by Andrew Kenney
photographs by Nick Pironio
Ira David Wood III is just “David” in real life. But you might also know him by another name: Scrooge. Wood has been stomping and huffing and finding redemption for 40 Novembers and Decembers now as director and lead actor of A Christmas Carol, the longest-running show in the city.
The role has imprinted him upon the psyches of several generations of at least a few tens of thousands of Raleigh families. It is a testament to his diligent, extravagant, talented self that the state recently gave him the North Carolina Award, its highest civilian honor. He also served as Grand Marshall of the city’s Christmas parade in November, and basked in the glow of the city’s week in honor of A Christmas Carol.
Accolades aside, Ira David Wood III is not an easy man to introduce. Old-timers figure they know the legend pretty well already. And newcomers might not see the big deal – he hasn’t been the annual star of their holiday traditions for decades. And it’s impossible in print to really capture the Ira David Wood effect, because it requires cheeky British accents and musical numbers.
But this is the 40th season of Wood’s emotional, absurd, and well-loved cultural institution, one closer to this city’s heart than any piece of theater. A celebration of its captain is due. When he takes the stage this month, Wood’s audience will be filled with folks who have been watching him do what he loves most for the better part of a lifetime.
“You walk out on that stage from the darkness in the wings, into the light, and something happens,” Wood says, sitting for an interview in his finely decorated headquarters at Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park. “I’ve gone on with 103-degree temperature, I’ve gone on with dislocated vertebrae. When you walk into the light, something happens, it goes away, and you meet an old friend. Scrooge is an old friend of mine. When I’m down, he cheers me up.”
Wood is 68 now, with a full head of neatly combed grey hair.
A defective heart valve threatened to kill him three years ago. He and his wife had a baby two years ago. He has been married and remarried. He is a Kennedy assassination theorist. He once drank the 90’s goth rock icon Marilyn Manson under the table, and is the father of a bona-fide Hollywood movie star, Evan Rachel Wood. He sings to his beagle, Snuggles, every morning as his coffee brews, and he has impeccable taste in eyeglasses.
David is one of Raleigh’s characters, and not just because of his eccentricity. He’s one of the people the city watches and talks about, year after year. His Christmas Carol has sold more than a million tickets in its four decades, even traveling abroad and winning an endorsement from a Dickens descendant in England.
“There’s a certain point at which these shows that happen once a year, it just becomes part of the community’s lives, part of their traditions,” says Charles Phaneuf, executive director for Raleigh Little Theatre, who first saw A Christmas Carol in middle school.
Even beyond the holidays, Wood’s alternately bombastic and solemn dedication to his art tends to get him noticed. There’s the viral video of him reading ridiculous pop lyrics in a dramatic Shakespearean monologue – more than 1.5 million hits to date – and the repertoire of actual Shakespeare that he directs, along with his regular acting roles. He long ago acquired most of the state’s formal honors, including two keys to the city and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.
“If you stop an average person on the street in Raleigh, how many local actors can they name?” Phaneuf asks. “David’s the only one. There’s literally nobody else like that around here.”
This whole story really starts, however, in the town of Enfield, which was slightly larger when Wood was in 11th grade than it is now.
“I was sitting in vocational agriculture. We were studying how much liquid drains off a manure pile,” Wood says, pulling in the details easily.
Manure management was not then part of his preferred profession. Even before his dad had died four years earlier, he had wondered how he would hold on to his childhood, and farming didn’t seem like the way. He had always wanted to act – to play.
Then came the call: “David Wood, come to the principal’s office.”
And when he got there, he saw his mother, and he asked her what he’d done wrong.
“And she goes, “Nothing. You’ve been accepted to the School of the Arts, and I’m watching you walk down this hallway for the last time.”
She was talking about the N.C. School of the Arts, founded a year earlier under Gov. Terry Sanford, some 175 miles’ drive to the west. Someone had noticed the plays he put on. His mother knew it would do him well – perhaps she was thinking about the poetry her husband had published pseudonymously in The News & Observer for so long, or she just knew her son needed a bigger stage.
And his guidance counselor said, “You know, David, you belong with other crazy people like yourself.”
It was only a few years after college that Wood and a few friends started their Christmas production in Raleigh.
All the now-storied scenes and bits, all the twists that have grown 40 years of sentiment from the audience and actors alike were yet to be written. There were no multi-decade veterans yet, or cast members’ babies to sing to in the curtain call. There was no tradition – just three men at a piano, and a Dickens story that already had been subjected to dozens of musty variations.
“We wanted to do a Christmas show, because in the early ’70s, the theaters were closed over the holidays,” he says. And this is not a man to let Christmas go uncelebrated, because the season with its pageantry was his retreat back to childhood.
“Millay said, ‘Childhood is a kingdom where nobody dies.’ So I lost my childhood, really, when I was 12,” he says, quoting the American playwright’s 1937 poem.
