Elf-centered

In a season as padded as a bounce house with fuzzy, cutesy, feel-good, family-friendly pageants, films and musical revues, one-man play The Santaland Diaries stands out like a lump of coal in a Christmas stocking. In the most gleefully delightful way, of course.

“I wear green velvet knickers, a forest green velvet smock and a perky little hat decorated with spangles. This is my work uniform.” So begins David Sedaris’ Santaland, which first came to us via NPR in 1992. “Everything these elves say seems to have an exclamation point on the end of it. It makes one’s mouth hurt to speak with such forced merriment. It embarrasses me to hear people talk this way. I think I’ll be a low-key sort of elf.”

The memoir, which recounts Sedaris’ turn as a Macy’s Department Store elf one holiday season, is deliciously biting and wickedly funny. The original radio segment served as the segue for Sedaris to transition from a mostly unemployable unknown to a best-selling author. In ‘96, the story was adapted for the stage, and in 2002, the play was first produced by Asheville Community Theatre at 35below, its black-box stage.

Jesse Benz played the starring (and sole) role of Crumpet the Elf with sneering, bitter perfection for three years. When he moved away from Asheville, comedian Tom Chalmers filled the striped tights. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the guilty pleasure. While ACT prepares to stage the production (complete with giveaways, a Twitter promotion, pre-show activities and afterparties), cast and crew past and present recounted to Xpress their favorite moments spent in Santaland.

Andrew Gall, director, 2002-2005
The first production of Santaland was also the first production in 35below. So we had no budget and no one was really sure if something as “risque” as Santaland would be successful. We had a small budget for the costume and that was it.

The initial production was very actor driven and Jesse Benz had some boxes that were used as the various set pieces and the costume change was done on stage.

Jesse and I rehearsed during the day. Usually for about several hours at a shot. We smoked a lot. Jesse also got ill during tech week and I mean ill. I remember opening night Jesse was about three minutes or less into the show and got nauseous, went into a panic, forgot his lines, and said “excuse me” and ran off stage. He was offstage for what felt like eons.  He came back on continued the show and no one cared. (I think the audience was hammered, as Jenny Bunn was putting the hard sell on the wine.) Anyway, the show went fine. 

The next year we added a “set” and we did it in 35below. In retrospect, [the set] was akin to the decision to put nipples on George Clooney’s bat suit. The show was just as successful and Jesse and I came on for our third year.  By that time my daughter had been born and I remember having her with me at rehearsals. I think we did away with a lot of the set that year and went back to the basics: actor, bad elf costume and lots of cynical Crumpet attitude.

Tia Robinson, stage manager, 2002-2004
Working closely with the director, Andrew Gall, as well as the main (and, of course, only) actor, Jesse Benz, provided many hours of priceless entertainment. I was also involved in running the lights and sound for each performance, which was set up in the corner of the stage area, directly behind the audience.

Most of my favorite production memories consist of how closely involved Jesse was with the audience. My location during the show gave me a perfect position to enjoy the interactions. I’ll never forget several instances where Jesse had to ad lib through small sections of his role because the audience insisted on becoming part of the performance. Jesse always rolled brilliantly with the unexpected but hilarious inserts. Not even when one audience member flashed him did it throw him off the task of providing an unforgettable show.

Lee Storrow, assistant stage manager, 2005 and 2007
I was in high school. I had worked several shows at ACT on the big musicals, and then was asked to come in and assistant stage manage Santaland. It was the first role that I’d had with more official responsibilities. I’d worked with Jesse on Waiting for Godot at Highland Repertory Company and I’d seen [Santaland] in the black box [at 35below].

On Saturday we had two shows — a show at 8 and at 11 p.m. Getting that final show together when we had them back to back was the most stressful thing we did. The entire crew ran around for 20 minutes like crazy people before we got it ready for the people to come in. And half of the people for the last show were drunk. That’s what the 11 p.m. show was like.

We were always strategically hiding water bottles. It’s not a long show, but it’s an energetic show. We were always like, where can we hide a water bottle for Tom so he can somehow make it through this marathon?

And then the snow. We poured snow down on Tom from the ceiling. There was a gag about him cleaning up the snow. It would stop and he’d clean it up and then it would start again. For the last one, the whole bucket of snow dumped on him. The entire stage was white. That was the tricky part for that Saturday show — trying to get it all up, get all the dust and dirt out, and get it back into the bucket for the last show.

Susan Harper, Asheville Community Theatre managing director
I came to Asheville in 2003, very excited to work for an organization that would present The Santaland Diaries. I love David Sedaris’ sense of humor and have loved being a part of this production. I was introduced to Sedaris by reading a book of his on a plane and I laughed so hard, someone came back and asked for the book when I was finished with it. Then I listened to him laugh while we flew home. 

