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BY COLIN MIXSON
It’s a cliché that aspiring artists work in catering while they wait for their big break, but one food-service firm actually tries to make their dreams happen.
Soho-based caterer Great Performances, which employs hundreds of artists throughout the five boroughs, awarded four of its right-brained service professionals $5,000 each on March 7 to help fund their various artistic endeavors.
The company’s founder, who has been handing out grants to her waiters, waitresses and bartenders since the 1980s, sees the endowments as a means of giving back and reconnecting with her own artistic aspirations.
“We’re so close to our roots, which was really the arts, and we thought it would be a very important to give back in recognition of our staff,” said Liz Neumark, founder of Great Performances Caterers.
The grant winners were announced at the Mae Mae Café, located around the corner from the company’s Hudson St. headquarters, and were awarded based on comprehensive proposals they submitted outlining their visions — be it a play, album, film, or some other artistic undertaking.
The proposals were reviewed by a panel of high-powered culture gurus, including philanthropist Diana Roesch DiMenna; Jeffrey Hayden, CEO of Caramoor Center for the Performing Arts; Heather Hitchens, executive director of the American Theater Wing; and author Jean Hanff Korelitz.
It didn’t take much deliberation, though. The judges quickly decided that the four winners had far and away the best pitches of the pack, according to Korelitz.
“It was the shortest meeting ever,” she said. “We all absolutely agreed.”
Adam Miller won based on his plan to produce a documentary called “Buckets,” which tells the story of famed rhythmist Larry Wright, who, as a young man in the ’80s, worked as a busker on the subways, drumming on a bucket in order to support his family.
Kristin Yancy received one of the five-grand grants to fund a workshop of her immersive performance, “The Hunt,” a story of the 1692 Salem Witch Trials viewed through the lens of Greek mythology.
Evan Edwards will use his $5,000 to produce a concept CD he hopes will entice backers to fund his musical, “McGurk’s Suicide Hall, a fictional account of actual events,” which focuses on two immigrants who migrated to the city more than a century ago, but whose story remains topical today.
Finally, Lucy Gram was awarded a grant to fund a three-day workshop of “In the Belly,” during which she’ll flesh out her vision of the production.
Neumark was a photographer when she founded the catering company in 1980 as a means of providing her artistically minded female friends with time-flexible work they could support themselves with while pursuing their various crafts.
“I was pursuing a career as a photographer myself, and had trouble finding flexible income, and thought that, because there were so few opportunities for women in the hospitality industry, which was so male dominated, I would start a little waitress service, just for a bunch of my friends, who were in different areas of the arts,” Neumark said.
But the business took off and she quickly brought men into the fold in order to satisfy gender norms of the city’s haute upper class.
“We integrated and brought in the guys, because we had hostesses who were freaked out by female bartenders,” she said.
The business started handing out grants on a biannual basis in 1984, when two servers received $1,000 grants. The program has since ballooned to award four servers $5,000 each on an annual basis.
Though none of the award recipients have yet gone on to enjoy fabulous wealth and fame, Neumark says her endowments have allowed many aspiring artists to enjoy some degree of success.
“Is there someone who’s a best-selling novelist or on Broadway because of the grant? I don’t think so. But I think we’ve had a lot of small victories,” she said.
Certainly, the award winners at Monday’s ceremony were overcome by the generosity of their employer.
“I’m just going to cry all morning,” said Gram at the award ceremony, tears of joy streaming down her face. “This a huge deal, thank you so much.”