Ian Mairs is wearing his Apex Theatre Studio sweater. One suspects the Jacksonville-based theater-maker always wears Apex gear—after all, the educational drama laboratory is his baby—but it’s a particularly appropriate morning for the apparel. Mairs was a guest on WJCT’s morning show First Coast Connect with Melissa Ross, then he traveled upstream a mile and a half to Folio Weekly world headquarters to discuss his holiday plans.
Those plans include a dramatic double-feature that boasts something for everyone: two matinee performances of the family-friendly It’s a Wonderful Life, a Live Radio Play and two evening performances of David Sedaris’ edgy, breakout monologue, The Santaland Diaries.
The former is made for Apex’s natural audience. Mairs founded the studio five years ago to provide afterschool programs for aspiring actors in elementary through high school. On average, Apex works with roughly 100 students during the school year and an additional 150 in the summer season, when college students come home and participate in Apex activities.
“We only work with young artists who really want to do this professionally,” he says. “It’s not a recreational program. [Acting] is a calling, and we make that very clear. We bring in a lot of professional actors who travel. They come and tell the students the kind of work involved. The demands are very clear.”
That discipline pays off in the end. According to Mairs: “We’ve been going long enough that some of the students we had five years ago are now in the top conservatory programs. NYU, Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan.”
Mairs resides with his partner in Springfield, and Apex was originally headquartered in Jacksonville, but the studio relocated to Ponte Vedra in January 2016. There Mairs saw a growing demand but precious little supply.
“I noticed more and more people from St. Johns County coming in,” he says. ”When we produced the rock musical Spring Awakening, I realized about half the cast was from there.”
“If you look at the data,” he continues, “you see a lot of families moving to St. Johns County from the Tri-state area. They come from communities where arts training and education are valued and expected. That’s not necessarily the case in Duval. And there’s already a strong arts magnet in Jacksonville.”
The Apex production of Wonderful Life caters to the family audience. And, while most of the studio’s productions spotlight student talent, this holiday weekender is an ideal moment for Apex staff and alumni to shine.
“All of our teaching artists are performers,” he says. “So this is an opportunity for us to show students how we work.”
Santaland stars Mairs himself; Wonderful Life features a cast of Apex alumni.
“It’s a great piece,” Mairs says. “The four actors who recreate the original radio version, they’re all college-age actors who have graduated from our program.”
The production promises to be wholesome and uplifting—as all holiday classics should be. The main event, however, is the evening program. Mairs has been performing Santaland at different area venues for 20 years. It’s something of a tradition. The play is adapted from now-bestselling author David Sedaris’ 1992 essay Santaland Diaries, comprising the wry observations of a costumed seasonal performer at Macy’s Santaland. Mairs plays Crumpet the Elf.
“When I started doing it,” he observes, “people were just starting to hear about David Sedaris. Now he’s huge. Santaland was his big break on NPR. In the canon of classic holiday stories, everything is always sentimental and cute. He was running in the opposite direction. It has a kind of cynicism; it’s very sardonic. And people were ready to hear about the stress of Christmas. It obviously hit a nerve, and he just continued.”
Last year, Mairs performed Santaland at Ponte Vedra Concert Hall with musical guest Duffy Bishop.
“She does all these kinds of twisted takes on Christmas songs,” he laughs. “We totally got along.”
This year, he’s invited Bishop back, but he’s moving the party to the intimate studio space of Apex itself. It’s a bawdy play, complete with adult language and situations. When asked if the performance might be too intimate for his apprentices, Mairs scoffs.
“Come on,” he chides. “These are sophisticated young people. They’re not the 13-year-old that I was. Their access to information is different. It’s hard to make them blush. The younger kids won’t come, of course. They’ll go to Wonderful Life.”
Even in conservative St. Johns County, Mairs makes no concessions to Victorian—or Falwellian—mores.
“We always tell people up front what we’re doing and what we’re about,” he explains. “With Santaland, we tell people there’s mature language and themes. But I’m not going to censor young artists. Part of the reason the studio is open is so they can do plays that they couldn’t do in school. Spring Awakening is all about sexual awakening. Art is supposed to be about exploring life.”
He pauses, then adds with a smile, “But we do our fair amount of Disney shows, too, so it’s a nice mix.”