Lewis, who recently performed in New Ground Theatre's production of Scotland Road, is well-known locally through his four-plus years at the Circa '21 Dinner Playhouse (three of them alongside this author) and Rock Island's ComedySportz venue. Yet the actor is currently challenging himself further with My Verona Productions' presentation of noted humorist David Sedaris' The Santaland Diaries, a one-man show being performed at ComedySportz November 18 through 27.
Sedaris' tale, which appears as a 30-page story in his 1994 collection Barrel Fever, and which was adapted for the stage by Tony-winning director Joe Mantello, details the author's excruciatingly funny - and sometimes merely excruciating - experiences working as an elf in Macy's department store during the holiday season. Mantello's one-person adaptation requires that Lewis portray Sedaris, who, as a stage character, portrays some 15 other characters - including patience-strapped mothers, whining children, and even Santa Claus himself.
It's the sort of challenge that can prove intimidating to even the most veteran actors. But Lewis, who attended Bradley University as an undergraduate and Western Illinois University as a grad student - where he earned an MFA in Theatre - is not unused to being a one-man show. Quite the opposite, in fact.
"My undergraduate career was based on one-person shows," he says during a Santaland rehearsal break. "My senior thesis project was [Edgar Allan Poe's] The Tell-Tale Heart, which I did steadily for a year at various coffee houses around Peoria. And then my first professional gig was working at Busch Gardens doing stories of the Round Table dressed as a knight, and it was just me, a sword, and anywhere from 10 to a hundred people watching in a small little chamber.
"Then in graduate school, once a semester we did one-person shows. And again, we used coffee houses as our venue for that. So I grew up on a pretty steady diet of doing one-person shows."
It was a diet he continued long after graduation. Lewis returned to WIU to write and perform in another solo outing entitled Bill Hicks: It's Just a Ride, which he assembled through reams of the late comedian's stand-up material and performed as a one-person presentation in the spring of 2003.
Yet Lewis makes it clear that the process of portraying a well-known humorist on the stage is about far more than channeling. Regarding Santaland, Lewis says, "We're patterning this more toward my personality than Sedaris' personality, because when you're doing a one-person show you have to do that. You have to do that. It's like with the Bill Hicks show. You have to tailor it to who you are," adding that doing a full-on David Sedaris impression in Santaland - tackling the author's North Carolina dialect and what Lewis calls Sedaris' "thin, reedy" voice - was not something he, or anyone else, would be interested in seeing. "I'm not doing an imitation," Lewis says, "because I couldn't. I could not mimic him."
He amends, "I mean, I could, but who wants to watch me do that for an hour a night?" (Probably not Sedaris, who is notoriously annoyed by the sound of his own voice.)
Obviously, Lewis has no phobias about solo public performances, and finds something reassuring and perhaps even calming about the experience. "I learned that you don't have to work very hard to get people to laugh," he reveals, "and you don't have to work very hard to get people to listen to you when all they have is you to listen to."
There is one element of one-person performance, though, that Lewis readily concedes is hard work: memorization.
Lewis admits that the process of committing Santaland to memory has been exhausting; discussing the 27 pages of material he has had to learn, the actor states, "Right now my brain is at full capacity." But as Lewis has proved in previous one-person endeavors, the challenge is met through familiarity with the material, and that familiarity comes through endless repetition.
For memorizing his role(s) in Santaland, Lewis began at the source, with Sedaris' audio presentation of the piece, famously heard on NPR's Morning Edition program. "He's got it on tape," says Lewis, "so you listen to it. And then you get familiar with the story. And then you get on stage and you try to do it. You give yourself all sorts of leeway. You tell yourself, 'Even if I f--k up the lines, I don't care.' You just go through it. You just go through it and get the story down, and then you start getting the lines.
"The hardest thing," he continues, "is not necessarily knowing all the different monologues, but knowing where they go next [within the context of the script]. The problem is in figuring out transitions from one emotional thought process to the next. But that's what the actor's for. The actor is there to go, 'Okay, I now have to bridge these two impossible gaps together. How do I do that?'"
For Lewis, this is accomplished through a strict regimen of intensive script analysis and ... rest. "My 33-year-old brain will only work for an hour before it realizes that it must play video games again," he laughs. "Or must go jogging, or must do something other than trying to retain this stuff. And what I found is that for every hour that I work, two hours spent away from it will retain what I have. Not word-perfect, necessarily, but will retain the story part of it. And then it's all about whittling it down, whittling it down, until you finally get it word-perfect, if that's your goal.
"But I'm not word-perfect," he admits. "If Sedaris were sitting in the front row with the text in front of him, he would probably go" - and here Lewis does do his David Sedaris impression - "'That's not what I wrote! You said that wrong!'"
Thankfully for Lewis, Santaland is being directed by someone who understands the difficulty of his challenge: actor/director Michael Oberfield, who helmed Scotland Road and appeared with the actor in Circa '21's productions of Home for the Holidays and Fiddler on the Roof.
Lewis says, "The great thing about Michael is that he, as an actor, realizes that the first time you go off-book, your lines are not gonna be perfect. Your brain is gonna be going a billion miles an hour. And he's very patient - very, very patient - and very kind. He elicits in you the want to do good stuff for him."
The feeling is reciprocated. Upon receiving the offer to direct Santaland, Oberfield says, "Sean [Leary, My Verona Productions' co-producer] asked me, 'Who would you like to work with?'" Oberfield had a ready response. "I said, 'You know, if Adam is available and is willing to do it, I would grab on and quick.'" Lewis, it turned out, was both available and willing, and the Santaland director couldn't be more delighted: "Adam knows the material so well and liked the material so well that his interpretation of David's stuff through Adam's personality comes across beautifully. It all works."
And for Lewis, his Santaland experience has been a long time coming. "I first read Santaland Diaries while I was doing a one-person show," he says, referring to his stint as that Busch Gardens knight. "I read all of Sedaris' stuff that he had out at that point in time. And that's when I first started thinking, 'Santaland Diaries! That would be a great one-person show!
"And whaddaya know? It turned out to be one."
Tickets to The Santaland Diaries are available by calling (309)786-7733 extension 2.