My only real contribution to the show was suggesting that we should move it from 35below to the main stage — and that was mostly because we were doing 18 performances in 35below which was killing us! We can do almost double the number of tickets in four performances on the Mainstage. We get to build a bigger set, and Tom can reveal Santaland by pulling down a parachute curtain.

Tom Chalmers, actor, 2005-present
I took over the role of Crumpet when Jesse Benz moved to San Francisco and the show moved from 35below up to the big stage. I am affectionately referred to in this town as “that elf guy.”

My favorite memory, and there are many, is from a show we did a few years back. About a third of the way into the show, I pull down a parachute drop that is masking the back half of the stage to reveal the Santaland set. I would always play up getting caught in the parachute as it got pulled off stage. But on that night the stagehands pulled extra hard, and sure enough, I got swallowed up by the slippery white material. The audience thought it was hilarious seeing me flail about in the nylon fabric, having no idea that I was unable to breathe. I started to panic and tried to swim my way out, looking like a mouse making his escape from a snake’s belly. Also unable to see, I slammed my head into a set piece and came ever so close to careening off the stage, Ann Margaret-style. I somehow managed to free myself and was greeted by generous applause, everyone certain that I had gone to great lengths for the gag. I never let on that I nearly suffocated and never let the parachute anywhere near me ever again.

Josh Batenhorst, director, 2006-present
Since I came on board, our hope has been to continue to tell the story of Santaland while adding a few more elements to the evening (such as pre-show films, some alternate musical interludes and some exciting attractions for this year’s show).

In my role, I think the moments of panic stick out more than any “favorite” moments (per se). For example, a couple of years ago, Tom’s mother sadly passed away a day before opening night. Tom bravely performed opening night but was, of course, unavailable for the Friday and Saturday shows. “The show must go on,” so that’s where I stepped in. The first night, we tried to just do the show without script in hand, wearing an ear piece. It was a disaster. The ear piece stopped working during the first couple of minutes, I fell down the stairs, my (Tom’s) pants kept falling off. …  I will say that those who were in attendance were privileged to an “unforgettable” night of theater. About 15 minutes in, the crowd did get on my side and we ended up having a good time, but that first 15 minutes were probably the most frightening, sweaty, terrible minutes I have experienced as a performer.

Jenny Bunn, Asheville Community Theatre marketing director
The first year, we had a budget of about $50. Everything in the show was basically a donated Christmas item, and I think the whole set was just an old Christmas tree that Jesse would plug into the wall at the reveal of Macy’s Santaland. It was literally the exact opposite of what it must be like to actually see the first morning of the actual Macy’s Santaland.

I took the picture the first year by laying on the floor of the 35below bathroom and taking pictures of Jesse sitting on the toilet in his elf tights. Santaland 2003: opening night was canceled due to a freak November snowstorm. It was right before Thanksgiving and my in-laws were in town, as were folks from Jesse’s family. So I ran the lights and my husband Scott ran the sound and we did the show for just our families. Santaland 2004, a lady (and I use that term loosely) sitting on the front row of 35below flashed Jesse. Full frontal. I really think that was the only time he ever, ever was flustered onstage.

When Josh took over as director (Santaland 2006), he and Tom had added in a really long sound cue of someone urinating which I felt was too Austin Powers, and I asked Josh to replace it with some other bit. Josh had some reason for leaving it in that had something to do with Goethe. I remember him standing in my office arguing that if I would just think back to the traditional German theater, I would understand just how hilarious it was. We ended up cutting the sound cue and replacing it with a cupful of glitter.

Also: Anytime someone sneaks a beer into Santaland, it’s always a PBR.

What’s special about this year’s Santaland?
• ACT will be selling the 10,000th ticket to The Santaland Diaries during this year’s run of the production. The person who buys that ticket wins a basket with gift certificates from local businesses, a Go Local card from Asheville Grown and a season subscription to ACT.
• Tweet Seats: Local Twitterers have been invited to live tweet opening night.
• Pre-show activities in the Lobby include pictures with “Santa,” carolers singing the lesser known holiday tunes and a retrospective showing of all the Santaland intro films at 7 p.m.
• Afterparties: Thursday, Dec. 15, 9 p.m. at Arcade Asheville; Friday, Dec. 16, 9 p.m. at Fiore’s Ristorante Toscana downtown; Saturday, Dec. 17, 9 p.m. at Sazarac; Sunday, Dec. 18, 4 p.m. at Olive or Twist.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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