By Erik Curren
ASC Director of Marketing and Sales
Just because an actor can strike the right tone as the tragic moneylender Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, does that mean he can also get the hilarious irony needed to play one of Santa's elves at a Macy's department store?
“I’ve got no problem in going from Shylock to Crumpet,” says veteran ASC actor Chris Seiler of his role in The Santaland Diaries. The merrily sardonic one-man show, adapted from NPR humorist David Sedaris’s account of his own real-life stint as an elf at a Manhattan Macy’s, opens at the Blackfriars Playhouse on Friday, December 14.
Just as Seiler’s challenge in Merchant is to present Shylock as a man with human hopes and failings trying to navigate the limited options open to him in an intolerant society, so Seiler’s challenge in Santaland is to explore the humanity of Crumpet where he winds up -- in a no-win situation.
“We have to find why these words are being said and why this guy who’s looking for this job as an elf and why he needs to tell this story to people. How can we do this and present a real human being instead of just a standup comedy act?”
And though Santaland has become an anti-holiday cult classic ever since Sedaris launched his own career by reading his story of the same name on NPR’s Morning Edition in 1992, for Seiler the show’s humor is not about rejecting Christmas, but instead about reconnecting with the deeper values of the holiday season.
“The character and sentiment are great. Santaland honors Christmas in a similar way to Christmas Carol [opening at the Blackfriars on Tuesday, December 11], but from a more contemporary and realistic viewpoint. I think people who come to see this can really relate to David Sedaris because many people are turned off to some of the extremes that this country has gone to with Christmas, how commercialized it has become. There are a lot of things to recognize in this play from this character in ourselves and I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
Though this is Seiler’s first time playing Crumpet, he is no stranger to un-lovable characters in holiday classics, having played Scrooge at the Blackfriars in 2003 and 2004.
It’s the challenge of playing what some people consider to be one of Shakespeare’s most unsympathetic characters, Shylock, that gets Seiler really excited.
“It’s always just interesting to see how the audience is going to react because the play itself is a big topic for conservation. Is it anti-Semitic or isn’t it? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? When you play Shylock, it’s interesting to see the audience react, you think they might be pulling for you and then they react the other way, or you think you’re being the biggest villain and then they root for you. At the ASC, we use the audience so much in the way we do Shakespeare, and the reaction really influences how I play the role.”
As part of the ASC’s touring troupe, Seiler has performed in The Merchant of Venice on the road for the last three months. During December, he and the rest of the touring troupe return to the Blackfriars to participate in our holiday shows and to offer previews of the performances they will bring to the Blackfriars in the spring, Merchant along with Henry V and The Taming of the Shrew.
Like many ASC actors, Seiler is also a musician and singer. He got his start playing guitar at age 17 and was president of his high school choir. Since then, he’s done more musical theatre than Shakespeare and he can also handle the bass, mandolin, banjo, harmonica and concertina. Along with ASC on Tour actor Chris Johnson, Seiler is one of the troupe’s two “music dudes” who coordinate music for the troupe’s shows.
Seiler’s favorites include the Beatles, Wilco (“alternative country, a kind of style I like a lot too, country with attitude that’s not like the Nashville stuff”) and Ben Folds (“piano-driven rock and roll”). “I’ve been listening to a lot of British Invasion stuff (my new kick is the Zombies),” he adds.
Not all Shakespeare theatres or touring companies expect their actors to play the harmonica on stage. But that’s just one of the things that Seiler says are different about the ASC.
“A lot of theatre tries to just be like the movies, as cinematic as possible – not just bringing down the lights but also doing things like landing helicopters on stage. That’s all fine and good, but what the theatre has, which movies don’t, is the live audience. To ignore them, as other theatre styles do, is taking away the one secret weapon we have -- these people sitting in the same room with us. We really use the audience at the ASC. And hopefully people see that.”
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