Lee Garlington has an actress friend who once struck up a conversation with the man waiting on her in a restaurant. Turns out he was an actor, too. "What do you do?" he asked. "Mostly commercials," she replied. "Oh, I don't do commercials," he sniffed. "Well," she replied, "I don't wait on tables."
Acting and waitressing--those age-old bedfellows--come together again in "Waiting" at the Carpet Company Stage through June 27. Group-written by Garlington, Laura Hinton, Kathy Miller, Anne Elizabeth Ramsay, Jane Sibbett, Valerie Spencer and Dana Stevens, it's a fast and furious, heartfelt romp about five waitresses saying goodby on New Year's Eve.
For the women, who met two years ago in a UCLA acting continuum, the evolution into creating a project together came naturally--as did the subject, something most of them were well-acquainted with. "Everyone can relate," said Hinton, 24. "Whether or not they've been a waitress, most people have been in some kind of service position." Or, said Ramsay, 26, "been stuck in a job you hated, that you did for the money." Or, said Sibbett, 24, "where the customer is always right."
"For me, it was a terrible experience," Sibbett continued. "For some reason, I attracted a really sleazy type. I was at their mercy--and I couldn't talk back. I had to serve them. You need your tips, you need your money. It was the most unpleasant part of my life. But I learned a lot from it, and certainly it gave me a great respect for people who do have to serve. God forbid I ever have to go back."
"Most people who wait tables for a year or two never want to again," noted Stevens, 23. "I won't. I refuse. I'd rather have a day job, endure my boss' wrath about going out on auditions. I just couldn't take it." Said Ramsay: "I don't look upon those days very fondly. I was pleasant--and then I got to the point when I couldn't be pleasant anymore. So I got out."
In spite of those old hostilities (and some not-so-old: Hinton quit her waitressing job just two weeks ago), none of the women regrets the experience--or considers it a stigma. "I don't think any of us are ashamed of having been waitresses," Stevens said carefully. "But I do hate it when you tell someone you're an actress, and they say, 'Oh, do you mean a waitress?' "
On the other hand, they pointed out, some aspects of the job can look attractive. "There are a lot of people for whom waiting is a crutch," noted Garlington, 33 (who's directing), "a way of escaping, not having to try. And it's a good place to hide, because you can get real comfortable in there."
"It also has to do with economics," Stevens said. "I have a friend who's working at (New York's) Tavern on the Green, making as much money as people starting out on Wall Street. You do get attached to the fact that you're out there making a living, not existing on tuna sandwiches. But I really think half the people who've been waiting for 5 to 6 years don't believe they've given up acting: They're still intending to do it--when they take on less shifts or whatever. It's so easy to kid yourself that tomorrow or the next day you'll get out."
Noted Hinton, "I know a waitress who says she's an actress: She's in that trap of 'Here we are in Los Angeles,' expecting a casting director to come in and find her waiting tables. The friends I have who've given up acting were tending toward that anyway, and they're happy with that choice, reconciled to it. I think the men are separated from the boys real early--and if you're at the stage we all are, you're in it for the long haul."
Garlington has her own ideas about what it takes to make it.
"First, it's your karma: Either it's going to happen or it's not. The other thing is a source of confidence. I have never doubted that I could make my living as an actress. People who are in any way timid or shy don't stand a chance. You've really got to trust what you have. Of course, it's not enough to just believe in yourself--you need to find an agent, a casting director, a producer who'll say, 'I want to help you.' Nobody gets anywhere in this business by themselves."
"The emotional support that we get from this group is enormous," Hinton emphasized. "We're going to have each other for the rest of our lives; I know that." And as Miller, 24, sees it, "The past couple of years, something has changed: We've stopped looking at the uncertainty, the scary side (of the acting business)--and looking forward, trusting what we have."
It's also a trust they've brought to "Waiting," a generous balance of the individual and the group, the personal and the universal.
"When people react positively, it's because we've taken risks, put ourselves out there," said Garlington. Added Stevens, "I think people who know us are surprised at how theatrical the play is. Perhaps they expected us to do a kitchen-sink drama. We didn't." Said Sibbett: "People also complain because they see our flyers, and it looks like such a happy little musical. Instead, "they end up ravaged for days."