As in all good stories, theater professional and The Capital Grille Bartender Chris Saunders encountered some bumps on his way to success, but he's riding high since the first play of his new theater company opened to good reviews in Indianapolis in January.
“I have often been a little hard on myself because I felt like I hadn’t achieved enough success and I couldn’t understand it — I mean, I directed, I wrote, I acted — but now that I have created American Lives Theatre, it’s useful to have all those different skills,” he said. “I’m happy my career’s roundabout path is finally making sense.”
A bartender at The Capital Grille for about five years, he said his restaurant team should also take a bow. His managers scheduled his shifts around a tight rehearsal schedule for “Gloria,” written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, which opened Jan. 10. Arts writer Tom Alvarez called the performance “powerful, provocative and relevant” and “very, very funny.” Reviewer John Belden described it as “a bold and provocative debut.”
Chris studied acting in Chicago and acted and wrote in New York City for years before returning to his hometown of Indianapolis to put down roots.“I’ve gotten more support from my managers at The Capital Grille than in any other job,” said the foodservice veteran.
“He has a warm, kind personality coupled with a passion for what he does that is evident in every interaction with team members and guests,” said Managing Partner Josh Peters. “Chris does an amazing job of balancing all that is on his shoulders, running his theater and creating exceptionally distinctive guest experiences at The Capital Grille.”
Chris said he loves being a bartender. “I’m able to form deeper relationships with people because there’s a familiarity in the tradition of bartender and guest that’s a little more intimate.” He said he especially enjoys getting to know guests he wouldn’t have otherwise, those with very different viewpoints from his. “They have helped me grow as a person and as an artist,” he said.
They are also his fans. Several of them turned out for his starring role in “And Tell Sad Stories of the Death of Queens” by Tennessee Williams in Indianapolis last year and also drove three hours to watch him perform in Chicago.
For now, he’s focused on the theater he founded last year. As its artistic director, he intends to explore the lives and experiences of Americans with mostly new work and neglected classics. “The most important thing we want to produce is theater that speaks to people’s lives right now,” he said. Two more plays will round out the theater’s first season — “Boy Gets Girl” by Rebecca Gilman in March and “Detroit” by Lisa D’amour in May.
Chris said he’s proud of sticking with his love of theater through tough times and grateful for all he has learned along the way. “The pace and multitasking of restaurant work helped prepare me to solve problems at the theater quickly and calmly with a happy face. I’m as grateful for that preparation at The Capital Grille as I am for my acting training.”