This was going to be the first year in a while that the Alley Theatre did not present its one-man show The Santaland Diaries starring company member Todd Waite.
That was right up until ticket buyers started calling in, complaining that they couldn't find the David Sedaris play about a Macy's Department Store elf on the schedule and wanted to see it. The Alley did a quick about-face.
"It really made me feel warm and fuzzy inside," Waite says, grinning. "A large portion of the audience are people returning. Which is funny, 'cause sometimes you hear people get the joke just before it should actually be gotten."
Known for his two standout and vastly different iconic roles - Crumpet the Elf and Sherlock Holmes - Waite says he doesn't change up the script except for a few ad-libs (be prepared to be shelled if you cell phone goes off), but he does review video before each season to see where he can fine-tune his line delivery or movements.
"The first time a lot of those ad libs happened they were true ad-libs in the sense that I had no idea they were going to happen and they were almost always related to seeing a guy who looked exactly like Santa Claus sitting in the audience. Or seeing some super cute guy who would be perfect to tease about being Snowball, the cute elf. Or a phone going off, opening night of two years ago. I answered their phone. Because ultimately you don't really want to change the script. Improvs are to acknowledge the live moments of theater in a way that incorporates them rather than allows them to distract."
Now he's able to call on those past experiences for ready one liners as the opportunity presents itself, he says.
His elf costume -- a highlight of the show when it is revealed -- gets remade each year. "Yes, they rebuild it, but then they break it down to look old." Waite says the play, about a department store elf who rails against mean Santas and obsessed parents alike, works so well because "it has all those details that strong writing has. It has specificity of observation. It has humor that drops into moments of sincerity just at the right time. And above all, though it watches humanity with a critical eye, it is full of love, especially of children."
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Waite is a well-regarded theater teacher. "I am never more nervous in any show than when my students come. Because I am fierce with my students. I teach them from the ultimate ideal and so rarely do I live up to my own standards. It focuses me in an extreme way."
The very tall actor makes some very quick costume changes in the show, all while on stage.
"I remember on one night, I took my sweater off and my T-shirt accidentally came off with it and that got a lot of hoots and howls and one phone number at the stage door," Waite says. "And then there was one time -- the boots aren't really specific to feet but once you've worn them a while they become sort of specific -- and I remember one night being slightly bothered by them all through the show and I realized I'd put the shoes on slightly backwards." But most of the time, he says, it all runs like clockwork.
The Santaland Diaries runs November 29 through December 31 on the Neuhaus Stage at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue. 7:30 p.m Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 6 and 9 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit alleytheatre.org.