In 1992, North Carolina native David Sedaris read a story on National Public Radio’s “Morning Edition” about his time working as an elf named “Crumpet” at Macy’s Winter Wonderland. It was a clever piece describing Sedaris’ own jaded feelings on the current state of Christmas; and even though it was biting in its criticism of the commercial juggernaut the season has become — depicting an almost mean-spirited side of the holiday — it received an overwhelmingly enthusiastic listener response. A decade later, a one-man stage adaptation of Sedaris’ The Santaland Diaries has become one of the most produced holiday plays in the country.
The Asheville Community Theatre on Walnut Street has chosen this work to launch 35below, the brand-new small audience — or “black box” — theater in the building’s basement. Out of all the holiday shows available to open the new space with, it seems surprising that so scathing an indictment of the modern holiday season has found its way onto any ACT stage. The theater group, which has made its reputation on large-scale production numbers and musicals, is considered by many to be relatively conservative.
“Why wouldn’t we choose it?” asks Andrew Gall, director of The Santaland Diaries. “It’s a piece that obviously speaks to contemporary sensibilities. Essentially, [Sedaris] is asking the question, ‘What the hell have we done to Christmas? Is this really what it’s about now?’ The play is just a series of observations, most of which are quite funny; [but] the reason why they are funny is because [of] the ideals that we grew up with about what Christmas is supposed to be.
“[Christmas] is a time of renewal, of getting back in touch with good feelings about yourself and your fellow man,” Gall continues, “and yet we’ve bogged it down [and made it] very commercial, very corporate. That’s what this play is about: Christmas from that very corporate standpoint. And it’s about how inane that is, because shopping at Macy’s has nothing to do with bettering yourself or bettering the world around you. Do we really need that? It just seems that some of these commercial things have kind of supplanted that goodwill that, deep down, we would all like Christmas to be. That’s what the play is poking fun [at], because we’ve allowed that to happen. What [Sedaris] is doing is holding up the mirror, and this is why it’s great theater.
“That’s what good theater does, it holds up the mirror and says, ‘Is this what you want to be?’ “
Throughout the narrative of the play, Sedaris explains his trials and tribulations in watching the unhappy Macy’s customers wait for hours in endless lines simply to get a few moments and a photo with the “ethnically correct” Santa. [Sedaris] endures endless insults, plays passively mean pranks on the crowd and watches with resignation as overbearing parents threaten their children into smiling for the camera and their moment with Santa Claus. To perfectly capture the spirit of Sedaris’ words takes a strong actor, and Gall believes he has found the perfect one in Jesse Benz.
“[Jesse] is a performer [who] is wonderful to work with,” Gall says. “He’s perfect for the role; this is a really good vehicle for him. I have tremendous confidence in his ability to do just about anything.
“It was really kind of cool when I asked to do this, and we were able to get Jesse attached to it,” Gall enthuses. “He’s amazing.”
“I love David Sedaris’ work,” notes Benz, the show’s sole performer, “and I always have.”
When the play was first proposed earlier this year, Benz practically demanded to play the jaded, almost-certainly-drug-test-failing Crumpet.
“That’s pretty much who I was in [I lived in New York City],” Benz admits. “I was a pothead loser. Who better for the part than me?”
Part of the reason for the new and more experimental theater space is to bring in new blood and new ideas to keep ACT’s productions vibrant, explains Jenny Bunn, coordinator for 35below.
“ACT, at the heart of it, is a community theater, and I think that upstairs [in the main ACT theater] we were losing part of the community,” she elaborates. “We have higher ticket prices, and I think that a lot of younger people in Asheville aren’t necessarily interested in seeing a big, wide-scale musical. They are interested more in getting a part of the raw, innovative theater that they’ve never seen before.
“[35below] is a small space — it only seats 45 people — so we were looking for a show that would fit well within [it],” Bunn continues. “The Santaland Diaries is a one-man show; it’s pretty small in terms of scenic units, props, costumes and things like that. It’s pretty low-budget. It’s got a young energy to it.”
Gall, who’s also the co-artistic director for Highland Repertory Theatre, sees the addition of another small theater space in Asheville as an immensely positive thing.
“In the last 20 years or so, there has been a sort of proliferation of smaller theaters in places like Chicago, or New York, or Los Angeles,” he observes. “This is where most of your writers are, and so they are writing these pieces for these intimate spaces that aren’t necessarily going to work in a more traditional theater setting.
“The [term] in the business is that it’s kind of a “black box” space,” he adds. “That means it’s a theater space that can really be used for a variety of different kinds of productions.”
In a recent three-day span, 35below has been used for acting classes, a staged reading of local playwright Jeff Messer’s Pregnant Pause and work on The Santaland Diaries. What distinguishes ACT’s basement as a performance space is the close relationship it creates between performer and audience, Gall explains.
“That’s really what the critical difference is,” he concludes. “The intimacy.”