"There's people who talk back or say things. When I'm changing into my elf costume there's a lot of boys from Montrose and actually also some wives from The Woodlands too; they definitely hoot and holler." -- Todd Waite, Alley actor, musing on his life as Crumpet the Elf
Written by David Sedaris and based upon his own experiences working as a Santa's helper at Macy's department store in New York City one Christmas season, the play offers Waite the coveted chance to one-man-show it in the round, changing voices and characters at a moment's notice.
This is the third year the Alley has presented Santaland as an alternative to its more wholesome offering of A Christmas Carol, upstairs and Waite said it makes perfect sense to bring it back.
"It was one of the fastest sellouts in the downstage Alley history the first year and then it sold out again the second year and we turned a lot of people away the second year and there's no reason not to do it," he said in a rush. "It's a joy to do and if that many people want to see it we'd be not only economically foolish but entertainmently cruel to not."
He still has to rehearse. "I do because there's six plays between last year and this year and the timing in something like that it's so fast," he told Art Attack. He found the second year he was much more at ease with the piece, could find the breathing spots in it, which led to ad libing.
"You really can only do that if the audience sort of initiates it a little bit. Otherwise it's the play and the playright.You shouldn't really screw around with his words. But if it's in the spirit and essence of the character and what he's written and something happens interactively then I feel free to say something or do something."
For instance: on opening night last year a cell phone went off in the audience during his first five lines. "So I had to go answer that. What do you do?" In another performance, when he went out to sit in the audience - as he does during Santaland - the man he sat down next to looked exactly "like the iconic quintessential ...Santa. You know I have fun when things like that happens."
The audience gets very loud sometimes. "And I'll just say 'settle down.'"
Waite is a veteran of live theater and its glitches - most memorably earlier this year when he and Elizabeth Bunch were playing in Hitchcock's 39 Steps and the handcuffs holding the two of them together on opening night fell apart.
"Luckily Elizabeth Bunch and hopefully myself are pretty good improvisers and we just went with that," he said,. "The rule in theater is that you've got to acknowledge it. We're in the theater; no one is there with a channel change clicker. They're very forgiving. If it doesn't bother you, it doesn't bother the audience."
He blames himself for the mishap. "The Alley craftmaship is top of the line so it really is unusual. In that case it may have been my fault because I may have put too much pressure on those cufflinks."
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He also confessed to being "hard on doors," opening and closing them quickly especially in a comedy. "Twice now I've entered only to have a door handle come completely off in my hand. In a farce like Mousetrap you realize that in the next three minutes eight people will have to be coming through that door quickly. That's when you panic the people backstage and you hear scratching on other side of the door."
Despite playing the young David Sedaris, Waite hasn't met him although he has heard him speak at the Wortham and on NPR. "The first year I was doing it, Sedaris came to read something else of his. A woman in the audience said 'Oh your Santaland Diaries is playing next door and he said 'Yes, yes but I've written a lot since then.'
Santaland Diaries continues to attract audiences, Waite said, because "it's just so fun and it works as a perfect little evening." He said Sedaris was able to joke about it on NPR one. "He said, 'I've done this and this and this I will always be known as Crumpet the Elf, that is my fate.'"
Santaland Diaries runs November 21 through December 31 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. For ticket information call 713-220-5700 or go to www.alleytheatre.org.