BWW Interview: Ira David Wood III of Theatre in the Park's A CHRISTMAS CAROL
From December 11th-22nd, Theatre in the Park will be presenting their 45th anniversary production of A Christmas Carol. I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing the show's playwright, Ira David Wood III, who is not only back directing this year, but he'll also be alternating the role of Ebenezer Scrooge with his oldest son, Ira David Wood IV.
Ira David Wood III is the Founder & Executive Director of Theatre In The Park, which happens to be North Carolina's largest community theatre with an international reputation. David is also best known and loved for annually portraying the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge in his own stage musical adaptation of the Charles Dickens classic, A Christmas Carol, which is getting ready to put on its 45th anniversary production this month. The show has been performed annually since 1974 and has been named one of the "Top 20 Events in the Southeast" as well as "one of the most successful shows in North Carolina Theatre history."
JK: Good afternoon. How's your day?
IDW: My day is going well. We are getting ready to open and very excited about the show this year. We have a wonderful company assembled and we are just amazed that after 45 years, we're still going strong and having a lot of fun with the show as well.
JK: Going back to the beginning, how did the idea of doing your own stage adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol come about?
IDW: It actually began when I saw The Nutcracker ballet when I was a student at the School of the Arts back in the late 1960's. I had never seen a ballet performance before having come from Halifax County and when I attended the production of The Nutcracker by the School of the Arts in Winston Salem and the curtain fell at the end, I couldn't get up out of my seat. I was just blown away by the magic of telling a story with music and dance and I knew at that time that I wanted to be part of some kind of show like that during the holiday season. That left people feeling the way I felt when I saw it. The next year, I wrote an original television show or the local TV station in Winston Salem called Christmas Is and the title song and that television production is the song that opens up our production of A Christmas Carol. Cut to 1974, Theater in the Park was doing a season of Shakespeare. We did Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and when we got to the Christmas season, a time in Raleigh when most of the theaters were closed, we decided that we wanted to put something on and keep our theater open because I figured that the holiday season was the kind of families who wanted to be together and to do things together. So since William Shakespeare hadn't penned a play about Christmas, we went to the second best English author, decided we would do A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I wanted it to be a family show where entire families could come together. I wanted it to be a musical comedy rather than the traditional ghost story, kind of dark version. I wanted Scrooge to be funny, I thought he was even more accessible as a character and it would be easy for the audience to identify with them because there's a little bit of Scrooge and everybody during the holiday season. I wanted him to have a Teddy bear and act too because I wanted the kids to be able to identify with them. Then he was just a big baby, afraid of the dark. I wanted the Ghost of Christmas Future to be a befuddled undertaker rather than the scary person that Dickens wrote about so that it wouldn't frighten the kids. So that's the way we approached it. And the rest I guess is history.
JK: Every year, you make updates to your script with different jokes and references that feel reflective to what's going on in the world at the moment.
IDW: Yes we do. I feel it's another way to keep the show fresh and also point up the fact that the message is still pertinent today. The heart and soul of the show is a story of redemption that all of us can be better than we were before. I think that's a timeless message and it never gets old. We wrap Mr. Dickens' work in a musical comedy format. We keep the period style with beautiful costumes and a gorgeous set and the style of the period. I do think a few of the topical jokes kind of reminds the audience that it is still relative and that the message is very real today as real as it was when Dickens first wrote the book. Given the political climate of a particular year, this year included, people sometimes say, "Oh, well we know you're going to have a smorgasbord to choose from. I have shed though for the past four or five years." Though I actually have pulled back and we have not done as many political jokes as we possibly could have because my feeling is we have so much of that at home in front of the television sets that when people come out to see a Christmas show, I think it's great to kind of divorce ourselves from that. We do have a few jokes of course. I think if we can get people today, particularly as divided as this country has to laugh about a few of these political situations, then we felt people can kind of relax a bit, and I think that's certainly an order.
JK: What has it been like for you getting to watch your interpretation become as successful as it became over the years?
IDW: It's a very humbling experience. It's wonderful to know that the show will outlive me. My oldest son, Ira, who does a fabulous job in the role, alternates performances with me and it's wonderful. I was 27 when I started the show. I've reversed the numbers this year. I'm 72, so I'm closer to the end of my run than the beginning. And I think, you know, in three or four years, Ira will take over the role entirely. I will still direct the show and help put it together, but it'll be time for him to take the reins. I don't think the audience wants to see a 72 year old man prancing around the stage in tights anymore.
JK: As I previously mentioned, your oldest son is gonna be sharing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge with you this year. This won't be his first time taking it on as I remember that he ended up playing that character one year when you couldn't do it.
IDW: Yes, that was 2010, the year of my open heart surgery. When I found out, the show had been blocked, which was great and I knew I would go in for the surgery, so I was not worried at all. I knew Ira could step into the role. His sister, Evan Rachel Wood, came home and became his eyes and ears out in front of the curtain. They both just stepped in and took over. He did a masterful job. When I watched the show, it was a real out of body experience for me because he had the movements down. He had studied the video tapes of me doing the row and he came out doing the costume and the wig and the makeup and I was just floored. It was like I was seeing myself up on the stage. Of course, they let me have one brief moment in the show that year when Scrooge leaves his office for the day to go home on Christmas Eve, Ira came out on one side of the stage and I came out on the other as myself and we passed each other on this stage, pause long enough to turn and look at each other and then I would walk off and it was kind of a way to let the audience know that I had gotten back from the surgery and I was okay. But the warm applause and the cheers when I would come on at night were gratifying. It made me feel really great to know that people paid attention to it. I think the greatest thing for me and after 44 years is that people come back to see the show like they're coming to visit an old friend. They'd like to see what we've added, what's new, what's fresh this year. And yet at the same time, they really love the old things that have just stayed in the show for four, five years. So I think it is like meeting an old friend and maybe the friend has a new hat or do when you come back, but you know you're going to have a fun visit, you're to laugh and you're going to shed a few tears. But the main thing is when you leave the theater after the show, you're gonna feel better for having been there.
