Interview by Sandra Davidson | Editing support by Scott Stegall | Archival images courtesy Ira David Wood III
A native North Carolinian, Ira David Wood III was raised rural in Halifax County. Realizing his passion for theater in high school, Wood was invited to join the inaugural class of the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965. After graduating, Wood deliberately chose to stay in North Carolina to build a career in theater.
As an arts advocate and founder and Executive Director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, he’s inspired countless North Carolinians, including author David Sedaris and his Golden Globe nominated daughter actress Evan Rachel Wood, to pursue careers in the arts. He’s currently the Director of The Lost Colony, the longest-running outdoor drama in America, and his comedic adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – performed annually since 1974 - is a Raleigh institution. Wood is a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Tell me where you’re from and describe what role the arts played in your childhood.
I was born and bred in the briar patch in Halifax County, North Carolina, in a small southern town called Enfield. I was a Future Farmer of America in high school, not by choice. That was just what you did with your life, and that was what you were raised to expect your life was going to be. You were going to spend it on a farm in this community. There was no drama department in our school. I started writing my own plays and putting them on for high school assemblies. One day, the guidance counselor walked up to me, and he said, “You belong with a bunch of other crazy people like yourself.” And I said, “Well, where would that be?” and he said, “You know, there’s a place called the Governor’s School of North Carolina. You have to audition to get in.” My guidance counselor drove me to Greenville where I auditioned for the Governor’s School. To my absolute shock and amazement, I was accepted, and I spent my summer on the campus of Salem College in Winston-Salem in Governor’s School.
While I was there, this wonderful Italian man came and spoke to us. His name was Vittorio Giannini. He was the first Chancellor of the School of the Arts which was set to open the next year, 1965. The School of the Arts was, at the time, the only school in the Western hemisphere that taught dance, drama, music, and academics under the same roof. I auditioned and went back home to Enfield. I was sitting in vocational agriculture class one day. We were learning about how much liquid drains off of a manure pile over a period of time. I kid you not. The principal’s voice came on the speaker: “David Wood. Come to the office.” I was very nervous, and I started walking down the long hallway in our school towards the principal’s office, and I look way down at the end of hall, and my mother was standing there. So, I was ready for the last cigarette and a blindfold. When I got to mom I looked up, and I said, “What is it? What’s wrong?” She said, “Nothing. You’ve been accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts. This is the last time I will see you walk down this hallway.” That was pretty powerful and changed my life.
I say that, but I add this to that statement: I have quoted my vocational agriculture teacher more than I’ve quoted Shakespeare because my vocational agriculture teacher taught us that you can take so much out of the soil, but if you keep taking and taking from the soil without putting something back, the soil becomes depleted, and it won’t grow new life. That has been my life’s quest—to put something back. That’s why rather than going to New York or to California, I’ve remained in North Carolina because it’s my home.
I know there are still young people who are like me out there somewhere, who think that they are odd and strange and different in a negative sort of way because they had rather practice the piano than football. They are put through hell, often. As Helen Hayes said, “We lose some of our greatest talent early on because they can’t survive that.” That’s why I think it’s so important to locate, as I have, in Raleigh where I hope to make a difference culturally.
What drew you to theater specifically?
My father died when I was 12 years old. When death passes across your life like that, you lose your childhood. And mine was taken away from me when I was 12. So I retreated into a world of make believe. It was a world I could control. It was a world that death had no place in. I think that was initially drew me into theater. It was a safety net.
When I finally was accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965, I walked onto a square foot of the universe that I knew belonged to me. I was around other young people who shared my love and my passion for theater, for the arts. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was like a sponge. I got the lead in the first play put on at School of the Arts which was a great honor for me. I met incredible people—Agnes De Mille, José Ferrer, Helen Hayes, and Paul Green. While I was at the school, I was invited to spend my summers as a leading actor in Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, and that too changed my life. Skip forward years after that, I was asked to go back as director of The Lost Colony, and that was a great honor. This will be my sixth year as director of the oldest and, we think, the best outdoor drama in America.
I’ve been able to stay in North Carolina and have an incredible career. I have done movies without leaving the state. I’ve had three books published. I write plays. I have my own theater. We’ve made a difference. We’ve changed lives, and we’ve touched hearts. I’ve seen young people come in who have gone on now to greater things in bigger arenas. That warms my heart. I turn 70 this year. I can’t believe that, and I know I’m closer to the end than the beginning. But someone asked me once, “What is the greatest line you ever got to say on the stage?” And for me it was playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. It was one line when Aldonza turns to him and says, “Why do you do the things you do?” And he looks at her, and he says, “I hope to add a measure of grace to this world.” That’s been my quest. There’s a theater in Raleigh that wasn’t there before. There are young people who are out pursuing wonderful careers who, maybe, wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for some Future Farmer of America who decided to put something back into the soil and to stay in his home state and to make a career. I’ve raised a family here, and I love it. It’s home for me and always will be.
