There’s just one rule among the cast of Ira David Wood III’s A Christmas Carol: Never, ever say, “But last year we did it this way.”
Sassy and full of mischief, the show is celebrating its 40th year in 2014, yet the actors don’t always know what will happen next.
“There’s a little bit of Scrooge in everybody at Christmas time, so we blow the carbon out of the pipes,” joked Wood, who is founder, artistic and executive director of the internationally-acclaimed Theatre In The Park.
Wood is also the long-running star of this musical comedy, and in conversation slips in and out of Ebenezer Scrooge’s mannerisms and British accent.
“We’re faithful to Dickens’ book, but tweak it so the dads aren’t being dragged to the theater without being entertained,” he said. “A Dickens’ purist would probably go into cardiac arrest, but in 40 years we’ve only gotten a half-dozen letters of complaint.”
The original tale was penned in 1843 by Charles Dickens, but the unpredictable — and often improvised — humor of Wood’s version of A Christmas Carol creates a new comedic experience for audiences each year.
Also, for this 40th anniversary production, Chasta Hamilton Calhoun will serve as choreographer. Noted as a 2014 Triangle Rising Star for Outstanding Choreography, she received the Goodman Award for Regional Leadership Excellence in the Area of the Arts in 2012.
Wood’s scripting continues to aim one-liners at celebrities from Tiger Woods to Paula Deen, and pokes fun at politicians; his neighbor, former Gov. Mike Easley, has been one of them. Last year’s production even sported a Duck Dynasty scene.
The tap-dancing ghost of Jacob Marley quotes comedian Chris Farley, and Scrooge carries a teddy bear to offset his mean image. His transformation from miser to philanthropist plays out as a resurrection of sorts, with Scrooge emerging from the tomb in an all-white pantsuit à la Elvis Presley.
“It’s very important that the whole family come together,” Wood said. “Some of the show’s humor is adult and over the heads of younger audience members, but the kids see their parents laughing and know that they are enjoying the experience. From this, they learn the value of good theater.”
Cast and pit members set each other up for live snafus just to see what will happen: A cameo character who won’t leave the stage. A real local news crew attempting a mid-show interview. Scrooge demanding a book from Cratchit that each knows is part of a painted, immovable set.
Changing the Triangle
As the show marks its four-decade milestone, Wood recounts the early days.
“In 1974 we sold out Theatre In The Park’s 250 seats, and were selling the sofa cushions in the lobby for people to sit on,” he said. “The actor playing the baker passed out real cookies to the audience. It was very intimate.”
Three years later A Christmas Carol moved to Raleigh, in what was a first step toward downtown’s revitalization.
“Nobody could find the keys to Memorial Auditorium; this was before it was renovated,” Wood said. “De Ann Jones (founder of the North Carolina Theatre) cut the chain on the doors with bolt cutters, and a huge shaft of sunlight spilled into the lobby. Then a rat ran by, as big as my dog!
“We were the first group at Memorial; others came later, and it woke people up. The merchants were standing in their doorways, seeing cars go by,” he said. “I like to think we had a hand in that transformation.”
A Christmas Carol has played to more than 2 million people over these 40 years. It earns more than $1 million annually, allowing Theatre In The Park to present a wide range of classic, contemporary and original theatrical offerings year-round.
The show has even hatched stars like Michael C. Hall of Dexter fame, and Frankie Muniz of Malcolm in the Middle.
Wood’s own children, Ira David Wood IV and Evan Rachel Wood, are also professional actors; Wood IV took on the role of Scrooge in 2010 while his father recovered from heart surgery.
“The blessing of my heart surgery is that I can relate more to Ebenezer, regarding second chances,” the elder Wood said. “It’s rare that we get those, so seeing that costume each year is like meeting an old friend.
“We’re not a cast here — we’re a family. We love, and laugh. There’s a generosity of spirit, and it’s a miracle to be part of it.”
In 2012 Wood and his wife, Ashley, who serves as executive assistant and archivist at Theatre In The Park, welcomed baby Thomas into the family. He’s already appeared onstage in A Christmas Carol, like his siblings before him.
The family aspect of the show is precious to Wood, who calls child actors “the littles” and is now seeing second-generation performers.
Share the Love
The audience is part of the magic too, as Theatre In The Park works out its mission to provide quality theater experiences and public classes, and to build appreciation for the arts.
“Love rolls across the stage from 2,400 people on the cusp of getting the Christmas spirit,” Wood said of A Christmas Carol audiences. “It’s palpable, and hair stands up on the back of your neck.”
Families share their Christmas Carol experiences, such as the grandpa who saw himself in Scrooge and finally took part in trimming his family’s holiday tree, and the cancer patient who made it her goal to see the show each year, with hugs and encouragement from the cast.
“The stories are deeply moving,” Wood said. “Magnify them by the hundreds, and I tell the cast, ‘You heal hearts, souls and minds.’”
His own story is among them, in a lullaby Wood wrote for the show, sung by Cratchit as he tucks Tiny Tim into bed. Tuck-in was Wood’s last glimpse of his own father, who died when Wood was just 12 years old.
“Dickens knew that we all have a hurt child inside of us,” Wood said. “In this story, he went all the way back to that hurt and healed it so that Scrooge could move forward from the past, to Christmas present and future.
“A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption. All of us want to become better people and we reflect on that during the holidays, when the child in us wants to come out and play. It’s wonderful to be part of something that encourages that, or heals a heart that might not have the Christmas spirit. We want the audience to laugh a lot, cry just a bit, then go home and enjoy the holidays.”
Company tradition brings former cast members onstage for the play’s finale, while Scrooge sings a moving chorus of Noel. This year, performers from all 40 years of the show will reunite during the Dec. 14 matinee performance and take the stage once more to sing the closing musical number.
Wood, now 67, says he’ll do what it takes to continue bringing A Christmas Carol to the Triangle stage. Then, he says, his children will make sure it continues.
“People want to believe that something survives after we’re gone,” he said. “I think — I hope — that we’ve created something that will outlast me, and that’s a good feeling.”
At the door Wood pauses, then smiles.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
Editor’s note: A Christmas Carol will be performed on Dec. 10-14 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts, Memorial Auditorium, Raleigh, and Dec. 18-21 at the Durham Performing Arts Center. For ticket information, see theatreinthepark.com.
Wood’s Scrooge Turns 40
IRA DAVID Wood, III
Alma mater: N.C. School of the Arts, 1970
Hometown: Enfield, N.C.; was first Eagle Scout-Bronze Palm there
Honorary citizen in Compiegne, France and Columbia, S.C.
Only two-time Medal of Arts recipient from The Raleigh Arts Commission
Favorite place: Sanibel Island, Fla., for collecting seashells
Grand marshal: 2014 Raleigh Christmas Parade, Nov. 22, 9:40 a.m.
Wood’s A Christmas Carol, by the numbers
1974 – First performance
2008 – First-ever theatrical production held at DPAC
3 – Number of international tours, to England and France
16,000 – Largest audience, at Dean E. Smith Center, UNC-Chapel Hill
80 to 100 – cast members plus band and techs