Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Backstage with Santaland Diaries

City Circle - This time of year is filled with traditions. Perhaps you read 'Twas the Night Before Christmas to your kids every December 24th. Maybe you always make it to The Nutcracker. You might be one of those people who bakes a million Christmas cookies and hand delivers them to your neighbors. Whatever traditions you enjoy, you may wish to add a new one to your list because one theatre in town is bringing back a tradition began in 2003. City Circle will present Santaland Diaries, the wickedly funny one man show written by David Sedaris, on December 19th and 20th at the Englert Theatre in Iowa City.

We recently had a chance to talk to John Harper, director of Santaland Diaries about the show. John is a founding member of City Circle and directs Timm Budd, another founding member and popular local actor, in the show.

Now many community theatres do holiday shows like A Christmas Carol or It’s a Wonderful Life. Santaland Diaries is a decidedly different Christmas show. Why did you choose it and how does it represent City Circle’s mission?

John: City Circle Acting Company has a long tradition of producing holiday season shows which depict the season in a more harsh, realistic light - the crass commercialism, the family fights, the hectic quality of life, the cynicism about mandatory cards and gifts. So Santaland Diaries is a perfect complement to this tradition. It's also part of a larger City Circle mission, which is to bring fresh, new cutting-edge material to the local stages as often as we are able.

David Sedaris has been praised for an incisive wit that slices through cultural euphemisms and political correctness. Would that apply to show as well? Can you talk a little bit about the humor of the show?

John: Santaland Diaries is a wonderful representation of the wit of David Sedaris at its best. What makes the show so funny is its truthfulness, the fact that Sedaris lived this story at a desperate time in his life. He has absolutely no concern for political correctness -- his equal-opportunity sword skewers men and women, rich and poor, black and white, kids and adults, gay and straight, and an assortment of racial and ethnic minorities. Nobody who wandered through Macy's in November and December escaped his gaze and his biting assessment. And he certainly doesn't exempt himself and his own plight from becoming the butt of much humor.

Santaland Diaries was first done by City Circle in 2003 and then again in 2004. Can you give us a little history of the show and how it came to be?

Santaland Diaries was first performed in our small studio space in Coralville as an add-on to our 2003 and 2004 seasons. Basically, Tim Budd directed himself, with several directors, including me, coming in once or twice to give him suggestions. The playing space was a few simple platforms with a big santa chair in the center. So I went into this year's production knowing the script well and knowing how Tim had approached it in the past. My challenges were twofold: to adapt it to a much larger space, and to make the characters in each little story more realistic and credible.

That's something I wanted to ask you about: did you use a different set or other technical opportunities, light, sound, etc. to help make the show work in such a larger space than what you'd had before?

John: There are two major visual differences in this production from past ones. First, we've engaged Michael Blake, an incredibly imaginative set designer, to give the show a totally new look. His set is a series of interlocking platforms, which take on different shapes and angles - opening, closing, rolling around to constantly reveal new playing spaces. To enable this, we've added two new cast members, non-speaking elves who keep the set moving around and who occasionally appear as part of the action of a scene. The set incorporates translucent pillars, like huge sheets of ice, enabling some wonderful lighting effects.

How did Timm Budd become involved in the show? Can you talk a little bit about how his unique abilities are showcased in the show?

John: Tim Budd and I have a working partnership as actor and director which spans 20 years. City Circle first chose the production, with Tim in mind, and then he chose me to direct. I can't imagine doing this script with anyone else. He has such a wonderful eye and ear for different personalities - their voices, their stances, their mannerisms. Two Decembers ago, I directed him in another one-man show, Fully Committed, in which he played 35 different men and women, all by himself on stage for 90 minutes. He's also done multiple-character roles at Riverside. I've done other one-actor shows too, so it's a natural fit.

How is directing a one man show easier than directing a show with many actors? And on the flip side, how is more challenging?

John: Most things about directing just one actor are easier. A director can concentrate fully in just one place all the time, and do some really deep character work. At the same time, it's tough for one actor to hold the attention of the audience for an hour and a half. So there needs to be much more attention paid to movement, pacing, variation of voice quality.

Finally, is this a family Christmas show? Can I bring my 8 year old?

John: This show contains some profanity, and comes from a very adult perspective; I would recommend it for ages 12 and above, although there's always that hopelessly precocious nine-year-old who will totally "get" the show too.

Thanks so much, John.

To get tickets, go here.

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