Will you talk about when your path intersected with the North Carolina Arts Council?
Well, years ago I met the North Carolina Arts Council, and we became good friends. I did a lot of television commercials for the Arts Council. It was a wonderful learning experience for me telling the world about this incredible state. We’re the first arts council, the symphony, the School of the Arts, the oldest outdoor drama. We are a state of so many firsts. The list is unbelievable when you really sit down and get to know it. Through grants from the Arts Council, I was able to go into schools and, again, to talk to young people, and to tell them, “Yes, you are different. But you’re different in a positive way, not a negative way, and you need to be around other people who share your same passion and joy.”
Young people are the future. The arts should be a part of their lives, and the Arts Council, and the state of North Carolina has helped to make that a reality.
What would you say to someone about the value of public dollars to fund the arts?
Why should people invest in the arts? Investing in the arts is investing in the heart and soul of our nation, and particularly the young people who will be the future of our nation. The arts are all about communication, and if we need to learn anything in this day and age it is how to communicate better with each other. It’s to forget our differences to overcome them, to have civil discourse, and the arts enable us to do that. Theater, for instance, is a wonderful pulpit where the medicine doesn’t have to taste bad to do good.
Good theater, good art transcends all the barriers—race, color, creed, politics, religion, nationality. Once we’re able to do that, transcend the barriers, and sit down with each other, country to country, person to person, political party to political party, we change the universe. We create a light that goes forever. I believe it is that powerful.
So, how do you measure that? How do you say, “My dollar makes a difference?” That’s up to you to look and to measure because you have to find what matters to you: if it is a concert, if it is a ballet performance, if it is a theater performance, if it’s a work of art hanging on the wall. I know a person who wanted to commit suicide and walked into an art museum, saw a painting on the wall, and it changed his life. What is that worth? That painting has a value, but it also has a worth, and we have to get clear on that. There’s a dollar value to everything around us, but there’s also a worth. What theater, what the arts are worth is incalculable.
Going off of that, I think about your daughter testifying in Congress. She’s using her platform as an artist to raise awareness. Your son is also in the arts. Do you think them growing up in this community theater context has a particular kind of effect on how they see the power of the arts?
Oh, yes. When my children were young, we used to bring them to the theater when we would perform. I remember one night we were doing Othello. I was doing Iago, and my wife had to die onstage every night. Othello choked her to death—strangled her. My kids were sleeping in sleeping bags right offstage in the prop room, and the door was open. Every night, when Othello finally strangled Desdemona, they’d wake up, they’d look out, and they’d look to each other and go, “Mom died really well tonight,” and they would go back to sleep. So, this theater was their playhouse. I would pass by some days and look in, and my daughter would be sitting alone on the stage doing a monologue that she was making up. I just quietly watched. I’ve heard her speak now, so eloquently and beautifully, not long ago, to a Congressional committee. I sit back, and I marvel. Kahlil Gibran said, “Our children are arrows that we shoot.” We don’t know where they’re going to land, but we’re the bow that sends them forward, and we hope we’re aiming it in the right direction. I look at my grown children now, and I’m so proud of them. I’m so humbled by who and what they have become.
How has the theater community in North Carolina evolved?
When I first came to Raleigh [many] years ago, there were six to eight theaters in this town. Most of them were university theaters. Now there are over seventy companies. Seventy. So, in a way, we’re going through something of a renaissance. When, for instance, the politicians took away the incentive for major motion pictures to come to North Carolina, independent movies began to flourish. I did three independent movies this year. So, it’s like that line in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way.” The other thing that’s been incredible has been the Research Triangle Park because it has brought people in from all over the world. Those people, in some cases, have come from larger metropolitan areas who have incredible arts programs, incredible theater, symphony orchestras, dance companies, and they have demanded better quality from us as performers. It’s been a wonderful, reciprocal thing where the audience has come up in what they expect and demand, and we’ve come up to meet that demand.
I think if we’ve done anything, perhaps we’ve taught a few people that the arts can be a main course in your life, not just a dessert. It can be a wonderful main course. You come into a place like this. You sit in the dark with strangers, and you go through incredible emotions. You’re moved to laughter and tears. If you’re lucky, the process of communication, which is what all art really is, goes a dimension deeper and becomes what I call communion. That’s when souls meet on one wavelength. It changes your life as good art should always do. And once you’ve been there and had that moment, you want it again and again and again.