“The Santaland Diaries” is not your typical holiday show. Based on a short story by best-selling author and humorist David Sedaris, on the surface it’s about working as one of Santa’s elves at Macy’s during the Christmas season. It is that, but it’s also a one-man show celebrating the desperation of unemployment, rampant consumerism and the soul-sucking “cheer” of the holiday season.
In Chicago, it’s become a holiday tradition thanks in large part to 48-year-old Mitchell Fain, who returns for his seventh consecutive stint as Santa’s snarkiest elf, the always-irreverent Crumpet.
Originally from Rhode Island, Fain has lived in Chicago for 22 years and has been in different productions throughout the U.S. and in international waters. He talked to The Chicago Ambassador about the show, currently running through December 28th at Theater Wit.
Interviewed by Bob Chiarito for The Chicago Ambassador.
CA) You’ve performed “The Santaland Diaries” for 7 years now. Each year you tweak it a little bit – how so?
FAIN) Yeah, to make sure the references are current enough that they will get the laugh that they were intended to. Some of the references are a little bit old because the show was written 22 years ago — the short story that is.
CA) How much of Crumpet is you and how much is he Sedaris?
FAIN) It’s 99 percent what David Sedaris wrote. What the director (Jeremy Wechsler) generally wants is for it to feel like you’re sitting around a someone says ‘Hey Mitchell, tell that story.’ It feels very personal. That’s what I try to do so that I have a really unique experience with each audience. Sometimes I’ll say something out loud (in character) and the audience will respond and I’ll sort of respond to that as me.
CA) I’ve read that David Sedaris isn’t much of a fan of having it performed – so much so that in years past he’d leave the country around Christmastime to avoid it. (He currently lives in England). Any truth to that?
FAIN) I think he made a joke about that a long time ago. I don’t know if it’s true. I think he got shy about it being so popular.
CA) Have you ever met him or heard from him?
FAIN) I have not personally, no. I think the theater has.
CA) “The Santaland Diaries” is now being performed in numerous cities – have you ever seen any of the other performances?
FAIN) Before I started to do this show, there were a couple other actors from town who did it, years and years ago. An actor named David Cromer did it. Also Lance Baker and Joe Faust. I’ve only seen it here in Chicago by those three gentlemen and they were all incredibly different. One of the great things about the show is that it lends itself to the actor’s personality.
CA) It’s become a holiday staple, right up there with “White Christmas” and “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
FAIN) People love the story. …they love to listen to it on the radio and come and see it. I think it was last season, there was a gentleman sitting in the front row, he had to have been in his 80s, and he seemed very stoic. Through the whole show I never saw him laugh. It’s a small theater and everyone is right there and I was very conscious of the fact that he wasn’t smiling or enjoying himself and I thought ‘Oh my, this guy hates me so much.’ Of course the audience didn’t know what I was thinking. At the end of the show, he wheeled up to me, grabbed my hand and told me that he loved me and that it was the sixth year — that it he and his family came to the show every year for six years . It became a family tradition for him. So there I was thinking that he wasn’t enjoying himself because he wasn’t an obvious smiler or laugher. What’s nice for me is that the production has become a staple so people come and see me every year, I recognize people from year to year and it’s very nice.
CA) Most people probably know what to expect coming in but have there been people who expected a traditional Christmas show and were aghast?
FAIN) No, not that they expect a traditional show, but sometimes they expect more of a family show. Sometimes there will be children in the audience who are way too young to see something that is so cynical about people. I’ve never had anybody ever leave, however.
CA) It seems that the audience is composed of all types – would you agree, or is there a certain type of person who enjoys “The Santaland Diaries” more than others?
FAIN) I think it’s wide open. I’m always surprised. …especially sometimes when I see older people, because I’m not sure if they will understand contemporary, cynical humor, but I’m always surprised because they do.
CA) After the show’s run, you usually go on a cruise with The Second City, right?
FAIN) I do. I work on a cruise ship (Norwegian Cruise Line) doing “The Best of Second City” or I work at different regional theaters. I usually leave in January but this year I won’t leave until March.
CA) How long is the cruise ship gig?
FAIN) It’s four months, living on a cruise ship. Basically I tell jokes and go to the beach everyday, so it’s a pretty good gig.
CA) Does performing on the cruise ship inform or influence your character of Crumpet, or vice versa?
FAIN) That’s an interesting question. I have to say the demographic on a cruise ship is definitely more predicable. Audiences tend to skew older, very conservative, so we have to think about the politics we talk about. We don’t pull punches, but we sort of respect the fact that they are more conservative. I really enjoy doing the cruises, they are fun and I really enjoy meeting the crew. You work with three or four thousand people from all over the world. They become your friends and your playmates and people you go to the beach with and it’s fun when you have friends from every country that you can think of. I think what it comes down to is that I’m a people person, which is why I like meeting people. I think that informs what makes me funny.
CA) You’ve performed all over the world. Is performing in Chicago any different or unique in any way?
FAIN) I think that it absolutely is. The thing about Chicago audiences is that they go to the theater, they go to hear music, they go see dance, they go see improv. There’s an audience for every kind of performance here in Chicago that is eager and loyal and involved. I’m always sort of blown away by the chemistry when I’m in the audience at a Chicago theater production or on stage. I think Chicago takes the performing arts seriously. It’s great. Chicago is thought of as sort of this sports kind of town, hog butcher to the world kind of town. The other side is that there’s dancing, acting, jazz, deejay’s, improv and all sorts of great stuff and people go.
CA) After every show, you solicit donations for Season of Concern, which provides help –drugs, food, etc. for people with AIDS. Was that something you or the producers of the show decided to do?
FAIN) Every theater has the opportunity to do it. When I first started doing this show, the former director of Season of Concern asked me if I wanted to do it and I said ‘absolutely.’ And I’ve continued. It’s so much more personal after a show where you have talked at people for 80 minutes, it feels so much more personal to say hi and say thank you. I also find that if you allow people to be nice that they are incredibly nice.
CA) The cause itself is important to you?
FAIN) Of course. It’s an issue that people think has gone away but it hasn’t.
CA) Yes, I think a lot of people think AIDS isn’t around anymore.
FAIN) It’s not around for people who have the money and can afford drugs and good doctors. But if you can’t afford those things, it’s still very much around.
CA) It’s also nice for the audience to get to chat with you after the show.
FAIN) I love it. I hope they get something out of it. …Especially considering it’s a one-person show, how often do actors get to meet their audience? It’s special to me.
CA) How long do you see yourself as Crumpet?
FAIN) I don’t know. But at this point, I think if I stopped doing it that my director Jeremy Wechsler would hunt me down. He likes collaborating.
CA) Any other gigs on the horizon? Where else can people see you?
FAIN) I’m with a group called The Midnight Circus, it’s a circus/theater company that raises money for the Chicago Park District. Also, a friend of mine wrote a play that I’m going to direct. (currently in pre-production).
“The Santaland Diaries” runs through December 28. For ticket information, click here.