist’s mesmerizing performance.
This incredible show captures the physical, emotional and mental toll that being a struggling artist takes. From super long hours in temperatures that are less than desirable, to constantly putting on your friendly and welcoming face to your clients, day in and day out. It is an incredible feat to be able to balance the stresses of this profession while remaining passionate and dedicated to pursuing his career as an actor. We all only have so much time in a day and that is a challenge that requires some stellar balancing skills, but more importantly, a dedication and persistence to continue to move forward in a life that is so demanding, but yet, oh, so incredibly gratifying.
Ladies & Gentlemen, without further ado, I give you, Michael Patrick Gaffney.
INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL PATRICK GAFFNEY
INTERVIEW FONT KEY:
BOLD FONT: Questions by Sandy Daenerys
SANS BOLD FONT: Answers by Michael Patrick Gaffney
You've had quite a number of performances of TOLCW so far; how has your experience been? What are some highlights?
It has been the experience of a life time. Truly. Some highlights have been the nights when I have had fellow cater waiters in the audience and I hear their big reactions of recognition.
What is a typical day of a cater waiter? Are you allowed to eat any of the high-end dishes?
You get up late because you probably worked late the night before. You iron your uniform shirt, and check the event information for call time and location. You arrive on site and start setting up setting tables, chilling white wine and champagne, and all too often you end up having to move furniture. Once the guests arrive, you make sure that there is a drink in their hand and then start passing hors d’oeuvres. And so on. There is always a staff meal provided but often you get to sample the high-end food as well.
How did you come up with the name of the show?
I would often joke that being a cater waiter would be my claim to fame. Also, I would find myself working with these older waiters and see them struggling as they carried oval trays…and I would fear that this would be my future. The piece deals a lot with the aging process and mortality.
I see that you play multiple different characters within TOLCW; who is your favorite character to play and why?
One of the characters is my 8th grade drama teacher, Billie Sue Thompson. She introduced me to theatre and taught me so much, and I really idolized her as a boy. She is actually coming out from Oklahoma to see the show next week. I guess I would say she is my favorite character because I really feel like she is onstage with me.
TOLCW is a one-man show. What was the reasoning behind not having any co-stars?
I did a staged reading a few years back and an actor friend suggested I turn it into a two hander. I could play myself and he would play all the other characters. I thought about it for a half a second but quickly put the kibosh on that idea. It’s a memoir really and there is something so vulnerable about being alone on stage and telling your own story. I wanted that vulnerability in the piece.
How long did it take you to write TOLCW and to rehearse the lines enough so you were performance-ready?
I’ve been working on the show for about five years so it has evolved quite a bit. The last time I performed it was two years ago at the San Francisco Fringe Festival. About two months before rehearsal started, I cracked the script open. It actually came back very quickly. It was all still up there; it just needed to be dusted off a bit.
What was it like working with Director Ken Sonkin?
Collaborating with Ken on this project has been one of the greatest experiences of my career. He is a great theatre artist and has one of the best work ethics I’ve ever witnessed. We work extremely well together because the trust and respect are mutual.
Who has been your favorite celebrity to provide waiter services for and why?
Nancy Pelosi is always so kind to the wait staff. She always takes the time to come into the kitchen to say good night and thank us.
What was it like to wait a table for Barack Obama?
President Obama didn’t actually sit down to dinner. It was as $10,000 a plate fundraiser and he was brought into the kitchen so we could have a picture taken with him. I got to shake his hand and tell him what a pleasure it was to meet him. It was an amazing night that I will never forget.
What is your worst actor's nightmare? How about your worst waiter's nightmare?
Not surprisingly I have them both and with great regularity. My typical actor’s nightmare is not being able to find my way back to the theatre. My typical waiter’s nightmare usually involves dietary restrictions.
When did you realize you wanted to be an actor? Please tell us about your first acting performance. Can you remember the way you were feeling during that moment?
Honestly I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be an actor. My stage debut was at Sequoyah Middle School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. It was a play called The Brave Little Tailor and I played “Brother Giant.” I remember feeling safe under the warm, bright lights and I remember hearing the audiences response and liking it very much.
How has it been to have a split life as a cater waiter in the Bay Area; what do you think it takes to be a successful artist in one of the country's most expensive cities?
What a great question. When I moved to San Francisco 23 years ago it was a very different scene, and performers and artists had a greater presence in this city. Now, smaller theatre companies have folded due to the high rents. It’s sad, really. I guess each of us as artists have to decide for ourselves what success is.
What has been your most favorite moment in your acting career so far?
Standing on the stage of the Gateway Theatre and telling this story.
What would your advice be for some aspiring actors and actresses who are also looking to be waiters and waitresses?
Honestly, I would say try catering work rather than restaurant work because it allows you to make your own work schedule. You can go do a play out of town for two months and come back and cater in between theatre jobs. It’s quite flexible.
"No one's life turns out the way they think it will and some people are better at letting go of youthful dreams and getting on with life. That would not be me." Can you please share with me what your quote means? What were your youthful dreams and have you fulfilled them?
I have a lot of tenacity and I find it hard to let go of things. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be a stage actor. When I was a boy I used to pray every night and ask God to make me a professional actor. Ha! I haven’t thought about that in a long time but I guess he answered my prayers.
Who is your biggest inspiration in life?
My maternal grandmother, Bridget McCabe, who walked out of the family farmhouse in County Leitrim, Ireland and somehow made her way to the Port of Cork. There she boarded a ship and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to start a new life in America. She had courage and was also one of the kindest people I have ever known.