Friday, November 17, 2017

The Santaland Diaries (2017)

Photo by Steve Wagner
It happened last month in a cottage in Yalding, England, where I received an email from Beth Wood at Cleveland Public Theatre, asking if I would not like to perform the stage adaptation of The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris and Joe Mantello.

For several years now, CPT has produced this holiday favorite. The Santaland Diaries is one of the most produced plays in America, and has consistently been for over a decade, so much so that American Theatre magazine has stopped including it in their annual list of most-produced plays.

Actors who have played the role in Cleveland include Ray Caspio, Doug Kusak and (for Bad Epitaph) Curtis D. Proctor.

I was excited to have been asked. So, I have spent the past several weeks rehearsing with director Eric Schmeidl, who played the role of "Crumpet the Elf" himself for CPT three years ago. I love working with Eric, who has previously directed me in The Velocity of Autumn at Beck Center, and Night Bloomers for Dobama.

When I first announced the production and my place in it on Facebook the other day, I was delighted by the strong and happy response. I was inspired to put out a call for questions, because folks were so curious about my finally playing Crumpet the Elf. Here are my responses.

Q: Explain the juxtaposition of tragedy and comedy in this this line; "Today a child told Santa Ken that he wanted his dead father back and a complete set of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Everyone wants those turtles."

A: Actually, Donald, I think the line speaks for itself. The line you should be asking about is; "I am a thirty-three year-old man applying for a job as an elf," and how exactly I am going to play that when I am certainly long past thirty-three. 

For this production, and in fact when Eric himself performed the role in 2014, there is a set piece which makes it clear this play takes place in the past -- 1989, to be exact -- and that we are treating it as a memory play.

When first produced in Cleveland at Bad Epitaph Theatre in 1999, we tried updating the line you ask about. The boy wanted Pokemon cards. When I directed the show at Beck Center in 2002 the boy wanted a "SpongeBob SquarePants BackPack. Everybody loves SpongeBob.

You have to admit, "Everybody loves SpongeBob," is a funny thing to say. But now we leave the line as is.

Q: Have you seen David Sedaris in person and what did you think?

A: Good question, David. Sedaris read at the Ohio Theatre in 2000 when he was promoting his collection of essays "Me Talk Pretty One Day." He was on a certain medication and at one point had to ask the audience if it was all right to take a much needed pee-break, and we all thought that was fine.

Q: What's your favorite emoticon?

A: ðŸŽ…

Q: Reflect on being a writer who creates and performs autobiographical one-person shows performing another writer's autobiographical one-person shows.

A: Insightful query, Phil. Yes, I have written and performed my own solo shows, "I Hate This" and "And Then You Die." Standing on stage and talking for an hour without interruption is not unfamiliar to me. Those who are close me are no doubt aware that sitting in bars and talking for an hour without interruption is also not unfamiliar to me. 

It is perhaps because of these stage experiences that, while I had a few concerns about whether to accept the offer, actually being able to perform the piece wasn't one of them. I have at least that much ego.

Performing someone else's story, especially one as lighthearted as this, is particularly liberating. I just need to say the words and it's funny. Sedaris is really good that way. But it is also a thrill channeling my own feelings through the words. I don't have to play a character. Just as with those other solo plays, I still get to be myself. 

Q: Compare and contrast your Crumpet with Eric Schmiedl's Crumpet. I'm assuming you have seen Eric Schmiedl's Crumpet, yes?

A: No.

Q: How did you levitate that box (see photo)?

A: Well, Carolyn, how do you know that box is not slowly floating down into my loving arms, like a drunken cherub? 

Q: Have you ever actually worked in a retail store during the holiday season?

A: Thanks for asking, Nina, though your use of the word "actually" makes me a little defensive. 

I am happy to report that almost every Christmas season since 1991, I have been employed by one theater company or another. This means my holiday contributions to society have included productions like "Stealing Christmas" (Karamu 1991), "The Wayward Angel" (Bad Epitaph 2000), "Adventures In Slumberland" (Talespinner Children's Theatre, 2013), educational programs surrounding Great Lakes Theater's annual production of "A Christmas Carol" and that Yuletide favorite, "Simpatico" by Sam Shepard (Dobama Theatre, 1995).

However, during my college years I had several holiday jobs in mail rooms, wholesale outlet stores, performing data entry, and packaging and labeling volatile chemicals. I have also had my turn as a server at several restaurants, but have never "actually" worked retail during the holiday season.  

Q: What's with the knickers?

A: Yes, Halle. The knickers are satiny and very comfortable.

Q: Where?

A: The Outcalt Theatre at Playhouse Square, 1407 Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Susan! See you there!

(Many thanks to Blayne, Bob, Carolyn, David, Donald, Halle, Nina, Phil, and Susan for all the great questions!)

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "The Santaland Diaries" at the Outcalt Theatre in Playhouse Square, December 6 - 17, 2017

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