DECATUR — Even before he became the executive director of the Decatur Area Arts Council, Jerry Johnson was a busy guy.
Not always having vast amounts of time to commit to the acting projects he has always enjoyed being a part of, he was constantly on the look-out for “easier” shows that could be turned around in a relatively shorter amount of time.
It was this desire that first led to him discovering David Sedaris’ “Santaland Diaries,” a satirical one-man show that seemed to fit the bill perfectly for the self-described “Christmas junkie.”
“I first read it about five years ago,” said Johnson, who will be performing the show for the third time this weekend at Richland Community College. “It struck me as a snarky, tongue-in-cheek show that only needed one guy and exceedingly low production values. It views Christmas from another angle; it’s not holly jolly and full of good cheer, but it also doesn’t truly look down on the holiday. It just looks at it from the adult point of view, because once most people get to a certain age, Christmas can seem to lose a bit of its magic.”
The first time Johnson performed “Santaland Diaries,” it was 2009 at the arts council building downtown, where it pulled in a small crowd but didn’t immediately make itself a yearly staple. Johnson and his collaborator/director in the show, Richland theater coordinator Michelle Stephens, looked into performing it again in 2010 but were rebuffed, unable to obtain the rights because of other Central Illinois productions.
In 2011, they moved faster, getting the rights and successfully moving the show to Richland. And now they’re following it up in Decatur again — in addition to a run of shows that premiered at Springfield’s Hoogland Center for the Arts last week. This is the third local Decatur show to get a staging in Springfield in recent memory, following Theatre 7’s “The 39 Steps” and Richland’s “The Laramie Project.”
“Last year at Hoogland, they had someone out of the Little Theatre-On the Square from Sullivan performing it, but they weren’t doing it this year, so they contacted us to bring our ‘Santaland Diaries’ to Springfield,” Johnson said. “So we were excited about that, and once again the Richland shows are also going to be fundraisers for their Emerging Theatre Professionals Scholarship.”
Johnson said Stephens particularly deserved credit for the production’s evolution, as even a one-man show requires input from someone looking at things from an audience perspective.
“She kind of works on finding the right timing between the somber moments and the really funny stuff,” he said. “She tries to make sure it has a consistent overall attitude from start to finish. In any show, you always need that set of eyes out there telling you ‘OK, that was good,’ or ‘that didn’t seem to work, try this.’ ”
Of course, after a few years of performances, it’s become a familiar routine to pick the show back up, even if it is over an hour of straight monologues. Johnson has built a system for getting back into the groove of “Crumpet the Elf,” recording the show on his laptop and cutting it up into around 45 small chunks to listen to on his digital music player.
“I think learning from listening and repeating goes faster than learning from reading and repeating,” he said. “I do kind of have a map of the show in my head all of the time, but I definitely don’t know all the words. You tend to forget that stuff right away. I always compare that to studying for a math test — you cram really hard, take the test and then it fades away quickly.”
Still, one assumes that future renditions of “Santaland Diaries” will become even easier for Johnson if these shows develop into a Decatur holiday tradition. But for now, Johnson says he’ll wait and see.
“So far, I haven’t gotten tired of it; it’s a fun show to do, but maybe, at some point, I’ll hand off the role to someone else,” he said. “Although if I keep doing it, Michelle was telling me that by the time I’m 80, it will be really awesome.”