One of the adaptation’s most enduring musical numbers came in those first few months of preparation, on the wings of a couple bottles of Cold Duck sparkling wine. The song was to become the show-stopping lullaby for Tiny Tim.
“I wanted to make a lullaby that any father would sing to his child,” he recalls. “We were bawling at the end (of the writing session). It was 2 o’clock in the morning – we were calling everybody we knew. We woke people up.”
In the blood
The entertainer’s instinct runs in the blood, apparently. Both of Woods’ oldest children are actors with their own Wikipedia pages, which of course mention their father, the “locally prominent actor.”
Growing up, Ira IV and Evan Rachel were perhaps their father’s favorite audience, his careening accents always driving his daughter crazy: ‘Daddy, be Daddy!’ she’d insist. Wood tried to raise his kids like he ran his show: a madcap parade that knew when to settle down.
“I think some of the reason kids rebel against their parents is they feel pigeonholed, or like they have to do something. The environment I grew up in was very much the opposite, where making food sculptures was supported, or doing funny voices, or pratfalls,” says Ira IV. “But if I skinned my knee, if I had to get a shot, the playtime faded away. The wires never got crossed.”
They started young, both of them paraded on stage as infants. Ira IV’s mother went into labor in the theater, and he was born in the middle of the season. Both acted their way up through the production, year after year, and the family’s traditions grew with it.
Today, Evan Rachel Wood lives on a different plane of fame than her family. Now 27, she made her career first in television during the 1990s, and later in film, starring in films including Across the Universe and The Wrestler. Through it all, the close bond she shares with her father stayed solid. “ I always feel like he is genuinely interested in where I am in my life whether it be good or bad,” she says today. “He always listens and never judges me. It’s a safe place.”
The tabloid spotlight burned bright on Evan Rachel when she began to date goth rocker Marilyn Manson late in her teens. Her father remembers his first meeting with the leather-clad, makeup-wearing celebrity. “First thing he said to me was, ‘You’re not going to hit me, are you?” Wood recalls.
Apparently unfazed by Manson’s black eyeliner and antichrist imagery, Wood took the star into his home. In inimitable fashion, he tells a surreal and very funny story now about a bout of tequila drinking that truly brought them together.
“By 8 o’clock that night, he’s saying ‘You’re the dad I never had,” Wood says. “I called him ‘Cuddles.’” Wood was up early the next morning to cook breakfast, as usual, while “Cuddles” suffered a heavy hangover. Their relationship also included rides at Disney World (Manson was afraid, Wood insists) and short drama lessons (Wood’s starring role in Dracula proved appropriate) before Manson and Evan Rachel ended up going their separate ways.
Wood’s oldest (and actual) son, Ira IV, has made a career of theater and film, including a stint in Los Angeles and his own run as a dramatic Dracula this year.
Like his father before him, Ira IV sees a future in Raleigh theater, where an actor can shape not just a production but a theater. He says his father, with all those layered seasons of experience, is a reassuring force. His father, he says, knows the subtleties that make something special.
“I think that’s the difference between experience and youth – you’ve got all the makings, you’ve got this beautiful thing, just do this, just take a beat here,” he says.
All through those years, Wood refused to think of playing any role but Scrooge. It’s hard to say what connected Wood in those happy years to the bitter old coot. He had never lost his love, and he could never be accused of hating children. By the time he hit 40, he was one of the most celebrated figures in the city, and he only wanted to keep going.
“When you’re young – you’re an octopus, you’re a fireworks display,” he says. It wasn’t to last forever.
Wood’s fairytale took a detour in 1997 when he and his first wife finalized their divorce. It came at the holiday season, and some of the actors could see their directors’ deflation.
“I felt like, ‘I’m empty.’ I’m sitting here telling people, ‘You can be better, you can find the light – you can change.’ And it felt empty to me,” he says. “Evan and my son had gone with her to California. Both of their acting careers were taking off. I thought, ‘Divorce is such a cliché.’”
One day, after rehearsal, he heard a knock on his dressing room door. It was a woman from the cast, and she told him that she could see he was in “a very dark place,” but that he couldn’t stay there. He wasn’t sure what to say.
The next day, one of that woman’s teenage daughters brought Wood a videotape. When he watched it that night, he saw her family acting out his Christmas Carol songs in front of their fireplace.
Eight years later, the woman with the tape would become his wife. Her name is Ashley, and, to Wood, she’s a reminder that life does give second chances.
“She had grown up seeing the show. I remember telling her, ‘You know you’re in love with Scrooge?’”
The show’s fourth decade has been a chapter of its own. In these later years the show has built its momentum, expanding to new venues and selling out each year. Wood is always at its heart as ringmaster, the keeper of the stories that connect actors across years, and cheerleader for the show’s second-chance mantras.
