Wainwright Deals with Father-Son Relationships in ‘Surviving Twin’
By Annette Hinkle
Growing up in the shadow of a famous parent is never easy — especially if you share the same name and went to the same boarding school.
But dual identity has always been a fact of life for singer, songwriter and actor Loudon Wainwright III, who is the son of Loudon Wainwright Jr., the famed journalist and widely read Life magazine columnist. And technically, speaking there’s another Loudon Wainwright in the mix — Wainwright’s grandfather, which maybe help explain why, when the time came, Loudon Wainwright III chose to name his own (now famous) son Rufus.
The notion of father/son relationships — specifically that of Loudon Wainwright III and his late dad — is the subject of “Surviving Twin,” a theatrical, musical and autobiographical performance piece that Wainwright brings to the Bay Street Theater stage for two performances this weekend.
Though his father died in 1988, Wainwright explains that the impetus for “Surviving Twin,” which he describes as a post-humous collaborative piece with music, words and family photos, came about when he was in Maine a few years ago.
“I was doing a show and staying in a rustic cabin and there was an old magazine rack with copies of Life magazine, and my dad’s “A View from Here” column,” explained Wainwright in a recent phone interview.
“He worked at Life when Life was rocking,” added Wainwright. “So, in addition to being an editor and columnist, he was a reporter and he covered a lot of stuff. He was with Robert Kennedy when he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel during the 1968 campaign.
He had a reel to reel tape interview with Martin Luther King.
“He traveled the world and lived the journalist’s life of hard drinking, partying and meeting deadlines.”
So while he was staying in that cabin in Maine, Wainwright picked up an old Life magazine (Trisha Nixon was on the cover, he recalled) and began flipping through it. He came across “A View from Here” and sat down to read his dad’s words about John Henry, the family dog which had recently been put down.
“I laughed. It’s a funny piece of writing, and sure enough by the end I was in tears,” said Wainwright. “I knew the writer and the dog. It was a strong piece of writing, and that made me want to reread, or in some cases read for the first time, my dad’s columns from the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s.”
Wainwright has incorporated many of his father’s words into “Surviving Twin,” which he premiered in 2013 at PlayMakers Repertory Company in Chapel Hill, North Carolina — coincidentally home of his father’s alma mater. In the years since, he has performed the piece in Los Angeles and London, along the way working with a few different directors, including actor Daniel Stern, and altering it here and there.
“I’m tweaking it, but it feels to me that’s it done,” says Wainwright. “It’s gone through some changes and it’s a pretty solid 80 minutes with 12 of my songs and seven of my dad’s columns and selections of his other writings, including letters to his mother written when he was in the Marine Corps.”
“It’s me and my dad. We’re out there for 80 minutes playing creative catch,” said Wainwright. “I love sharing his work. I love doing it for my audience.”
When asked if there’s something about where he is in his life that made him want to explore his relationship with his late father through words and music, Wainwright said, “I guess I am working through a lot of things. ‘Surviving Twin,’ for me, is a powerful experience to inhabiting him.”
He explains that one of the pieces in the performance, “Disguising the Man,” is about a suit that Wainwright’s father bought in Saville Row in London in 1965.
“During the show, I put the suit on, and am literally inhabiting my father,” he said.
When asked to describe what he thinks of his father’s work all these years after his death, Wainwright responded, “I was knocked out by the writing. He was an elegant writer, funny, incisive and moving. So there was an impulse to want to share that writing, though he’s been dead for more than 25 years.”
“I think it has deepened my appreciation of him,” he added. “We had not a great father/son relationship. There was some competition going on. We had the same name, went to the same boarding school and we were both egocentric, I think it’s safe to say.
“But after reading the columns and constructing the show, I think it gave me an appreciation about my father I didn’t maybe have before,” said Wainwright. “Like everyone else, he was a complicated person.”
Wainwright is currently working with his old friend, director Christopher Guest, and producer Judd Apatow to make a film version of “Surviving Twin.” If the piece is largely defined with words supplied by Wainwright’s father, then it is made complete by the music of the son himself. The 12 songs included in “Surviving Twin” cover the width and breadth of Wainwright’s long musical career.
“The oldest one was written in 1974 — ‘Dilated to Meet You,’ which is about waiting for my son Rufus to be born,” he said. “Then they go up until 2016 and cover the range of my whole career. The show is designed so songs fit in with my dad’s writing.”
And perhaps because they shared so much by nature of birth and circumstance, when it came time to chart his own career path, Wainwright decided not to follow in his father’s footsteps.
“I watched him be a writer and he was successful in it. I decided I didn’t want to go down that road,” he said. “I wound up being a writer, but I was a songwriter and performer, something different.”
But recently, Wainwright emulated his father in a way he might not have imagined doing a few decades ago — he has written a book, a memoir, which came out just last week.
“It’s called ‘Liner Notes,’ with the subtitle ‘…On parents and children, exes and excess, death and decay and a few of my other favorite things,’” said Wainwright who worked three years on the book. “There’s a lot about my parents, and my kids and family. I’m getting stuff out.”
It’s probably a good time to get around to doing just that, given that last week, Loudon Wainwright III hit another milestone — he turned 71.
“When you get to this point, something happens in regard to the huge people in your life — including your parents,” said Wainwright. “An element of forgiveness kicks in. I appreciate my father more now. He’s been gone a long time. You also have your own kids, and I’ve been through battles with my own.”
“It’s a matter of forgiveness and acceptance.”
“Surviving Twin” will be presented by Loudon Wainwright III on Friday, September 15 and Saturday, September 16 at 8 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. Tickets are $35 to $55 and available online at baystreet.org or by calling (631) 725-9500.