“I love the holidays,” says local comedian Tom Chalmers. “But I also fear them.”
This year, his anxiety could have something to do with his workload. The actor is performing in two back-to-back holiday-themed one-man plays. Just as his self-written Harm for the Holidays wraps up at North Carolina Stage Company, Chalmers jumps into the pointy-toed shoes of Crumpet the Elf for Asheville Community Theatre’s now-annual production of David Sedaris’ Santaland Diaries.
Fans of Sedaris (a North Carolina native) are familiar with the memoirist’s cynically humorous holiday tale, which ticks down the faults of the season with fulminating venom. Chalmers, though an admirer of Sedaris, is now in his third year of putting a personal spin on the classic stage show.
“I didn’t feel the need to try to do a David Sedaris impersonation,” he tells Xpress. “Santaland is a franchise. Probably 98 percent of people are coming to see it because it’s David Sedaris, not because it’s Tom Chalmers.”
It’s likely that Chalmers is the reason they come back, though. He brings to the performance plenty of physical comedy while fleshing out the story’s many characters, from the Long Island couple visiting the Macy’s department store where Crumpet works, to the other dysfunctional elves also in Santa’s employ.
“The first year we did it [at ACT], my director at the time really let me go for it,” Chalmers recalls. However, with the show now in its sixth season (local actor Jesse Benz manned the role before Chalmers), both the theater and the actor are thinking of parting ways with Santaland.
For ACT, next year could bring a new holiday play. Program Director Jenny Bunn explains that last year, the theater polled the audience and learned a surprising 80 percent were seeing Santaland for the first time. “We’ll wait and see,” she says.
For Chalmers, it’s a matter of keeping a little distance from the grouchy elf. “As much as I love doing it, I don’t want it to be the only thing I’m known for. Already people walk up to me going, ‘Hey, you’re that elf guy.’”
He adds, “I’d like to do some other things, too.”
That was one of the main reasons why he brought Harm for the Holidays, a play he’d performed four years earlier in Los Angeles, to NC Stage.
In his former West Coast home, he’d hosted a live show called Listen to This, similar to popular Chicago Public Radio program (and Sedaris vehicle) This American Life. As part of the show, Chalmers created his own narratives, which became the basis for his holiday-related one-man act.
The comedian relocated to the Asheville area three years ago after traveling through the area as the director for the play Backyard Fruits. “I was entertaining the idea of trying to find a smaller city, but didn’t think there was one out there that could hold my interest,” he remembers. “I was really excited that [Asheville] is a place you get to be an elf on stage and have people come and see you.”
Chalmers’ background includes writing for Showtime, TBS and the USA Network, and serving as artistic director for NYC’s Gotham City Improv/Groundlings East. He can also boast big-screen credits for comedy shorts Mating Rituals 101 and Scrutiny, among other films.
Along with roles in local plays and a featured spot in the recent Laugh Your Asheville Off Comedy Festival, Santaland has provided Chalmers with a niche role in his new hometown—and even if this year is his last in Crumpet’s shoes, he still promises a high-energy show with plenty of antics and a few new touches.
But does spending the holidays performing two dark-humor productions give him a skewed sense of seasonal cheer?
“I really do want this magic, special day,” Chalmers admits. “But there’s also a lot of pressure. I love the idea of the holidays; it’s just the execution of it that I have a problem with. If something suddenly goes wrong, you have to wait a whole year to try to get it right again.”
At least those mishaps make for comedic fodder.
who: The Santaland Diaries
what: David Sedaris’ dark comedy following a Macy’s department store elf throughout the Christmas season
where: Asheville Community Theatre mainstage
when: Thursday, Dec. 13-Saturday, Dec. 15, 8 p.m. nightly; 10 p.m. Saturday only. $15. 254-1320