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'SantaLand' star fights for justice, the arts

Mike Dunham
CAM BYRNES / Perseverance Theatre

This weekend, Anchorage theater fans will have the chance to catch a truly unusual act: The chairman of the State Council on the Arts will step on stage, dressed in a ridiculous outfit and perform a sardonic, one-man, "anti-holiday" cult classic.

In fact, Benjamin Brown is an accomplished actor with many roles under his belt, including Crumpet the Elf in "The SantaLand Diaries," which he presented at Out North last year and reprises today and tomorrow.

Brown was born in Anchorage in 1967. He grew up here and in Palmer, with occasional detours to Hawaii, where his parents, both doctors, went for specialty training. He graduated from Palmer High School in 1985 and went to the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. He worked for the Alaska Public Radio Network and as a legislative aide before heading out again to study at the Northeastern University School of Law in Boston. He returned to Alaska, passed the bar exam and today is an associate attorney at the Juneau law firm of Baxter Bruce & Sullivan.

He was appointed vice-chairman of the Alaska State Council on the Arts by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2004. In 2007, Gov. Sarah Palin appointed him chairman.

In addition to his duties as a barrister and the state's point man on the arts, he continues his lifelong avocation as an actor. He recently wrapped up a run of Ken Ludwig's "Leading Ladies" at Juneau's Perseverance Theatre.

"I am grateful that the partners at my firm believe in my life as an actor and allow me to pursue meaningful work as a company member at Perseverance," he said.

"The SantaLand Diaries" is a staged version of essayist David Sedaris' recollection of his grueling, humiliating stint as an elf in the annual holiday display at Macy's Department Store in New York City.

In anticipation of this weekend's performances, we asked Brown to respond to a few questions via e-mail.

Q. What got you involved in theater, in particular, and the arts in general?

A. I have always been artistically inclined, I liked drawing, clay-making, tie-dye and other things one does as a child. I was musically inclined and studied piano with Sally Hitchcock at the end of my 6th-grade year in Palmer.

I didn't really do any theater until my mom leaned on me to audition for the Valley Performing Arts youth production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" when I was in 7th grade. I wanted to be cast only as Schroeder, as I was a piano-player, but as fate would have it, I appeared to make a better Charlie Brown and was cast in the title role.

I fell deeply in love with the theater during that production and went on to do the next VPA youth show, "Finian's Rainbow," and many, many shows at Palmer High School and several at Georgetown as well. I've worked with UAA Theatre, Cyrano's, Alaska Theatre of Youth, and of course, Perseverance Theatre where I'm a company member.

Q. What sparked your interest in "The SantaLand Diaries?"

A. I first did "SantaLand" in December of 2005. PJ Paparelli was then the Artistic Director at Perseverance and he had selected the script for a Phoenix Stage production at Christmas time. I wasn't really that familiar with David Sedaris, but as soon as I read the script I loved it and wanted to do it. It is just a very well-written, incredibly funny piece that I thought would be a good fit for me. PJ told me I had the part.

It was a pretty huge success at Perseverance that first year, so the following year we remounted the show at various bars and restaurants around Juneau and took it on a wide-ranging tour of Southeast, to Haines, Skagway, Gustavus, Sitka, Wrangell, Petersburg and Ketchikan. Since the 2006 Southeast tour, I've done it two years at Fairbanks Drama Association and, last year, at Out North.

Q. How do you see your role at the Alaska State Council on the Arts?

A. My role is to lead a group of volunteer Alaskans who try to provide our collective wisdom and insight to the highly talented and hardworking staff of the Council. We try to direct the State Council to do everything we can with limited resources to make it more possible, indeed likelier, that all Alaskans can create and enjoy art to the greatest possible extent in their daily lives.

I hope to continue working to expand our programs where the need and viable opportunities exist, including finding ways to increase the resources available to the arts and cultural field so that more art is created and enjoyed by more Alaskans as we move into the future. We need to re-frame the public dialogue about art so that its essential benefits are more widely recognized and never taken for granted.

Q. There is a lot of concern among some arts groups that money is drying up. Is there a crisis, either present or pending?

A. Right now the biggest fiscal crisis facing the non-profit arts world is at the local level. Falling local tax revenues have created budgetary pressures on local assemblies and councils, and they are looking for places to cut.

I think cutting the very small grants to local arts agencies and arts non-profits is unwise because the amounts these cuts purport to save are so de minimis that they don't close any budget gaps, but they do wreak untold havoc on the cultural life of Alaskan communities.

I don't fault local governmental leaders for doing their jobs and trying to balance their budgets. But I respectfully suggest there are much better ways to do this than by cutting grants to arts groups, and these ways must be found.

Find Mike Dunham online at or call 257-4332.

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