Everything I know About Acting I learned at the Olive Garden

1. I am not a very good actor.

Make no mistake: that simply wonderful server you had during your carb-fest at the Olive Garden last week was indeed acting. He* did not really think you were the most wonderful people. He did not want to go home with you to play pinochle.

There is an art to making money as a server, and that art is thesbiatic in nature. There are lines (menus, greetings, jokes) to memorize, improvisation to be done, and always the audience to consider. The best server/actors know that if they want to get paid** for the work they are doing, they need to put on a good show.

I was not particularly good at putting on a show.  If I was in the mood and firing on all cylinders, I was stupendous. There were even a couple of times when restaurant patrons asked to see the manager, just so they could tell him I was the best server they'd ever had in any restaurant, ever.  I can be a bit moody, though (go figure - an artist with mood swings), so there were also times when patrons asked to see the manager to tell him I was the worst server they had ever had, ever.

Which is to say that I wasn't at all consistent. Acting is a craft; and to be a good actor, you have to be consistent.

2. Make 'em laugh.

Nonetheless, I did apply myself fairly rigorously to learning the craft. I did internet research, asked the other servers questions, and above all, paid attention to the patrons. If serving is theater, then a good portion of the server's role is to learn to read the audience and to adapt his performance to their response. At the Olive Garden, I had an audience of three, sometimes four tables. Each table was different.

It was my job to figure out whether they'd like me more if I offered them lots of alcohol, or milkshakes. I had to figure out when to squat down (to give them the sense of power over me), when to touch them (to foster a sense of connection), and what to do to get them to laugh.

The key point was to always, always get them to laugh. It didn't matter if they were there to celebrate a promotion, or get out of the house where a loved one had recently died... there wasn't a patron in that restaurant who wouldn't buy my performance (so to speak) if I made them laugh. Laughter was paramount - laughter was transcendent.

3. If they never notice you doing your job... you're doing your job. 

As an actor, my job was to help my audience forget that I was there. The focus was always on their experience, and while actor/servers are often extremely egotistical about their abilities and their performance, while the performance was going on, my ego always needed to be sublimated to the requirements of the role.

Yes, a good server/performer will pull aspects of his own life into the performance. For example, when we were allowed to modify our own name-tags, I painted mine with a picture of a cute little baby in order to prompt discussions about my newborn son. But the use of my outside life always had to be in service of the higher cause - a performance unforgettable primarily because I had been forgotten, and the role had shone through.

4. It's all about the love, baby.

This all may seem a bit manipulative... and it is, in a sense. A good performer does everything in his power to create an emotional response in his audience. This is how an artist survives. Ultimately, though, this performance must come from a place of love. An actor/server has to love what he does, thrilling to the joy of creating an experience for his audience.

A server can fake a passable performance and probably make a buck... but a server who does not love the performance will ultimately burn out and find himself mopping up vomit in the restrooms at Waffle House, wondering what happened.

Like I said at the start, I am not a very good actor. So it's probably a good thing I quit when I did, before the bitterness crept in.

Nonetheless, I am beginning to realize that there is a way in which my teaching is also a performance, and that all the rules of serving still apply. If I perform my role of teacher well, the students have a great experience, get good results, and my employment opportunities are subsequently expanded. Perhaps the old bard was right. Perhaps the world is a stage, and the question is not whether we will play a part, but how well.

If that is the case, and you are just now thinking of the ways in which you, too, are an actor at your work, then my advice to you is this little nugget from a book I once read about acting: "There are no small parts - only small actors."

It may be that you should be looking for a new role - one that more directly capitalizes on your inherent acting talents. But it is just as likely, I think, that with enough love, the role you are in right now could really become something beautiful - a work of art.

- - -

*Use of the gender-specific masculine pronoun throughout is intentional, because I am (last time I checked) a male.

**In South Carolina, where I worked as a server, they paid half minimum wage - which, after taxes, came to a big fat ZERO, leaving me to wonder why they ever even bothered to print my checks.


  1. So true. I learned about the realities of waiting tables vicariously through my sister - this is all true.

  2. Oh, man... there's a book or two "waiting" to be written on this one (hyoch, hyoch).


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