Gillian Cosgriff is many things: singer, songwriter, pianist, comedienne, and a graduate of the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts. It seems odd, therefore, that when looking for subject matter for her first solo cabaret show, she chose to write about her “day job” as a waitress.
“At the end of my degree I moved to Melbourne and got an agent and started auditioning for things, but it turns out that nobody pays you to audition for stuff,” she explains, her wry sense of humour present as always. “So I had to go back to working in hospitality and teaching and a bunch of other jobs in order to pay the bills.” Her debut show is entitled Waitressing and Other Things I Do Well and is a good-natured, humorous look at the difficulties facing a fresh-faced performing arts graduate. Cosrgiff cheerfully bemoans the uselessness of her degree (“Its only real workplace value is that I could use it to threaten potential employers with a nasty paper cut”) and uses her skills as a pianist and songwriter to enlighten the audience about the experience of working in hospitality.
The inspiration behind the show came from her interactions with customers and the everyday trials of “working a job you hate just to pay the bills.” Armed with a self-deprecating sense of humour, a chirpy on-stage presence, and a talent for punchy tunes, she set about writing in January this year. “There are songs in the show that I’ve been singing for years,” she explains, “Although the bulk of it was written about a month before opening. I’m a procrastinator, what can I say?”
The show has already been a hit at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and QPAC’s 12 Acts of Cabaret in Brisbane earlier this year, and is about to play Melbourne Cabaret Festival this weekend. It follows on from Cosgriff’s award for second place and the Showcase award at the Sydney Cabaret Showcase in December last year.
“It’s a very personal show in that it’s just me sitting at the piano, singing and playing my songs and talking about stuff that’s happened to me,” Cosgriff says. “I don’t play a character, so you may as well be sitting in my lounge room at home while we have a chat and a laugh. But a lot of the subject matter is pretty universal, so I think there’s something in there that everyone can relate to.” The subjects of the songs include a short-lived infatuation with a customer “Mr Tall Skinny Extra Shot Latte Guy” and a rueful musing on the challenges of being seen only as a waitress when your passions lie elsewhere.
Cosgriff sees this as the secret to the show’s appeal: “Anyone who’s ever worked a job they hated just so they could pay the bills [can relate]… A lot of people have worked in some aspect of hospitality or service, so they can relate to all the unpleasant customer experiences in the show.”
She explains that the idea of doing a cabaret show came about almost by accident: “I’ve always written my own songs, but I was never quite sure where or when I could perform them. It was while I was at uni, playing at acoustic nights, or just messing around on the piano after a few drinks that I realised that me sitting at a piano, just talking to the audience might actually be entertaining.” She adds that the appeal of cabaret was its intimate format, which lends itself to candour: “For me, the appeal is being able to say exactly what I want to the audience directly. I like the honesty and intimacy of cabaret.”
The writing process was “the biggest obstacle,” Cosgriff says. “Before this show, I’d been writing songs, but only when I felt like it, or when I had a good idea. [Now I had to] sit down and say to myself, ‘You have to write a song today and it had better be funny’.” The discipline paid off, though, and Cosgriff plans to take the show further when the Melbourne Cabaret Festival has finished. “I want to take the show as far as I can. When you’re performing the show you get to dress up and do interviews and drink champagne; when I’m writing I stay in my pyjamas, checking Facebook too often, drinking champagne…”
Cosgriff’s act is a great showcase for her quirky humour and jaunty chatter, which imbue her performance with a down-to-earth, easy charm. Her off-the-cuff comments allow her bubbly personality to shine through. However, the spotlight should be on her songs, which are based around simple tunes and gutsy lyrics. The last word should be left to Cosgriff herself, as she begins her quest to make modern audiences empathise with the plight of the waitress: “You know how in some countries they have a one-year mandatory military service as soon as you finish school? I think we need a one-year mandatory hospitality service rule. If you ever want to eat in a restaurant, you have to have done your time being on the other side of it first!”
Waitressing and Other Things I Do Well is on at the Butterfly Club, 204 Bank St, South Melbourne on Friday 22nd July, Saturday 23rd July and Sunday 24th July. All three shows are at 7pm. Tickets: $33/$30.