Diversionary Theatre Creates Winter Wonderland For 'Santaland Diaries'
Go behind the scenes to see how creative team transformed the entire theater
The forecast at Diversionary Theatre is for snow through Dec. 22. Find out how the creative team behind "Santaland Diaries" is creating a winter wonderland that goes beyond what's onstage.
Just last week director Anthony Methvin promised that "we here at Diversionary are ready to make your yuletide gay."
That's because Diversionary Theatre is staging David Sedaris' one-man play "Santaland Diaries" for the first time and decided that they wanted to transform the entire theater from the lobby to stage into a winter wonderland reminiscent of what Sedaris describes of Macy's during the Christmas season.
Sedaris recounted his experience working at Macy's during the holiday season in an essay that he read on NPR's Morning Edition in 1992 and then expanded on for "This American Life" in 1996. In the play his stage alter ego states: "Working as an elf in Macy's Santaland means being at the center of the excitement."
Methvin and Diversionary wanted to convey that excitement with their production so they set their team of elves to work.
"The kind of big idea here was is that we're mimicking Macy's Christmas, which is so over the top that there can't be too much," explained lead elf, I mean, scenic designer Justin Humphres as he showed me production sketches of a red and white snowflake Santa chair, a hallway of giant packages, and a stage spilling over with holiday cheer.
"These are the renderings that I do for Anthony early on and they're really a tool for us to look at what the play is going to look like in advance in terms of how much space there are colors and you know just planning the overall logistics of how the space is going to function," Humphres said. "I think my biggest fear is that we haven't bought enough even though we've bought thousands and thousands of dollars worth of Christmas stuff."
When I arrived at the theater a week before preview performances, there were Christmas decorations piled high in the lobby, including a tutu-ed pig dressed in Santa red.
Pointing to the mass of Christmas decoration Humphres said, "Here we have just a small portion of the decorations that we're gonna be using, all of this stuff was actually donated by patrons of the theater and we're gonna be using it to decorate the lobby and the outside space. In addition to all of the stuff that we've bought and collected. This is the first time that we've really kind of gone all out and decorated from the moment that the audience walks into the door all the way up into the theater. Yeah, I think the biggest challenge has been just getting enough stuff because Christmas is so iconic that you can't really fake it. And so it's all or nothing. And you know coming up with clever ideas and large gestures that can really transform a space without you know doing a million things to it has been probably the biggest challenge of all of this."
Patrons are used to walking up the stairs to enter the main stage but that is not the case for "Santaland Diaries." The first thing you will find that is different is in the courtyard out in front of the lobby.
"So the plan for this space is to turn into a snow globe," Humphres said. "So the idea is is that we'll have a giant snow machine up on the ceiling and as the audience comes in it'll be snowing all around them."
I didn’t believe he could do it, but I was wrong. When I returned to see the theater all decked out there was indeed "snow" falling down on me. From the snow globe experience, patrons then enter the lobby that has ornaments hanging from the ceiling plus lights and glittery trimmings at every turn. Then they take the back way up the back stairs and through the actors' entrance to the stage.
"So this is part of the new pathway that people are going to enter through as they're coming up to the theater," Methvin explained. "We wanted to have a way to kind of set the audience back on their heels. Give them a new experience and get to experience art theater space in a brand new way. And part of what we wanted to do was give the audience a taste, a little experience of Santaland before they actually watched the 'Santaland Diaries.' So after coming up the stairs, the audience will actually take the same path that actors would take to get to the stage except for what transformed this hallway into a path of giant presents."
Well, that was the plan the Diversionary elves had. But the idea of lining that hallway with giant gifts had to be changed.
"There are always variables, there's always stuff that pops up," Methvin noted. "But the great thing about those funky things that happen is that oftentimes they lead to even better stuff. We were planning on having the big packages in the hallway and we changed that. So it's kind of like a winter wonderland with a starry sky and to me, I actually think that that's kind of a more special way to enter in. But it's just making those adjustments and thinking on the fly that sometimes lead to the really yummy stuff."
Now you walk through a blue and white hallway with snowflakes and twinkle lights on the ceiling and then are stopped by an elf who takes patrons one at a time to get a picture taken with Santa Claus himself on the stage.
"If you got to the theater on time like good little children you'll actually get the opportunity to meet Santa on our stage, which is really exciting," Methvin said. "It's fun to get to invite our audience to do things that they wouldn't normally be able to do and when's the last time you got to take a picture on the stage of the show that you're about to see. I was really excited about the idea of giving an audience an experience that they wouldn't otherwise get to the theater or something new. It upends their expectations it gets them ready to kind of go with anything."
Sedaris' play serves up holiday cheer for those who want it a little less traditional and without the sweetness rising to saccharine levels. Sedaris pokes fun at the commercialism yet also finds some heartfelt emotions as well.
Methvin noted, "I can laugh at Christmas. I am no rube. I understand how ridiculous the whole enterprise is but at the same time I mean how can you not be happy when you get to sit in this chair and spend every night with elves and glitter and the smell of cinnamon. It's kind of a beautiful place to live your life."
Well at least until Dec. 22.
Diversionary Theatre is located at 4545 Park Boulevard. Performances run Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m., and each performance is followed by the free add on show of Linda Libby's "HoliGay Storytime." Tickets are available online or by calling 619-220-0097.