Loudon Wainwright III delves into family history and musical theater at Chapel Hill

CorrespondentSeptember 1, 2013 

Loudon Wainwright III.

COURTESY OF ROSS HALFIN

  • About Loudon Wainwright III

    Chapel Hill native Loudon Wainwright III has only had one chart hit, the 1972 novelty single “Dead Skunk (in the Middle of the Road).”

    But don’t let that fool you, because Wainwright has had one of the most renowned careers of the confessional singer-songwriter era.

    He came along in Bob Dylan’s wake (something he made fun of in song, with 1992’s “Talking New Bob Dylan”), bringing a style of laceratingly funny songwriting focused on romantic foibles – Wainwright’s own most of all.

    In addition to releasing more than two-dozen albums, he has acted in everything from “M*A*S*H” to the movie version of Daniel Wallace’s “Big Fish” and also sired another generation of excellent performers in son Rufus and daughters Martha and Lucy.

    Always a late bloomer, the elder Wainwright won his first Grammy Award in 2010 for "High Wide & Handsome," a tribute album to North Carolina old-time music pioneer Charlie Poole.

    David Menconi

  • ‘Surviving Twin’

  • Where: PlayMakers Repertory Co. at UNC-Chapel Hill

    When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Sept. 8; also, 2 p.m. Sept. 8

    Tickets: $15-$45

    Info: 919-962-7529 or PlayMakersrep.org

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.

“Surviving Twin” has been composed by Wainwright as a posthumous collaboration with his father, the celebrated Life magazine editor and columnist Loudon Wainwright Jr., who attended UNC-CH. Wainwright Jr.’s writing was a staple of Life from 1964 to 1985, when the magazine could still be found on every coffee table in America.

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.

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