A Conversation with Ken Ludwig
Interviewed by AACT's Ron Ziegler
RZ: As you know, your plays are widely produced in community theatres around the country and around the world. Do you have any personal background in community theatre?
Ken Ludwig: I do have a background in community theatre. I grew up in the town of York, Pennsylvania; York has a wonderful community theatre called the York Little Theatre. And when my parents moved to York, before I was born, my mother was heavily involved in York Little Theatre and played roles there. In fact, I've just recently found one of her play scripts, signed by her, and I was just thrilled! So it's very much a part of our life. I also remember auditioning for a role. They were doing The Music Man and I was in high school and I probably was 16 or something. But I was determined. I wanted to lay the lead because I had memorized all of Harold Hill's great patter songs (I can still just do them off the top of my head). I really wanted that role. They were very sweet; they let me audition and I did it, but obviously they weren't going to have a 16 year old kid play Harold Hill. I should have played Tommy! And so they let me down easy. So absolutely I love community theatre.
RZ: Besides being a playwright you are also a director, correct?
Ken Ludwig: Yes, I've done directing all my life. I directed shows in college, and then I started directing professionally on and off as I wrote. But I love directing. The only trouble with directing for me at this moment is I still have a son in high school. If you want to direct, you're gone from your hometown for six to eight weeks at a time and that's something I just can't do at this point.
RZ: When you direct your own plays do you ever find yourself wanting to change your script because as a director you've gained a different perspective?
Ken Ludwig: Oh absolutely. I'll direct a piece and then I'll discover I didn't leave enough time for this person to change before an entrance or something. That might be the sort of elemental thing I discover. But the other, more profound circumstance is, if I find that in directing a scene, it ultimately doesn't pay off or work in the way that I want it to. And then it would be a matter of me turning to the playwright and saying "Hey, you know, write better!”
RZ: Or asking the playwright if you could make changes?
Ken Ludwig: Exactly. One of the times I directed, at the Alley Theatre--directing Leading Ladies for the world premiere production-- I bought this little pink hand puppet and I said, "Now listen, when I'm directing I'm not the playwright. She is the playwright. So don't ask me to change a lot, because I'm the director. Talk to the playwright.” It's so easy for an actor to say, "Gee, that doesn't work Ken, could you change my line?” Playwrights slave away trying to get lines right. As Oscar Wilde said, he spent one morning putting a comment in and then in the afternoon taking it out. You're very careful about every choice you make as a playwright and you don't want to make changes willy-nilly.
RZ: Do the characters and situations in your plays—as farcical as they may be at times—have a basis in real life, specifically in your real life?
Ken Ludwig: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. Take a play like Lend Me a Tenor. People said to me, "Hey, Ken, that Max, that's you!” If you don't know the play it's about a young man who wants to be an opera star and believes he has it inside him but no one else sees it. In the course of the play he proves it to the world, proves it to himself and he gains self-confidence. I went to law school because thought I needed something to fall back on. And so I spent time practicing law as sort of my day job, and I wanted to be in the theatre more than anything else, and I always did, ever since I was a kid. And I had always felt that I had this ability inside me. I had this sense of what art really is about and trying to communicate it to people and trying to make people happy and trying to give people courage and trying to make people proud of themselves and having a sense of worth and humanity. And that's what mattered to me and I thought I could convey that. But I had to prove it. In the course of the play Max proves it. Actually, Crazy for You is the same story as it turns out. Some people have said when you're a writer you often end up telling the same story all your life. That's one example.
A more specific example is in Leading Ladies. Well you know the old lady who's dying – you think she's dying – I mean, that's my godmother exactly to a T. She was funny. She had a sense of humor. She was curmudgeonly. There was nothing delicate about her. She was tough as nails but she looked frail as she got older. Meg in that play, I knew a hundred Megs. I've certainly known in my life Leo and Jack. I've known them in my work in London and in New York, they're actors who really think they can make it but just haven't had the chance or haven't had the right break and at the same time they want a real life or a life with children and wives and children. So, really, everybody I write, they very much come from real life.
RZ: I've always thought the dialogue you write for your characters rings true and strikes me as honest.
Ken Ludwig: That's a real complement. That's sort of a deep complement that people not in our business wouldn't understand. That's really what I strive for, and it's so easy as a playwright, or any kind of writer, to fall back on mannerisms or things that you think are cute. When you read pulp novels or bad plays you see it all the time. Finding that sense of honesty in a real simple way is in many ways the trick. It's the skill of being a playwright.
RZ: Your love of theatricality and the theatre itself as source material for your plays is obvious; many of your plays have theatrical settings. They also have a sense of theatre history and of tradition.
Ken Ludwig: Yes, and part of the reason for that is that because I've always loved the theatre so much and wanted to be part of this since I was a kid. I think I've always put it on a pedestal and said, "this is the world I'd like to live in.” And it makes me happy and it gives me courage, and so I tried to use theatre as a metaphor for all of life. And it's been a way for me to write about things I care about.
RZ: What are you working on right now?
Ken Ludwig: Well, first of all, a couple of new plays are opening in this season. An organization that represents high school in America asked me to write a play for high schools in America and I wrote a play called Midsummer Jersey, which is an adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream set on the Jersey shore. I've written a children's play for the first time, a new play called T'was the night before Christmas, and that's about how an elf and mouse and a little girl save Christmas when a "fallen elf” (like out of Milton) has turned into a "pirate-like” character. He tries to steal Christmas by stealing the naughty and nice list. It wouldn't be so bad except last year he stole Santa's sleigh and tried to sell it to Wal-Mart, so Santa's on to him. And then I have a play opening at the Cleveland Playhouse. They're just opening a new, big $40 million space; we're going to be the very first people to ever to go into these rehearsal spaces and so they're all excited. That play is called The Game's Afoot. It's a comedy thriller about man named William Gillette who was a great, great matinee idol who wrote the play Sherlock Holmes. He actually played Holmes for 30 years on Broadway on and off, and he would often take his cast in a boat up to his castle up on the Connecticut River for a weekend of fun and games and a very elegant weekend. So I thought wouldn't it be fun if a murder occurred during one of those weekends, and if he tried to solve it and in a sense becomes Sherlock Holmes.
RZ: That sounds like fun.
Ken Ludwig: It was fun to write. It's something like Deathtrap or Sleuth. There hasn't been one of those around for a long time. I thought it would be fun to try to write one.
RZ: I appreciate your talking with me, and I look forward to meeting you in person next summer in New York at our event.
Ken Ludwig: Yeah, me too!
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