Blue-Plate Special

Restaurant Worker Colleen Kruse Serves up a Platter of New Stories

Potential scribes, let me offer you a word of advice: The next time a well-meaning creative-writing instructor tells you to "write what you know," offer up a well-formed haymaker to his jaw. Because, lads and lasses, what you know is more limited than you realize, and, speaking from weary experience, rarely interesting enough. I can't imagine anything more pompous than the presumption that the stories most worth telling are pure autobiography. Indeed, isn't that inappropriate? It's impolite to usher a stranger into a corner at a cocktail party and pour out detail after petty detail of your miserable experience--why should such a breach in manners be tolerated in art? And so I would urge you to eschew the autobiographical, eschew any art form that has its roots in journaling, and then I urge you to wipe your nose and eschew some more.

Unless you happen to be Colleen Kruse, in which case, go ahead and ignore my advice. But then, if you're Colleen Kruse, feel free to corner me at a cocktail party and regale me with stories from your life. I won't mind it a bit.

In fact, Safety Pins and Superglue, Kruse's current show at the Bryant-Lake Bowl has the feel of just such a conversation: unrehearsed, disjointed, and rambling. Kruse sits onstage, glass of wine in hand, occasionally checking her pager to see how much time has passed, ever surprised by the length of her own stories. "Oh, that was a long one!" she'll declare, or, "Oh, it's late!" She glances infrequently at a notebook before her, and her stories still feel half-formed, detouring awkwardly down unneeded side trails before wending back to the original point. But I have never been one to kick when I saw a performer working out new material onstage--why else do we have small cabarets, anyway, if not for such experimentation. It might occasionally be a bringdown, as the song says, but it never is a bore, as Kruse is a longtime storyteller. Even if these stories are still unformed, she has a longtime storyteller's finesse. She's agile enough to avoid seeming lost in her narrative and, as usual, her stories are good. More than good, they are worth telling.

Kitchen confidential: Waitress and storyteller Colleen Kruse
Heather Willems
Kitchen confidential: Waitress and storyteller Colleen Kruse

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Kruse, in her own way, is documenting a history that would ordinarily be left undocumented. "I have now been a waitress longer than I haven't," she declares in amazement from the Bryant-Lake Bowl stage, and there it is, Kruse's world: the working poor. In each of Kruse's stories the opening night of her performance, the specter of economic disaster hung just above her characters, informing their decisions and shaping their lives. Kruse tells of a fellow waitress in St. Paul whose romantic partner fled town, leaving her with a hideous and oversize sectional sofa. Certainly there is grief at the end of this long-term relationship, but it takes an almost literal backseat to a more pressing economic necessity: The waitress must now move from a three-bedroom apartment to a one-bedroom apartment, and the sofa is simply unmovable, leading to the dire possibility of an unreturned damage deposit. The waitress in Kruse's story comes to a novel solution, involving a sledgehammer and a mix tape of music by AC/DC, and it's funny, as Kruse's stories often are.

But more than that, with Kruse we are in the hands of an autobiographer who uses her stories to explore something larger than her own experiences. Instead, she seems to have a journalist's interest in the world around her, with autobiography serving merely as an introduction to the surrounding characters. Even in her most purely autobiographical stories, Kruse repeatedly steps outside her own perspective, glancing back at herself through the eyes of the other folks in her stories, who often get the best punch lines. In one, she is beset by belligerent long-haul drivers while attempting to perform comedy in rural Minnesota, her voice lost in furious babble after she angrily snaps at one of them, "I don't go to where you work and knock the dick out of your mouth." Ever besieged by financial pressures, she performs a full 45-minute set, the minimum amount of time required for her to get paid--even after a trucker has joined her onstage, slapping his chest to incite her to fight him. Finally, at the end of her set, she storms offstage, and is met by a fellow comedian, a nattily dressed African-American man who has watched the entire spectacle.

"Fuck," he deadpans, "that was some shit. Is it always like that for you?"

 
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