Backstage at the American Shakespeare Center’s Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, actor Chris Johnston pulls on a red turtleneck and green velvet knickers, a green velvet smock and red-and-white-striped stockings. He ties up a pair of Converse Chuck Taylors with jingle bells on the shoelaces and dons what he calls “a perky stocking cap decorated with spangles.”
He reads a few pages of text—lines he began rehearsing months ago, while he was walking his dog or holding his newborn daughter—to get the words in his mouth. And right before he goes on stage, Johnston reminds himself to just tell the story.
The story Johnston tells this holiday season isn’t one of Shakespeare’s, but one of a cynical, out-of-work slacker actor who takes a job working as an elf named Crumpet at a New York City Macy’s department store during the holidays.
As the star and sole character of The Santaland Diaries, the elf regales his captive audience with an insider’s view of Santaland: the interactions with other elves (some were extras on daytime soap operas), the various Santas and their lecherous and drunken habits, the angry, greedy and harried parents and all of the snot-nosed, sometimes stupid and sometimes smartass children.
The Santaland Diaries, an adaptation of essayist David Sedaris’ story about working as a Christmas elf, has been a pillar of the American Shakespeare Center’s holiday season every year since 2004, but Johnston will be the last actor to play Crumpet at the ASC, at least for a while.
“The time was right to make a change,” and the reasons were many, says ASC co-founder and artistic director Jim Warren. “I’ve been saying for years that I want us to stay ahead of the curve and figure out the right time to change our holiday season programming before ticket sales took a nose dive,” he says. “And, to be perfectly transparent, being denied the rights to perform Santaland with the all-star female actor who has played dozens of male Shakespeare characters—Allison Glenzer—helped me to decide that the time was now,” Warren says.
Warren has directed more than half a dozen actors in the role of Crumpet, and “each actor brought their own personality, their own take on the character and their own bag of tricks to the rehearsal process for us to create something special and different every year,” he says.
Johnston’s take on Crumpet has been in the works for nearly two decades. He saw a dress rehearsal of Santaland when he was in high school in Utah and thought it was “hilarious. I just thought it was really, really, really great.” Then, in 2006, during his first holiday season with the ASC, Johnston started playing the pre-show music for Santaland and has done so every year since.
After being around the character for so long, Johnston says finding something that he shares with the character on the page helped him bring Crumpet to life. He identifies with Crumpet’s ability to see—and subsequently reveal—the true nature of things. When a parent whispers to Crumpet, “We’d like a traditional Santa, if you know what I mean,” Crumpet leads the family to a Santa who is decidedly not white, exposing the quiet undercurrent of racism.
It’s not easy to be alone on stage for an hour and 10 minutes, Johnston says (Andrew Goldwasser and René Thornton Jr., who played Crumpet in 2013 and 2014, respectively, agree). Actors often rely on one another for cues, establishing a rhythm not just for lines, but for knowing when a scene is going well and when it needs to pick up a little. But in Santaland, the actor’s scene partner is the audience…and every night, the audience is different.
There’s no exiting the stage after a bad scene, regrouping and coming back on to nail the next scene. And Johnston knows quite well when a joke doesn’t land—he can see their faces. The ASC’s mission is to explore the English Renaissance stage and its practices, namely Shakespeare’s staging conditions of leaving the lights on the audience and thereby including them in the world of the play, Warren explains.
But really, Johnston says, he’s only alone on stage for the first 10 minutes, as he gets to know the crowd. After that, Johnston, his audience and Crumpet are all in it together.
“It’s a good challenge as an actor, and I like that,” he says. “I don’t want to get bored, and I don’t want to get complacent.”
By the end of the play, it’s Christmas Eve, and on that night, the Macy’s customers reveal the season’s worst evils, cranked up a notch. Crumpet has had it up to here with Santaland; he’s ready to snap.
“I loved every time the show would wind down to its final stanza…and that last Santa, a Santa who’s a bit different from the rest,” former Crumpet Goldwasser says. After more than an hour of sarcasm and cynicism, “suddenly there’s this heart, and this room full of people (myself included), who had spent the last hour laughing about how annoying this time of year can be, suddenly remember why it’s also the most wonderful time of the year.”
“I love doing that and being able to see what it does to a room,” Johnston says with wistfulness in his voice, glad for the house lights that afford him a full view of the audience as he’ll tell Crumpet’s story a few more times before the lights go down on ASC’s The Santaland Diaries.