Matt Zambrano knows what it’s like to live the life of a committed artist in New York City.
Since moving to the East Coast from his native Colorado more than a year ago, Zambrano has accepted all manner of odd jobs to support his craft as an actor, writer, poet and performer. The graduate of the University of Colorado-Boulder and defunct National Theatre Conservatory at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts has worked catering gigs and served as a ticket taker at the Statue of Liberty. He even has had a lead on a job selling footie pajamas for the holiday season.
It’s the type of hustling that Zambrano shares with the lead character in the comedy “The Santaland Diaries,” a one-man, one-act show by Joe Mantello based on an essay by David Sedaris. The story details Sedaris’ stint working as a Christmas elf at Macy’s department store after moving to New York in the 1980s. Intent on building a breakout career as a writer, Sedaris accepts the post as a stopgap measure to make a little money on the side while keeping alive his artistic dreams.
It’s a lifestyle that’s much more familiar to Zambrano than when he first took the role of Crumpet the Elf for the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company’s annual production of “Santaland” three years ago. Since he first took on the role at The Dairy Center for the Arts in 2012, he has packed up and moved to the big city to try his luck as an artist.
That life experience has made all the difference in bringing the character to life, Zambrano insists.
“I’ve lived in New York. I’ve become a resident of New York,” said Zambrano, who has returned to Denver to play Crumpet for a third time. “There’s the aspiration that so many artists have — ‘I’m going to move to New York and just make it.’ Once reality sets in, it becomes a different story. Like the character in the play, I’ve had to find these little piecemeal jobs in order to try to become the artist that I’d like to be.”
That life experience adds yet another dimension to a show that’s become a modern holiday staple for theater audiences in the metro area. The show ran at the Bug Theatre in Denver for a decade, with Gary Culig playing the featured role of Crumpet. The BETC picked up the tradition six years ago, with Colorado Shakespeare Festival vet Geoffrey Kent starring for the first three years. Zambrano took up the elfin mantle in 2012, and the show has since expanded beyond the BETC’s standard geographical boundaries.
After Zambrano performed as Crumpet at The Dairy Center in Boulder for his first year in the tights and elf shoes, the show headed to the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. It ran at the Garner Galleria last year, and the production will run this year at the Jones Theatre, a venue that’s become the home for the Denver Center’s Off-Center@The Jones program. That lineup features comedy, improv and other nontraditional theatrical fare designed to appeal to a different brand of theater audience.
“The work that they’ve been doing has been to garner a new audience,” Zambrano said. “People coming to this show will see a marriage of an actual, produced play with a hip, contemporary, on-the-edge feel to it.”
That made the irreverent tone of “The Santaland Diaries” an ideal fit for the series, just as it has for the BETC in the past six years. While the tone and timbre of the show is a departure from the troupe’s regular fare, it also has offered an alternative to tackling the standard canon of Christmas stage titles. In the past two years, the traveling production also has exposed the work of the company to audiences beyond its home base in Boulder.
“It’s different from the programming that we do during the rest of the year. But part of what was really attractive about the piece when we first started doing it is that it’s much more true to who we are than to go out and do a saccharine, traditional holiday play,” said Stephen Weitz, BETC director and founding member. “It’s something that, artistically, we believe in.”
Audiences continue to believe in the show, as well, judging from its continuous 16-year tenure on local stages. The comedy’s intimate, confessional structure and its built-in opportunities for direct improv with audience members has made the show a reliable favorite for holiday theater crowds.
“In a show like this, I specifically ask questions and open it up,” Zambrano said. “If I see people getting up, or sneezing or if someone’s phone goes off, the improviser in me just can’t help but want to latch on to that and run with that.”
Zambrano must balance the duties of a traditional actor with a skill for working in the moment. It’s a brand of equilibrium that’ll continue to serve him well beyond the stage; indeed, it’s a valuable skill set for any artist looking to build a life in New York City.