Thomas McAteer loves to put on a show. An expert in theater, McAteer is a master of creating an illusion for an audience. His players use words and body language to express emotion, and convey messages.

But McAteer isn’t in the theater business, at least not anymore. Today, he is in the restaurant industry, working as maitre d’ at the new Agricola restaurant on Witherspoon Street. He has reached high levels both on the stage and in the front end of restaurants and discovered there are great similarities between the two performance venues.

“The theater experience feeds very much into the service experience. It’s about being able to keep the illusion alive: the illusion that even though you are there day in and day out meeting hundreds of people, that each person is new and fresh and genuinely welcome,” he says. “You must be aware of the messages you are sending and how you send them.”

McAteer, who grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland, is the son of a housewife and a garage owner. He has had dual careers in theater and in restaurants since he arrived in the U.S. in 1979. He was onstage and behind the scenes as co-artistic director of the Mirror Theater Company. He was also at one time the maitre d’ of the Russian Tea Room in New York and previously owned a wine bar in Ireland.

McAteer will share his secrets of using the techniques of drama to enhance customer service Tuesday, June 25, at a meeting of the Princeton Merchants Association at the community room of the Princeton Public Library. The talk will take place from 1 a.m. to noon and is free to all PMA members. Register at www.princetonmerchants.org.

McAteer says the dining experience is as much about the performance of the staff as it is about the food. “People are going out to eat with expectations, and the food is only part of it,” he says. “If you paid $27 for a piece of chicken and its served in a bare room, you will be disappointed. If you paid $27 for a piece of chicken and everything around you is beautifully executed, it’s worth every penny. The added value is in the service.”

This is true not only for restaurants, but for any business that involves customer service. McAteer says businesses that pay minimum wage to poorly-trained and unmotivated employees who are the face of their companies are making a big mistake.

“Why would you spend $5 million building a restaurant and then hire someone for $8 an hour to man the front door?” he says. “I believe you get what you expect. You need to raise expectations. I’ve found throughout the years that there are some remarkable people working in the service industry who are under-engaged and under-utilized.”

One key to getting good employees to engage the customers better is a bit counter-intuitive coming from a theater pro: don’t give anyone a script, McAteer says.

“Nothing is more unauthentic than someone saying something by rote,” he says. “You want them to engage the person the same way an actor engages the audience, not the part you wanted them to, but all of them. Nothing resonates better than authenticity.”

Of course, the old cliche is that actors end up waiting tables. Mc­Ateer found that the cliche was a reality in New York, where every Broadway career involved time schlepping in a restaurant. However, he has found that’s not the case in New Jersey.

McAteer hopes to improve expectations in the local service industry by teaching business owners about how to apply various aspects of performance to their establishments. He has done this kind of work before: while he was working for the Mirror, he led a series of workshops in city schools and even Rikers Island prison, teaching students and inmates alike how they could use the dramatic arts in everyday life.

One of the most important lessons he teaches is about body language. “First of all, be aware of it,” he says. “We tend to teach service staff and waiters to read the customer. But they forget the customer is reading them just as much. You need to be aware of the space you occupy, and what you are doing. What you say and how you say it is more important than the actual words in the sense that, if you tell someone you are happy to see them, and not saying it with a ‘happy to see them’ face and tone of voice, they will pick up on the emotional value of what they see, and that has an impact. All those things affect your relationship with the customers.”

McAteer says there are very simple theater exercises people can do to make themselves more aware of nonverbal communication. One of them is to have someone simply walk across the room. Everyone then comments, in a constructive way, about what the person is saying about themselves with how they move and how they behave.

A more advanced exercise is to act out a scene between two actors, neither of whom speaks. Then the scene is repeated several times, each time adding a word. “Words are only as effective as their emotional intention,” McAteer says. For example, he says, “What does the word ‘momma’ mean to a child? It could mean, ‘I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, I’m cold, or I’m sad.’ It has all those meanings in one word. It communicates feelings, not just the logic of what the word means.”

McAteer says that when you make yourself aware of your body language and the emotions behind your words, you begin to interact with people better and treat people better, even more so if this takes hold in an entire workplace.

“If the employees feel they are onstage the moment they are in the workplace, their behavior is different.”

McAteer, says theater is a great tool for making someone aware of how their own behavior affects others. “Theater is not just about entertaining,” he says. “It’s a very useful tool.”

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