Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The "Santaland Diaries" Diaries

The Cleveland Public Theatre production of "The Santaland Diaries" by David Sedaris and Joe Mantello started one week ago today. The second of this two-weekend run kicks off tonight, so here are some personal reflections on the work so far. 

Photos by Steve Wagner.

Wednesday, December 6

Opening night. We had an intimate crowd, maybe twenty-five or so people plus a flock of Red Coats. I was grateful to have my mom in the audience, and a couple of friends. The laughter was extremely polite this evening.

Right off the bat I developed some serious dry mouth, which was no doubt a result of having never performed this material in front of an audience, any audience at all. Sure, I had performed the piece numerous times before my director, stage manager, and our team of designers, most of whom had heard these lines untold numbers of times. But how would an audience react?

We have festive, colorful, holiday-themed tumblers hidden behind the toy boxes and I tapped those at least four times during the show. I am self-conscious about drinking during the show. A critic once called out Curtis Proctor for “gulping water” between every scene, which was an unfair exaggeration. It was like, between every other scene.

I needed to slow down for laughs, but first I needed to learn where they would occur.

Thursday, December 7

This morning I woke up to discover I have pink eye. So, this should be an exciting weekend for everyone involved.

Tonight the house was twice as big as the night before, but the laughs were half so much. There was a weird energy that I couldn’t account for, except that maybe that people had not had enough to drink.

This show has been produced by CPT for fourteen years, isn't that amazing? Word has it that most of those in the audience for any given performance of  The Santaland Diaries love this play and attend year after year. Almost as many have never seen the show before and know nothing about it. A surprising number believe they are actually going to see David Sedaris.

Tonight, while I was changing into my elf costume a woman in the front row asked me a question. I mean, the play was in progress, and she piped right up to ask me a question, like this was a lecture or a TED Talk.

She asked if the outfit I was in the process of putting on was the actual outfit they made me wear.

I just stared at her and a million responses popped into my head, like, “You know I’m an actor, right?” and “This isn’t real,” and “Oh my God, you think this is actually my story, don’t you?”

I also wanted to say, “I don’t have any lines here, so I’m going to ignore your question,” but instead I didn't say anything at all, and just made this pathetic little gesture with my hands as if to suggest, “Nice costume?”

About ten minutes later, her friend’s cellphone went off, and I was debating whether or not to ignore it, but when she pulled the thing out to turn it off she said “sorry” in a manner that was so matter of fact I wondered if she thought she was in a staff meeting and not attending a play.

So then I did speak up. I said, “We didn’t have cellphones in 1989.” That got a laugh, so I continued, saying, “Well, we did, but they were very large and they were only owned by douchebags.”

I realize we didn’t really use the word “douchebag” in in 1989, either, but by that point I was saying, “Where was I?” and picked up from where I left off.

Remember to turn off your cellphone.

Friday, December 8

By tonight, I only had to drink water twice! I have them timed so they almost make sense, too. You’ll have to see the show to know what I mean.

The guy who directed the first Cleveland production was in the house tonight, and when I spotted him I got extremely self-conscious. I would have to say one-third of my performance is me, one-third David Sedaris, and one-third a wholesale rip-off of Curtis, who first performed the role in Cleveland in 1999.

I don’t actually feel bad about such dramatic reinterpretation, or artistic plagiarism, or whatever you want to call it. I mean, Jesus. Cleveland Public Theatre contacted me about doing this show on the 19th of October. Did you expect me to start from scratch? Durr?

Saturday, December 9

Who attends a play at 5:00 PM? During the holidays, a lot of people. I had my biggest house for the first show, bigger than even the 8:30 PM. Both houses were loud and had fun, and it was probably because they had all been drinking heavily, which is something I wasn’t able to do between performances. This is really sad because there’s nothing like being by yourself for two hours in Playhouse Square, surrounded by literally hundreds and hundreds of other people having a great time, and not being able to drink.

There’s a certain passage, if you know the show you know what I’m talking about. It includes a certain word. It’s legendary. It’s awful. People ask you not to do it. “Do you have to use that word?” Yes, I have to use that word. It’s in the script and if you don’t say it, or use a different word, and the people who manage the rights to the play find out, your theater company might receive a cease and desist order.

It falls about a third-way through the show, and it’s a real crucible. It’s a personal challenge to see if I can make the audience laugh in spite of themselves, and they always do. That makes them complicit.

Sunday, December 10

Tonight’s crowd was smaller, and sober, but they were game and we all had a good time. One woman on her way out after curtain call confided to one of the Red Coats that she “wanted to see something dirty!” By that I think she meant she was satisfied.

Changing from my street clothes into my elf costume is one of the weirder parts of the show. I understand Ray used to do a kind of a strip-tease, but that’s Ray and besides, that’s really not the personality I give off through the rest of the show. I might be one of the most uptight and uncomfortable Crumpets in history. I really have no idea.

So, I have some fun with taking my clothes off, but mostly I stare at people who make comments, which is also funny. Tonight, however … man! There were whistles and catcalls. I am a forty-nine year-old man with a spare tire. I raised an eyebrow and said, “Really?”

Monday, December 11

A night off is always nice, but I still have to go into the office. Ran into a colleague in the lobby of the Bulkley Building who saw the show over the weekend, she told me again how much she enjoyed the show. She's seen one or two guys perform Santaland in the past, but that they were all young, that I was the first older guy she's seen do the show.

She said she really liked it this way, from a guy who has been there and done that, but without any bitterness. That I'm able to look back upon this life-changing moment with humor and clarity.

I guess that's kind of what I do.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents “The Santaland Diaries” at the Outcalt Theatre in Playhouse Square through December 17, 2017

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