SANTALAND DIARIES
Of Christmas and Commerce

By Lee Valentine Smith

What began as a humorous essay has turned into a yearly holiday tradition. Originally read by its author on NPR in the early ‘90s, “Santaland Diaries” was David Sedaris’ darkly humorous remembrance of his brief stint as a department store Santa Claus. A few years later it found a home as a theatrical piece in NYC.

For the past two decades, the comical tale of Christmas and commerce has been expanded and adapted by ambitious theater groups across the country. Now in its 18th year in Atlanta, veteran actor Harold Leaver returns as lovably acerbic elf Crumpet with solid support from fellow players Lala Cochran, now in her fourth year, and Enoch King, a staple of the production for the past 10 years.

INsite caught up with Leaver and Cochran on - appropriately enough - Black Friday, as they decked the halls for an evening performance of the popular show.

Will today’s climate of cultural upheaval and social commentary criticism affect the production?

Harold Leaver: You know, I think back to post-9/11 in 2001. There was a lot of talk about irony being dead and comedy will suffer or people aren’t in the mood to laugh. But that’s the year that Santaland really took off. I think there’ll always be a market for things like this, because we need coping mechanisms.

Lala Cochran: Definitely, people are hungry for it. The holidays can be a difficult time. With all that’s going on now, it might be why we are getting laughs in places we haven’t gotten them before. Sometimes we’ll go off stage and we’ll go, “What? That got a laugh?” But people need it and I’m glad we can give it six nights a week. I think we’ve pulled back on mean-spirited stuff and the show has gotten kinder and better over the years. We can pull out stuff that maybe worked five years ago, but just doesn’t now.

There’s a gently subversive theme – combined with humor - in the show.

Leaver: Well that’s the thing, we don’t want to fall to the level of mean-spiritedness. The show itself is very careful to not pander to either side of things, but at the same time, to try and find what people think is funny in there. It’s kinda tricky, but it’s not a play that sets out to change the world or the way people think necessarily. It’s more of “am I really focusing on what’s important right now?” It’s about kids and loving and sometimes we lose sight of that in the way we’ve been seduced by the consumerist attitude in life. I don’t know if it’ll change people forever, but it does bring about some change about what’s happening right now.

And the Crumpet character is a good conduit for that attitude.

Leaver: He’s sarcastic for sure, but ultimately he’s got a very optimistic point of view. And that’s something I try to tap into as well. We have to laugh and we can’t sit still in what we think could be the worst of times. We can be very inspired by laughter, I think. This is a guy who says sarcastic things and he sounds bitter - but he’s trying not to be. He’s just a guy who’s able to maybe see funny stuff where maybe other people can’t. When the world starts throwing things his way that tells him he’s supposed to be bitter, how does his inner person deal with that?

If you can make people stop and think for a minute, then you’ve done your job.

Leaver: People come up to me after the show and they’ve been crying! I’m thinking, “Oh my God, it’s just a play,” but at the same time, I’m thinking, “Ok, this is why I do it, this is why I keep coming back.” It’s my holiday tradition now. I’m really blessed to be able to talk to people and tell them a really funny, elongated story. And that people are moved by it, makes it doubly special.

When a cast has been in the same roles for so many years, there has to be an unspoken vocabulary.

Leaver: There is and it’s definitely my family for two months of the year. And the Horizon does a great job of keeping it fresh. It keeps me coming back and it keeps the people who’ve seen it the past coming back. I see it as a gift to myself that I’m able to share with everyone. So many people have contacted me on Facebook and all, saying they were looking for the laughs this year. And I sure hope they get em!

Cochran: This is the first year that I’ve felt on a completely even footing with the guys. Even last year, I felt like I was kind of earning my stripes with them. We do have a sort of shorthand, both onstage and off. We’ve managed to make this year even better than it’s been because we’re each bringing a different set of comedic skills.

With all the familiarity and repeat patrons, is it a challenge to keep it fresh and still retain that snarky Sedaris edge?

Cochran: This year we’ve got a couple of little political jokes woven in, but I think we’ve kept it even. We have a nod to both sides and it’s fun for us to hear the different reactions.

Leaver: Ultimately I think the show does still have a little bite to it. It reminds me of a regular we used to have named “Captain Christmas” and I don’t know what happened to him, he just stopped coming to the show. But he used to always come on Christmas Eve and he’d have front row seats. He’d bring goodies for the people backstage. One of the things he liked to make was cayenne pepper brownies. I know, right? But I think that’s kinda what we are. We are cayenne pepper brownies. And they were delicious, by the way.

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