by Ken Ludwig and Alison Sundstrom
Earlier this month, to celebrate the release of Ken Ludwig's new book HOW TO TEACH YOUR CHILDREN SHAKESPEARE, Samuel French invited thespians across the country to share their Shakespeare stories for a chance to win autographed copies of HOW TO TEACH YOUR CHILDREN SHAKESPEARE, MIDSUMMER/JERSEY, and SHAKESPEARE IN HOLLYWOOD. We had a wonderful response from veteran performers and new artists alike! All of the stories were sent to Ken Ludwig, who selected his 10 favorite stories as the winners of the giveaway.
Below are the 10 selected stories and Ken Ludwig's response to each. Congratulations to all of the winners!
From Jennifer Stone
I was a theatre student at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point; and we were planning our annual awards banquet. It was scheduled for April 23rd, Shakespeare's birthday. I was given the task of ordering a cake. I told the bakery employee that I was getting a cake in honor of William Shakespeare’s birthday, to be served at the UWSP Players Banquet. She asked me if I wanted anything special on the cake. I thought she meant flowers; but she followed up by saying, "Does he golf or play tennis?"
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: Hilarious. This is one of the best Shakespeare anecdotes I've ever heard (and I've heard a lot of them). I wonder what Shakespeare's favorite sport really was? I'm sure it was something gentle, like snooker. (Remember: Shakespeare's contemporaries used the word "gentle" to describe Shakespeare on several occasions.) Thanks for sharing this.
From Alice Theresa Bliss
I was born at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, Va. At the time, my father was Barter's booking agent and advance man. He met my mother on a booking trip, brought her to Barter, married her, and their (and, subsequently, my first home) was the Barter Inn, the company residence. She acted and was a company manager. About 3 years later, we moved to Richmond and my parents started their own agency, The House of Bliss Celebrity Bureau, Inc.( a name which consistently inspired calls from the IRS as to the nature of the business....) Daddy continued to book Barter throughout the country, and my parents also produced some touring shows as well. One of my very first memories is of waking up in the middle of the night, going down to the kitchen and seeing my mother stirring a large pot, lots of people sitting around the kitchen talking. Turns out this was New Year's Eve, she was dying tights for the tour of "As You Like It" which was to begin in the next couple of days, and the people sitting around were members of the cast, many of whom were sleeping on our living room floor prior to leaving on tour. Among them was a very young at the time Pernell Roberts, some 10 years before "Bonanza" or "Trapper John, M.D." He was our "Orlando." Even better, for years after my dress up trunk was filled with the beautiful Shakespearean costumes from the production- princess satins, a jester's hood and scepter, velvet head dresses, royal robes, and woodsmen's tunics. What more could a girl want!
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: How I envy you your theatrical origins. They reminded my of John Lithgow's theatrical childhood, which he describes in the introduction. I've often fantasized about how my life would have been different if I'd come from a theatrical family. I love to think of myself as an actor and singer. Ah well, a little too late...
From Maria Beach
The first live Shakespeare production I ever saw was a production of TWO GENTLEMEN OF VERONA at the Barter Theatre in Abingdon, VA. I was a bright and bookish eleven year old who was in a gifted reading class. I was thrilled to get to see a real play by Shakespeare. But I was dismayed that I did not understand all of the vocabulary and had a crisis of self-confidence. At one point I thought an actor was telling a monologue about a little dog who piddled under the table on a gentlewoman. I assumed I must be wrong: surely the great and mighty SHAKESPEARE would not write anything so crude, right? Now I have a PhD in Theatre and know that my little-girl self was correct: the bard was indeed telling a joke about a dog urinating. I have classes filled with college students who have never seen a play before and are terrified, so I tell them about the little pissing dog and urge them to trust their instincts and not to freak out if they don't understand every single word.
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: You're so right. I used to tell my own children exactly that: don't worry about every word. No one - and I mean no one - can understand everything that's going on in a Shakespeare play, even if they've studied it in advance. As in opera, just let it roll over you and bask in it. Well done!
From Amy Serafin
My life was changed when I was nine years old and saw my first Shakespeare production - Macbeth. I remembered being completely riveted by the performance and the story. It was performed outdoors in a courtyard near our town's convention center. I thought it was the most amazing thing I ever saw - witches, warriors and cunning ladies. Plus, they used the outdoor staircases and floating walkways between buildings at the venue to substitute for a castle. It was mystical. At the end of the play, they brought Macbeth's head onto the stage, my mother put her hand over my eyes and I quickly shoved it away. Normally, that would have frightened me, but not tonight. I was completely captivated and I wasn't going to miss a moment! That play truly sold me on the magic and the power of theatre. Now, I am an actor and a director and I still think Shakespeare is the Master. I recently saw an interview with theatre director; Anne Bogart and she mentioned that a production of Macbeth that she saw as a young girl inspired her to make a career in theatre. I know that many scholars will debate that Hamlet is the greatest play Shakespeare ever wrote, but for it will and always will be Macbeth. Nothing will ever compare to the play that dazzled and charmed a nine year old into a love affair with theatre!
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: I think you're really on to something with the Hamlet versus Macbeth comparison. I love all the compression in Macbeth. It's small and tight and compact - and we absolutely whizz through it before we have a chance for the next breath. Because it's so short, the language is equally compact and startling. I always feel emotionally spent at the end of it in a way that no other play makes me feel.
From Kasey Cox
My first experience of Shakespeare was, believe it or not, watching the television show "Wishbone" on PBS. They were looking at Romeo and Juliet. I remember thinking that it was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen and, at 9 years old, sought out Juliet's balcony monologue and memorized it.