JK: In recent years, you've been lucky enough to have the production play at Raleigh Memorial Auditorium as well as the Durham Performing Arts Center. What are the differences between performing the show at both venues?
IDW: Well, Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh is our traditional home, and that's where we started. We performed for three years at Theatre in the Park, which only seated a little over 200 people and we were doing 17 performances. It occurred to me that we could move downtown to Memorial Auditorium and play to as many people in a weekend as we played in 17 days and Memorial Auditorium at that time was mostly unused. It was primarily used for wrestling matches and college and high school graduations. When we went down to look at the auditorium, the city manager couldn't find the key. So we actually cut the chains off the door with a pair of bolt cutters and walked in. Of course, the auditorium hadn't been renovated and there were wooden seats and windows with curtains that were drawn over them to blot out the sunlight. But when I shot, I just marveled. I said, "Oh my goodness, this is a theater. We should be using it by taking A Christmas Carol downtown." I think we did start a trend. I think the city fathers saw that this space could be utilized. It couldn't bring people downtown during the holiday season. So I think, you know, it was easier to get the bond referendum passed to do the renovations that were so urgently needed. Then when DPAC came along, it sort of changed the whole balance in the Triangle area in terms of theater because the Nederlanders support all of their shows come into DPAC. They get the first choice of those incredible productions. It was a new facility, it has a hotel connected to it, which is wonderful for the cast and crew of A Christmas Carol because we can just walk off the stage, you got on an elevator, and go to our rooms. So that's marvelous. We actually went into Memorial Auditorium in Raleigh and asked for a second weekend show that we could extend the run of the show and we were turned down, they said, "No, we don't want you for a second weekend. Why don't you go into Durham and ask the Durham Performing Arts Center?" So that's exactly what we did. We were the first big production in DPAC when it opened. We are filling the house over there now. So I guess you know Memorial's loss was DPAC's gain that they treat us beautifully. They give us an opening night party in Durham every year. They just go out of their way to make us feel welcome and at home. So they're positives about both the venues. It just depends on which one you like to see the show, and that's the main thing. We want our audience to be able to come and enjoy the show in whichever venues they select. That's the important thing.
JK: Over the years, Theatre in the Park has had so many notable alumni that would go on to find great success in show business such as Terrence Mann, Michael C. Hall, Frankie Muniz, and of course, your daughter, Evan Rachel Wood. What's it like for you getting to see how successful each of those performers have become?
IDW: Oh, that's the warmest feeling in the world. To see these young people come through the doors of any theater in our area, these are young people who many times are made to feel different and odd and a negative sort of way because they'd rather practice Shakespeare than football. It gives them a place to go where they're surrounded by other people who share their same love and passion, and that's vital. Helen Hayes once said, "We lose some of our best talent early on because they can't stand up against their peers. They're beaten down because of their differences." So I think it's vital that these young people have a place where they can go and be surrounded by people who feel the way they do. And to see them leave that environment and enriched, emboldened, educated, and go out and take that talent and do something with it on a bigger arena is certainly gratifying. But I tell you too, just as important are those young people who come through the theater, maybe they don't go out and they get a movie contract or HBO series, but they can stand up in front of a class or a business meeting and speak in public without being fearful or nervous or anxious, and that's a gift too. So theater provides that to these talented young people. I think every theater will attest to the fact that the young people in our area are the most talented people anywhere by none. We've produced some wonderful talent. I'm happy and humbled by the fact that Theatre in the Park has been one of those theaters who has helped do that.
JK: In conclusion, why should audiences come to see A Christmas Carol this year?
IDW: Well, why not? I think this year more than ever, we need to hear the message of this show. We are a country divided, we are a country screaming at each other about political differences. This is an angry country and I think it's time for us to harken back to some of these timeless messages that are contained in productions like A Christmas Carol. I think that's one of the important reasons and the other is that the medicine doesn't have to taste bad to do good things for you. You can walk into a dark theater with strangers, sit for a couple of hours, laugh and cry a bit, you walk out and be a better person than you were when you walked in. You'd be better able to celebrate the holidays because you've touched the true meaning of the holidays. So if you ask me, I think that's a good reason right there. That good theater transcends all barriers, race, color, creed, nationality, lifestyles, politics, it buries them all. And we all, as the Ghost of Christmas Present says, "realize that we are one big family on a globe that grows smaller every day. And unless and until we realize that fact and treat each other like a brother or sister, we're losing and we need to come together and celebrate the fact that we are a family, that we have more similarities than differences show." If you ask me why we should come to see The Nutcracker, Cinderella, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, or a symphony concert, my answer is that you leave a better person than you work when you walked in.
JK: David, I thank you very much for devoting your time to this interview. It was great getting to talk to you.
IDW: It was great talking to you too. I hope you have a Happy Holiday!
Be sure to catch Theatre in the Park's 2019 production of A Christmas Carol. It will be playing at Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts from December 11th-15th and at the Durham Performing Arts Center from December 18th-22nd. For more information, please visit: