Steven Strafford slips into the role of Crumpet, the less-than-jolly elf in The Santaland Diaries
Celebrated for his knack of identifying the odd in the obvious and weirdness around every turn—expressed with a genuine astonishment at the ways of the world—humorist David Sedaris has become something of a regular Christmas visitor, thanks to The Santaland Diaries.
A comic recollection of his gig as an elf at Macy’s, The Santaland Diaries began as a bit on National Public Radio in 1992 and later appeared in the funnyman’s first book, Barrel Fever. It was adapted for the stage by director Joe Mantello in 1996 and premiered at New York’s Atlantic Theater Company, with actor Timothy Olyphant playing Santa’s green-garbed helper, Crumpet. Since then, the one-man show has been mounted regularly by theaters across the country. This season, Brooklyn-born, Jersey-raised Steven Strafford—last seen at the Goodman in Wonderful Town—steps into the role. Before pulling on those tights and pointy-toed shoes, he pauses to chat with us.
Are you a David Sedaris fan?
STEVEN: I am a big David Sedaris fan. I love Barrel Fever, Naked, Dress Your Family Up in Corduroy and Denim, Me Talk Pretty One Day and anything else I can get my hands on. I also love hearing him read his own stuff. He has a cadence in his delivery that I love. If you get a chance, you should listen to the episode of the podcast of This American Life, titled “Music Lessons”. It has pieces by David Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and Anne Lamott and each is amazing, funny and beautiful.
Have you done many solo shows?
STEVEN: I have. This is my third solo show. I wrote a solo show, Methtacular!, that I’ve performed all over the country. It’s my favorite thing to perform on stage. It’s the true story of my three years as a crystal meth addict. I use storytelling, tons of jokes, documentary interviews with my mom, an improvised game show and original songs to bring the audience down into the darkest time of my life and come out the other side, reminding people that everyone goes through dark times—although, perhaps not as dark as I did—and makes terrible choices. But we shouldn’t allow shame to keep us silent about them.
What made you want to take on Crumpet?
STEVEN: I think the thing that attracts me is that it’s a gay character with an arc. Gay characters in shows are so often a punchline, or a device. As a gay actor, having a shot at playing a gay guy telling a story is really special to me. Also, the challenge of carrying a show on your back is daunting and exciting. Solo shows are like actor boot camp.
Tell us more about that, the challenge of doing a solo show.
STEVEN: It’s just me and the audience. I love the intimacy of that. I think as a solo performer you have to make yourself a different kind of vulnerable to have the audience as your scene partner. If you look out to tell a piece of story and catch someone in a yawn, checking their program or looking at their phone, it can be jarring. You just have to soldier on and connect with the people who are on the edges of their seats. And performing solo comedy material? That’s, somehow, more exciting. And scary. There’s an immediacy to comedy where you know if stuff is landing. I am very grateful that the comedy in this piece is situational and not punchline driven, because that way you can just tell the story and let laughs fall where they may.
On the surface, the notion of a man in an elf costume ragging about the holidays might seem little more than a stand-up routine. Tell us a bit about the character Sedaris has created and the story he tells.
STEVEN: Maybe because I’m tasked with performing the piece, I don’t see this show as someone ragging on the holidays. Most people, I think, find themselves battling between being the sort of person who enjoys the lights, music and joy of the holidays with being someone who can’t help noticing the rampant commercialism and crass displays. I think David/Crumpet is not only an avatar for David Sedaris, but for the audience. We get to experience, through his eyes, the push/pull of the holidays. We get to explore the odd sense of never quite being as joyful as we’re told we’re supposed to be. We get to negotiate the strange cultural lie of Santa Claus. What do we get from this myth we perpetuate? What do we lose?
Are you a Scrooge when it comes to the holidays, or do you enjoy everything about them?
STEVEN: I fall somewhere in between. I am somewhat mistrustful of adults who only profess their love for Christmas. I want to ask, “So, none of this stresses you out?! You don’t ever feel melancholy around this time of year?” I mean, for starters, there are the crowds, which stress me out, and I do think the notion of having to buy gifts for people who may or may not need things out of seasonal obligation is a strange practice. However, there are parts of the holiday season I am deeply grateful for, and I find myself thankful that as we approach the darkest days of the year, we have a holiday that puts twinkly lights up everywhere. So, I’d say on a scale of Scrooge to Fezziwig, I’m a Mrs. Cratchit: a realist with heart.
Christmas Day is your only night off. What will you be doing?
STEVEN: My husband and I are still figuring that out. We might just be on our own. Usually, we travel for Christmas to my family or to his family. This year, we both are performing right around the holidays, so staying in for a simple “just us” day might be what the plan ends up being.
So, how do you think you look in tights?
STEVEN: I will leave that for the reviewers and audience to decide. Feel free to post on Goodman’s Facebook and Twitter pages your reviews of me in tights.
Interview by Thomas Connors.
Thomas Connors is a Chicago-based freelance writer and the Chicago Editor of Playbill.