Sometimes I can’t believe that I’m starting my 9th year at The Theatre School at DePaul University. It wasn’t so long ago that I was waiting tables and, if I say so myself, I was pretty damn good at it. You see, I liked it. Not only relating to the customers, but also the camaraderie among the waiters, cooks, bussers, and the guys that show up late at night to deep clean the grills. Maybe it was sitting around having a piece of cheesecake and a cappuccino after a long shift. Or just being able to go behind the grill and make yourself a BLT while the cook drinks a Forty and compliments you with “AT LEAST YOU KNOW HOW TO TIIIIIME AN ORDER!”
I wasn’t out to change the world or be a movie star. I did, however, want to be that local actor who always got the role no one would ever think he’d get. I needed to pay my rent and to keep my phone on. I’d often call my mother to tell her the final bill had arrived and I’d soon be going “off the airwaves.”. She’d laugh and say it builds character and to please call her as soon as I was back on the air. During that time I was about the age of the average grad student– in fact I’d just gotten my MFA in acting from TTS.
It happens slowly, almost imperceptibly, but you do get older. You start—or at least I started—to think about things outside of myself. Being a full-time actor and part-time waiter (or full-time waiter and part-time actor) leaves you with a lot of time for introspection. I remember I was doing a show at Alabama Shakespeare Festival called Blues for an Alabama Sky. I’d already done the show at The Goodman Theatre and so, the second time around it was a pretty easy and uneventful rehearsal and opening. After curtain call each evening, when I stood behind the flat hiding me from the audience, I’d immediately get depressed and have thoughts like, “is this all there is?”
I remember thinking: I’m not a dumb man. There must be other things I can do besides acting and waiting. Restaurant management was an option, but as a manager your primary job is to deal with complaints…and I really don’t like saying no to people. As a teenager, it was clear that I wasn’t going to follow a path to the military like a couple of older brothers and sports wouldn’t be an outlet for me either. It was decided (by someone, but I never figured out who) that one day I’d become a teacher. My mother and aunt would always announce, “Dexter would make a good teacher, he loves to read and recite things,” while they were drinking shots of Canadian Club before serving the Sunday dinner. Yes, my mother and aunt were right. I do love to read and recite things. But they left off another important character trait: they had forgotten as a child that my favorite word was “why.”