Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Santaland Diaries (1999)

Curtis D. Proctor as Crumpet the Elf
Photo by Anthony Gray
Following the success of Hamlet, Bad Epitaph Theater Company decided to produce some more plays. In addition to Wendy MacLeod’s Sin, it was decided to try a Christmas show -- The Santaland Diaries by David Sedaris, which had recently been adapted into a solo performance.

The radio version, which was simply a series of “reports” written by Sedaris for NPR’s Morning Edition about his experiences work as an elf in Macy’s Santaland in Manhattan were a huge hit in 1992 and established him as a popular humor writer. Listening to This American Life I had become a fan of his work and thought his sense of humor fit with our hip Gen-X vibe (I say that ironically, can you tell?)

Ordering a copy of the script, we found this one-hour piece was accompanied by a second act called Season’s Greetings. I’d heard that piece, too, on This American Life (performed by Julia Sweeney) and it’s, well … it’s a nasty piece of work. I couldn’t imagine following the potentially hilarious Santaland with such an ugly monologue. Don’t get me wrong, it’s funny … but it’s horrible. Take my word for it. You can listen to it here, if you are curious.

So during the summer of 1999 I sent a letter -- a real, paper letter -- to the company that holds the rights to the play version of Santaland. I asked if we couldn’t instead perform Front Row Center with Thaddeus Bristol, about a theater critic who is reviewing a Christmas pageant at a local elementary school. That thing is hysterical. In my imagination, we could perform that short piece first as a curtain raiser before the main event.

Dramatists Play Service got back to me in short order to point me towards Sedaris’s own publisher, as they do not have rights to his other work. Right. Should have figured that out myself. So I wrote his agent a letter -- a paper letter, through the mail -- and heard nothing.

By fall, I sent a follow-up letter (paper) and soon received a polite letter in response informing me that yes, they had gotten my letter and sent it on to Sedaris’s New York residence, but that I shouldn’t get my hopes up as he was currently residing in France. They also let me know that under no circumstances should I produce any work of their client I did not have the rights to.

Not a problem, we had moved on by that point anyway. Our plan was to present The Santaland Diaries on its own. Just a one-hour act, who cares, right? It will be fine. Besides, we had Curtis Proctor cast as “Crumpet the Elf” and he was fucking perfect.

Shortly before the holidays I got a call at home and checking the called ID I could see it was a 212. I didn’t know the number, but figured it must be Harris. Picking up the phone I heard a familiar voice.

“Hi, can I speak to David Hansen?”

“This is he.”

“This is David Sedaris.”

“Oh, hi!” I said, and immediately sat down.

He explained that he had just gotten back into New York and received my letter, and apologized for not calling sooner but wanted to respond to my kind request but that he wasn’t letting anyone, anywhere adapt any of his work ever again.

I told him I really appreciated his call, and that it wasn’t a problem, we were going to produce just The Santaland Diaries, by itself, and leave it that.

He went on to tell me the story of how he had been approached by Joe Mantello about the possibility of an Off-Broadway production starring Paul Rebuens as him.

“Great,” Sedaris told me, “All I thought was, ‘I get to smoke pot with Pee-Wee Herman.’”

What he didn’t know was that by entering into this agreement, the stage adaptation (originally starring Timothy Olyphant, and not Paul Reubens) was no longer his to control, and that anyone who wants to and pays the fee can produce it. Put mildly, this runs contrary to the kind of control he would prefer to have over his own writing.

“It’s not really a play,” he insisted, “there’s no character there, it's just a bunch of stories.”

Again, I thanked David Sedaris for his call.

“I really wish no one would ever produce The Santaland Diaries,” he said again. “Anyone. Ever.”


We produced it anyway. It was a big hit. In fact, The Santaland Diaries continues to be one of the most-produced shows in America, year after year.

Sorry, David.

See also: The Santaland Diaries (2017)

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