It's common, if not universal, to unwind after work by recounting the more notable moments of your last shift. The memorable customers, both good and bad, your boss's ineptitude, and whatever else you need to get off of your chest after eight hours or more on your feet: These are the topics that tend to monopolize our free time. It's just very rare that such talk becomes its own stage production, as is the case with Lauren French's solo show, Intimate Dinner; or "Tap Water Is Fine."
Taking the stage at PURE Theatre for a Piccolo Spoleto run, Intimate Dinner finds French taking audiences through a not-so-usual shift as a server waiting tables during an exclusive Charleston Wine + Food Festival event. Our server navigates her way through a hectic dinner service at an upscale eatery as celebrity chefs and other guests keep her on her toes in the one-woman show inspired by French's own experiences in the food and bev industry.
Working in a Chelsea restaurant last year during her time in New York, French made her way home after a strange day at work. Sharing her recent experience with her roommate at the time, who also runs The Woolgatherers Theatre Group, French was advised to turn her story into a stage production. Considering her friend's advice, French recalled how she and her brother would spend Saturdays glued to the Food Network. Drawing on this affinity for celebrity chefs, French would style the structure of her show after "intimate dinners" — a popular staple of wine and food festivals where local restaurants host well-known chefs for one-night events.
"One of my acting teachers, I asked for her advice, and she said just let yourself write and write and write. Don't edit until you have to," says French, recalling the initial challenge of writing her first full-length show. "So I generated a lot of material and once I found the structure, I was able to remove what didn't work. I guess I found freedom within the structure of the piece. It was nice to have that freedom."
Three months into the writing process, French began workshopping Intimate Dinner last November with The Woolgatherers Theatre Group. From there, the show would slowly develop and evolve. French soon found herself moving to Greenville and bringing in Director Prentiss Standridge to help finalize the show. This included more workshopping, arriving at a finished product just in time for Piccolo Spoleto. While the production is pulled from the personal experiences of its star, French still believes in the universality of the material.
"Pretty much everyone, they've either worked in the service industry or they've experienced it by going out to restaurants and seeing how other people behave around servers. I think it's universal," says French, who hopes that those in the food and bev industry will find their own experiences mirrored by the show. "I've had people say to me, 'Oh, I've totally had that customer before' or 'Oh, I've been that customer before.' What's really cool about the show is that so many actors and theater makers work in the service industry. So many theater-goers go and dine before they go to shows. I think it's just a really nice link between food and theater, because I think they are connected in a few different ways."
Of course, dinner theater has long been a popular option for those looking for an entertaining distraction, but the theatricality of the dining experience has only grown in the public consciousness. For French, this extends out of the kitchen to how food is presented by servers to hungry customers. Throughout the process of honing the show, French says that early audiences asked to see more and more of the server character. Although French describes Intimate Dinner as a "comedic look at our absurd experiences with food," she hopes that audiences have fun while gaining a new respect for those working in the food and bev industry.
"Understand that the server's job is hard because when I talk to people and I say that I work in the service industry, maybe it's sort of frowned upon. But I love it, and it's really hard work," says French. "I get to sell some fun food to guests, and wine and beer. It's a really fun job, but it's also hard work. I think that people who haven't worked in the service industry before don't understand that. So I hope that they understand and gain an appreciation for the work that I do."