Say hello to The Santaland Diaries’ new Crumpet

Atlanta actor Topher Payne plays Santa’s worst helper in Horizon Theatre’s annual production of the David Sedaris classic
The Santaland Diaries’ new Crumpet
Topher Payne

Photograph by Ben Rollins

Crumpet, the curmudgeonly Macy’s elf who would rather mock his customers than escort them to Santa, has entertained audiences in Horizon Theatre’s The Santaland Diaries since 1999. Sporting a green and red elf suit and clutching a martini, actor Harold M. Leaver turned the adaptation of David Sedaris’s essay of the same name into a Christmas tradition. Now the award-winning local playwright and screenwriter Topher Payne is putting on the candy cane tights. We spoke to the 37-year-old actor about the “exhilarating and terrifying” opportunity.

Crumpet is a classic character that Leaver really made his own. What’s your take?
Trying to live up to the unique and wonderful performance that Harold did, you’re always going to suffer in comparison. I am probably a foot taller than Harold and outweigh him by 100 pounds, so there’s a new costume to look forward to. But the specificity of Sedaris’s writing defines so much of who this character is. This is 90 minutes of a guy telling a really great story. I knew I could do something interesting with that.

You voice all the characters, and the elves will be silent. Is that daunting?
Many actors who have done my shows—I tend to be pretty demanding about the actors being letter perfect on the scripts—feel like me doing Santaland is divine karmic retribution. It’s not so easy when the pointy shoe is on the other foot! But that’s why we fell in love with the piece, because Sedaris is so precise with his language.

Crumpet is a disgruntled artist looking for a break. Do you relate to him?
Crumpet believes he is a brilliant artistic voice and no one has noticed, and I can certainly relate to what that felt like when I first came to Atlanta from Mississippi. I worked as a crew painter when they built Plaza Fiesta; a “manny” in Morningside households, which inspired my most recent play, Morningside; a celebrity wrangler at the Woodruff Arts Center; a graphic designer for strip clubs.

Why has Santaland become such a tradition?
Christmas is a really stressful time of year because you’re trying to make everything wonderful. To give people a reprieve from that to relax for a couple of hours feels like a really good gift to give audiences. But taking this over kind of feels like skydiving. This show is a holiday tradition for a wide flock of people. You don’t want to mess with people’s Christmases. But as I get closer to it, it feels like I have been given the opportunity to throw a really awesome party.

What are your holiday traditions?
Last year, my fiance and I downloaded all of the Rankin/Bass films. Everyone knows Rudolph, but there’s one with Shelley Winters as Frosty the Snowman’s wife, and it’s some weird parable for global warming. I can’t say I would recommend them, but we enjoyed the hell out of watching them and had a lot of wine.

Has Harold given you any advice?
Good God, let the man enjoy his retirement! I think he is quite relieved to be able to make plans for holidays for first time in 18 years, but now my nephews in Mississippi get to have two Christmases: one on Christmas day, then two weeks later when Uncle Topher shows up.

You put on a new play every year and have written three Hallmark movies. When did you know you’ve made it as a writer?
Last October, when I quit my day job. I was still doing my graphic design job full-time after I already had a show off-Broadway and we premiered my first movie. In order to continue the output, I needed to step away and embrace the idea writing is my nine-to-five job, more like nine-to-midnight. But it’s like if someone asked, “When did you know you were in love?” It’s not one moment, but it’s an accumulation of all moments, and you’re delighted to discover you’re there. I spent so many years hoping for the day I would have opportunity to be able to tell stories full-time, and now that I’m in that place, I just want to take advantage of every single minute of it.

What is the experience of writing Hallmark films like?
A benefit of being a playwright who doesn’t live in New York was I was already accustomed to idea of doing very good work that struggles to get respect. People have given me a lot of flack about making my mark as a screenwriter through Hallmark, and my response is always, “How is your movie selling?” Hallmark is a company that has so much respect and consideration for their audience and knows why their audience comes to them. It’s just amazing to be a part of something that is designed to bring people joy and to have the guarantee the story I’m putting together is going to be told. My first movie, My Summer Prince, on the night it premiered, six million people saw it. In that one moment, more people were seeing my writing than cumulative audiences that had ever seen my writing over the last 17 years.

You’ve complained about Atlanta’s nationally ignored theater scene in the past. Why have you stayed?
When I moved here when I was 19, I figured I’d be here for a couple of years and build a proper resume, and then I’d be moving on to New York or Chicago. But I found my people here. This is where my voice as an artist developed. There’s an experience of being an artist in Atlanta that cannot be replicated elsewhere. Southern writers start from character, not from concept. It starts with a voice, who these people are, and then you start exploring circumstance, and story grows from that. Any good Southern storyteller—Eudora Welty, William Faulkner—their stories are distinctive and memorable not because of what happened but because of who it happens to. Southerners are such prolific storytellers and vicious gossips, so the story matters because of whom it happened to.

See it live
The Santaland Diaries, directed by Jeff Adler, also features Lala Cochran and Enoch King and runs through December 31. Tickets start at $25. horizon­

This article originally appeared in our December 2017 issue.