THE CATERING QUEEN by Alison Lawrence, directed by Ed Sahely. Presented by the McGuffin Co at the Tarragon Mainspace (30 Bridgman). July 6 at 8:15 pm, July 7 at 3 pm, July 9 at 10 pm, July 11 at 10:30 pm, July 12 at noon, July 13 at 7:30 pm, July 15 at 4 pm. Rating: NNNNN
How's this for a study in dramatic contrasts?
One morning last September, writer/actor Alison Lawrence is on NBC's The Today Show chatting about her book Bittergirl with co-authors Mary Francis Moore and Annabel Griffiths. Free trip to Manhattan, a night at a swank hotel, a ride to Rockefeller Center. Not to mention the chance to plug her book to millions of viewers.
The next day, she's back in Toronto doing a patient-simulation gig at St. Mike's, something, she explains, a lot of actors do for the cash.
Chalk it up to the bizarre but never dull life of a working artist in this city.
Lawrence has just finished telling me this story, complete with little details about what each of them was wearing in New York ("We had to look good but different enough - coordinated!"), and suddenly she flashes a big smile.
It's a smile most people in the independent theatre scene know and cherish. In shows like The Laramie Project and Top Gun: The Musical, Lawrence's mug has expressed a half-dozen emotions at once. In this grin, shared over a decaf latte, I can detect a bit of awe mixed in with exhaustion, irony and gratitude to be doing what she loves.
"Amazing," she says, savouring all the connotations of that word.
It sums up Lawrence's life these days. She's just learned that Bittergirl, the show (and then book) about surviving being dumped, is being developed as a musical this fall in a workshop produced by the Mirvishes.
In addition, but no less a feat, she's finally been accepted at the Fringe after 13 unsuccessful tries at throwing her name into the lottery.
The Catering Queen draws loosely on her years spent supplementing her actor/writer's income as a caterer.
"I catered Fridays to Sundays for so long," she says. "I stopped for a while after I had my daughter, and then I went back and was essentially a catering company's second-in-command for a while. There was an amazing group of women working - actors and singers."
In fact, what kept her in the job was the camaraderie with her fellow workers (some of whom have remained friends), not the chance to peek into the lives of Toronto's rich and famous on the receiving end of those high-end hors d'oeuvres.
"By the time I'd finished, I remember telling my daughter I didn't think I could do this any more. I was going to dump a tray in somebody's lap and just laugh. I wasn't happy in the bow tie."
The comedy features a clutch of bow-tied caterers, many of them artists, manoeuvring food and drink in a bustling Forest Hill kitchen during the holidays. Lawrence plays Mel, a blocked writer, who suddenly discovers that the ex that she hasn't quite got over (played by Hume Baugh) is a guest. And he's got a new girlfriend, an ambitious lawyer played by Mary Francis Moore. Another caterer (Dmitry Chepovetsky) discovers he's slept with the patriarch of the home. And then there's the cynical actor (Sharon Heldt), who's tired of cattle-call auditions and angry at everyone.
"There's a bit of me in all of them. It's a sort of cut-and-paste job," says Lawrence. "Plus, there are a lot of stories in there that people have told me over the years."
The script isn't just a cater-and-tell look at the biz. The party's hosts, Buffy and George Smythe, who Lawrence claims are an amalgamation of everyone she's ever worked for, remain offstage.
More importantly, the play examines how people allow their lives to veer away from what they really want and need. It also looks at how the desire to take care of people affects relationships. Are women programmed to "cater to" those around them?
"I've wondered if it's a female thing, because I know I do it," says Lawrence. "And once I became a mother I really started to do it. Now, I try to watch that it doesn't happen in my relationships. I'll start to take care of people who are adults and don't necessarily want to be taken care of. That's been a real journey for me."
Besides, her own teenage daughter can take care of herself, it seems. Emma Healey is currently playwright-in-residence at the Paprika Festival.
"She's wanted to be a novelist since around 5, but she realizes there are more programs out there helping you to become a playwright than a novelist," smiles Lawrence. "She's been learning about collaboration and writing drafts. I think she's better than me and her dad."
Her father, Lawrence's ex, is writer/actor Michael Healey. Not a bad gene pool to have if you're a budding writer. And Emma's not intimidated?
"She grew up with this. She doesn't know anything else," laughs Lawrence. "A couple of weeks ago, we were coming back from a trip to Ottawa and she was running lines with me all the way. She's done that since she could read."
Still, there are certain rules in their household. Nobody reads anyone's writing until they're invited to do so.
And after living through Bittergirls rehearsals during each stage of the show, how will Emma avoid becoming one herself?
"She's pretty smart," says Lawrence. "She's got a boyfriend, a very nice guy. There was one time when she really wanted to see him, but she realized she hadn't spent time recently with her best friend. So she explained that to her boyfriend. I thought, 'Wow, that's great.' She already realizes you've got to look after your friendships. She's got it together."