Loudon Wainwright III delves into family history and musical theater at Chapel Hill
1 September 2013
In hindsight it seems obvious that Loudon Wainwright III was destined for the stage. The Grammy Award-winning folk singer has always had a propensity to frame life’s truths as stories that resonate with anyone who has four minutes to spare.
Like many singer-songwriters to emerge in the late ’60s, he found himself labeled as “the next Dylan.” While perhaps falling short of those lofty expectations, Wainwright has gone on to release 22 studio albums to critical acclaim, as well as becoming a celebrated actor.
Now Wainwright, who was born in Durham, returns to North Carolina to open the 2013-14 season at PRC², the second stage series at PlayMakers Repertory Company, with his latest project, “Surviving Twin.” The professional theater company at UNC-Chapel Hill will host the program for a limited engagement Wednesday through Sept. 8.
Wainwright the musician combines his father’s writings with his own music, and the finished product focuses on fathers, the experience of having one and being one. During the performance, the entertainer broaches such subjects as birth, identity, loss and mortality.
Wainwright has never shied away from dealing with parental issues in song. Much of the musical basis for “Surviving Twin” is taken from his 2012 release, “Older Than My Old Man Now.” That album was a family album of sorts, as it featured all four of his musically gifted children, an ex-wife as well as his current wife, along with spoken word recordings of his father’s voice. On the album, he uses his trademark wit to spar with the disapproval he felt under his father’s gaze, as well as current struggles with his own kids.
Due to a last minute trip to New York City, Wainwright wasn’t available for a pre-show interview. But Joseph Haj, the producing artistic director at PlayMakers Repertory Company, explained that Wainwright had been working on building a show around “Older Than My Old Man Now” for two years, when they were introduced eight months ago by a mutual friend.
Since Wainwright was looking for a modestly sized venue to open “Surviving Twin,” and with his ties to the area, the match between “Surviving Twin” and the PlayMakers’ stage seemed the perfect fit.
“We bring several things to the mix: PlayMakers’ video projection designer, scenery design, costume design, etc.,” said Haj.
The transition from a musical performance to theater staging created “a bit of a different animal,” the veteran director continued.
“It’s been a fantastic collaboration. There has been a difference in language. He has been a musician who has been making music for 40-plus years, and I am a theater artist. We’ve had to learn each other’s vocabulary.”
As with all PRC² performances, the event will include a discussion with the creative artists after each show.
“I think all of the post-show conversations will be really great,” Haj said. “First, Loudon is so articulate about the work that he does. Plus this will bring very important information back to Loudon about how audiences are receiving the show.”
While many stage directors would love to participate in building a touring production from the beginning, Haj is trying to keep his focus on the upcoming debut at PRC2. Discussion of what happens next is being postponed for now.
“I try not to get out ahead of it,” Haj said.
“I feel as if I was putting much of my attention on that, I wouldn’t be able to work well enough with Loudon on the play here, to make it as strong of a production as we know how to make. If it’s real strong, we’ll all know that, and it may indeed have a future life.”
Haj said he has been impressed with the deep vein of talent that runs throughout Wainwright’s family.
“It’s very clear that Loudon is in a trajectory, an ancestry, of extraordinarily talented people who all work in different disciplines,” Haj said. “In the case of Loudon, his daughter Martha and his son Rufus, they make different kinds of music and approach their work differently.”
But as an experienced director, he also appreciates the hard work and discipline that goes into creating and staging a new work.
“It doesn’t matter what native talent you’re born with, it takes a lot of years and a lot of work to become very good at anything, and that includes the work of an artist,” Haj said.
One-man play explores performer’s memories of father
By Rebecca Pollack
The Daily Tar Heel
9 September 2103
Time and Dates: Sept. 4 – 8, 7:30 p.m.; Sept. 8, 2 p.m.
Location: Kenan Theatre
Loudon Wainwright III’s song “Surviving Twin,” which he wrote about his complex and emotional relationship with his late father, is the inspiration behind his new show of the same name.
The one-man show opens PlayMakers Repertory Company’s second PRC2 season tonight.
“My father was a wonderful writer, and he wrote for Life magazine, and my idea for this show would connect and take live songs with selections of his writing because I think they do connect,” Wainwright said.
PlayMakers has two series of plays every year — six main stage plays and three plays that are part of the secondary season.
“We pick plays that we think will inspire conversation, and every performance has a post-show conversation,” said Jeffrey Meanza, coordinator for PRC2.
This year, the PRC2 season opens with the Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter and actor’s one-man show.
The song deals with Wainwright’s looking and being like his father — something that caused him to want to be better than his father through fame and fortune — and it asks if a man could be his father’s twin.
“I’m performing (his) columns, (and) … there are 11 songs in the show, 10 songs in the show of mine and one of his,” Wainwright said.
The themes of the show — birth, self-identity, loss, fashion, pet ownership and mortality — are all matters that Wainwright and his father were interested in.
Joseph Haj, the director of “Surviving Twin,” said Wainwright will talk about multiple generations of his family through different media.
“In addition to it being the text and the music, there’s a lot of photograph and video projections,” he said.
Wainwright’s singing will be coupled with a slideshow of pictures featuring not only his father and himself, but also other father-and-son pictures of historical figures — such as Abraham Lincoln and his son.
Wainwright’s father, Loudon Wainwright Jr., attended UNC and went on to write a column about his life and current events for Life magazine from 1964-1985 before his death in 1988.
“He wrote personal things and political things and current events,” Wainwright said.
“He was known for writing about the original Project Mercury astronauts — the first men that went into space in the ’60s — but he also wrote about very mundane things like visiting his mother in a nursing home or buying a London tailored suit in London in 1965 or Mickey Mantle, the famous baseball player.”
Wainwright’s father wrote for the magazine in a style similar to the way Wainwright writes his songs.
“Songwriters write about what they want to write about, and I’ve been doing that for 40 years,” he said. “I’ve been writing about my personal life, also topical songs, novelty songs — all kinds of songs.”
Following every show, there will be a post-show discussion featuring Wainwright and Haj, and possibly a crew member.
“Since ‘Surviving Twin’ is such a personal story, it’ll be more about the artist involved,” Meanza said.
Haj said that because Wainwright’s show describes a particularly complicated father-and-son relationship, it also describes many other such emotional links.
“Every relationship with every parent is neither good nor bad, like any number of things, and that was our relationship, too,” he said.
One of the songs Wainwright performs talks about fighting with and hating or loving someone.
“With the whole father-and-son story, there’s a real sort of pain that’s beautiful and moving,” Meanza said.
“And of course, Loudon Wainwright (III) is an incredible performer, really an artist as both a musician and a performer.”