David Moore, a longtime actor and friend of Wood’s, says the show is a “universal story of redemption” taking its lead character from “unhealth to health, from holding in of yourself to giving of yourself.”
And that makes Wood, he says, “the keeper of the archetype … the person who is the thread through every single person, and every single year.”
The production this year will draw cast members from back through the ages. For many, as for Wood, the oddball musical is a place for Christmas healing.
“I had lost my mother in ’89 and my brother in ’99,” says Janis Covell, 77, who joined the production in 2004. “So I just kind of ignored Christmas. It was just another day for me … When you don’t have a family, it kind of leaves you out in left field.” But the show “gave me a different attitude about Christmas,” she says. “David feels the way about Christmas that the resolved Ebenezer Scrooge does.”
And part of that resolution has come only in these last few years, as age has begun to slow even Wood. Things began to change in 2010, when doctors told him he would need heart surgery. It was the first year since 1974 that he could not play Scrooge – so he passed the role to Ira IV, who played to accolades.
Wood recovered well, but that year was a reminder that this exuberant authority is mortal.
His son sees wisdom to tap. “I turned 30 this month. I said ‘Dad, I want you to direct me – I want to do Cyrano, Hamlet,’” Ira IV says. “I want you to show me, and guide and talk me through it.”
But if a new understanding of death stands on one side, then there’s new life on the other. Wood never expected to be a new father so late in life, but the baby he and his new wife longed for, Thomas Wood, was born in 2012, less than two years after the season of the surgery.
Especially for a sentimental guy, you’d expect this combination to be emotional overload, but it sounds like something calmer. Moore says Wood has mellowed, trusting his cast members to take up where he leaves off.
“With Thomas, I’m not in a hurry,” Wood says. “I savor the moments with him. We walk out, we go places. And my wife, who is just the most incredible mother and friend to me and life mate – we laugh. Every morning, within 15 minutes of waking up, we laugh about something.”
There’s a twinge, too, when he talks about the future.
“I find it unavoidable, being 67 and being closer to the end than the beginning, and having a 2 year old,” he says. “My greatest fear is that I will leave him the way my dad left me. That’s my prayer: Let me stay until he’s a young man.”
He doesn’t dwell on it long. What lies ahead is not his domain.
“We don’t have any claim on the future, so we can’t go there,” he says. “So where do we go? When we think of Christmas, we think of Chistmas past. Decorations go up in our house the way they always have – we go back, and we create the past every year.”
And in that past, he says, we’re reminded of all the spirit and life and good fun that’s passing with each season.
“I remember one day, before Dad died, with my cowboy guns, my boots, my hat, running through the back lot in the twilight,” he says. “I was so happy, I stopped dead in my tracks – I said ‘Man, what am I going to do when I grow up? This is great. I want to play.’”
Evan Rachel Wood talks about her Dad
What is your earliest memory of theater?
I remember my parents doing the play Amadeus. I became obsessed with Mozart at a very early age because of it.
What role did your father play in your development as an actor?
I grew up in the theater. I was there more than my own home. I saw Shakespeare and Chekov and watched endless movies. I appreciate the craft and good work at a very young age.
What parts of his style do you see in your own? How are you similar?
I think we both have an appreciation for subtlety. Which makes it twice as jarring when you do have any kind of outburst.
How are you two different?
My father has the ability to play any age and any sort of character.
What is your favorite Christmas Carol scene?
The Christmas lullaby. No matter how many times I see it, I never have dry eye.
Which of your father’s roles or performances do you remember most vividly? Why?
I saw him play quite the villain in Montserrat. I loved the play and it was the first time I really forgot it was my father on stage. He was completely transformed. I also felt that way watching him in Man Of LaMancha. I would forget that was my dad.
Growing up, did you realize how well known your father was locally? Did you see him as different than your friends’ fathers?
When I was in grade school I told kids my dad was the Tom Cruise of Raleigh. I understood there were photographers at our house a lot, and I would see my dad on TV occasionally. It was exciting. But it also became normal.
How would you describe your father?
He is a very creative person. Always working on a million different things at once. I think art is everything to him. Its more than a hobby or a job. I think what he does enhances and changes peoples lives. When my brother and I became actors, he made sure we understood what a gift it could be. Not just to us but to the world. He is very animated and silly. Anyone can vouch for him being the best storyteller.
What do you two talk about?
Everything. I always feel like he is genuinely interested in where I am in my life, whether it be good or bad. He always listens and never judges me. It’s a safe place.
When you return to Raleigh, what places do you have to visit?
I always visit the Angus Barn. And Krispy Kreme of course.
Do you ever miss acting on the community level?
I miss theater all the time. Its the most fun you will ever have as an actor. Every night is different and challenging. You are always on your toes. You also really bond with your cast. You forge life long friendships. I am looking forward to getting back on stage very soon.