Ten years later I played Juliet as a theatre major in college. BUT a much better story than the first time I heard it was this. When I was playing Juliet in college, we did the show in a thrust stage setting. During the death scene, many of the audience members were no more than three feet away from me. Romeo entered the tomb, gave a rousing performance of his monologue, but then, just before he drank the poison, I felt him reach under my head a lift me up. Not part of the blocking, but I thought maybe he was just very "in the moment." He put my ear to his lips and very tenderly (and in character) whispered to me. "I forgot the dagger." He then kissed me a laid me, now silently and very motionlessly frantic. Romeo drank the poison and the lucky actor died and left me with no implement with which to kill myself and a mess. So I very quickly ran through the scene in my head and very carefully took out every reference to the poison being gone and the dagger being available. Which left...not much. I said the lines as completely as I could, shouted "Oh, happy vial,” drank the poison that Romeo magically left behind, and then proceeded to improvise a death by poison. The good news is that everyone thought that it was planned all along. Everyone besides the frantic cast waiting in the wings biting their fingernails and trying to devise a plan to slide a dagger across the floor to me.
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: What a terrific anecdote! It's really one for the books, and I plan to dine out on it, as Oscar Wilde might say. It reminds me of another true anecdote about Agatha Christie's play The Mousetrap: at the end of the first act, one of the characters gets strangled by the mysterious killer - who is not revealed until the end of the play. But at one performance, the actor about to be strangled, accidentally shouted: "No! [Fred!] Don't do it!" - thereby giving away the ending of the play and making the whole second act pointless. I like your dagger story even better!
From Pam Leptich
I didn’t always let my principal know what we were doing in class. Maybe this time I should have.
My junior high students were studying Julius Caesar. I often read the modern English version of Shakespeare’s words to my students when they struggled with interpretation of language they didn’t fully comprehend. If I wanted true emotion and empathy between characters, the students needed to “feel” what Shakespeare’s characters felt. Anyway, at the beginning of Act Two, Brutus is in his garden and, after Lucius leaves, Brutus muses to himself about Caesar. “…But ‘tis a common proof, that lowliness is young ambition’s ladder, whereto the climber upward turns his face; but when he once attains the upmost round, he then unto the ladder turns his back, looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees by which he did ascend. So Caesar may; then lest he may, prevent. And since the quarrel will bear no colour for the thing he is, fashion it thus: that what he is, augmented, would run to these and these extremities; and therefore think him as a serpent’s egg, which hatch’d would, as his kind, grow mischievous, and kill him in the shell.” My young Brutus didn’t quite understand what he was saying, so to help him portray appropriate emotion for what Brutus meant, I interpreted thusly...“Everyone knows the ambitious man only acts humble so he can climb the ladder of success. And once he gets to the top, he turns his back on the workers that got him there. Caesar may do the same and if he does he must be stopped. The case against him may be weak now because of the way he seems to be, but if he is allowed to continue he will demand more and more. He is like a snake’s egg. Harmless now, but when hatched will grow dangerous. So he must be stopped now, killed in the shell.” As loose as that translation was, it seemed to mesmerize my young Brutus. He just stared at me, gawking. Then I realized he was looking beyond me to the man standing at the back of the room. My principal had come into the room during my harangue and obviously thought I was talking about him.
You see, the teachers were in the middle of salary negotiations with the administration and the fact that an angry teacher had called the principal “a Caesar” the day before didn’t help. Yep…I was sent to the principal’s office.
“Et tu, Brute?”
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: How hilarious. Poor you. I'll bet that one of the reasons the principal might have misunderstood is because Shakespeare's characterizations are so real. Somehow Shakespeare always managed to capture the essence of individuals - their tiny quirks as well as their overall arcs. Haven't we all met Rosalinds and Olivias and Falstaffs in our time? I take it that you continued to teach at the school, so he must have forgiven you.
From Gwydion Suilebhan
In the fall of 1996, the Baltimore Orioles—the baseball team of which I've been a lifelong fan—returned to the playoffs for the first after a 13-year absence. They had terrific, magnetic players that year, and I couldn't have been any more excited. When I opened up my calendar to circle the dates on which they’d be playing Cleveland, so that I could reserve time to tune in on the radio, I noted that I’d already made plans for one of the dates. I’d bought tickets for a day-long production of Henry VI, Parts 1-3, at the Shakespeare Theatre in DC: an investment I couldn't afford to squander. As it happens, my theater companion was a dear friend I'd known since the seventh grade… and, as it happens, a fellow Orioles fan. He, too, was a bit daunted by the prospect of two full-length plays back-to-back, even with a substantial dinner break between the performances, but we agreed to persevere. I was a veteran theatergoer, but he’d never seen Shakespeare at all and he didn't want to miss the opportunity. I admired his pluck.
And so, on the day in question, my friend and I watched a truly magnificent vision begin to unfold for three-and-a-half hours, sat in my car—skipping dinner—to listen to part of what became an Orioles victory for an hour, then returned to the theater for another three-and-a-half hours to watch Michael Kahn's history arrive at its terrifying, magical conclusion. By the end, we were both transformed. The battles of past and present, the dual entertainments, the toll of all that paid attention: it had eaten us up.
And my friend had instantly become as dedicated a fan of Shakespeare as he had been of the Baltimore Orioles: more so, even, perhaps. I will never forget that experience.
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: Baseball and Shakespeare seem to me to be a perfect pair. They both inspire such wonderful fanaticism and loyalty. If you're a baseball lover, nothing else compares. (I understand that cricket inspires the same kind of loyalty in England.) And if you love Shakespeare - as you now do - you'll find that learning more and more about his plays becomes a crusade. It not only makes you smarter and wiser: it's also just fun! (And the history plays, with their forward momentum and battles and patriotism are such a great place to start.) Congrats on adding Falstaff to Babe Ruth. What a perfect pair.
From Barbara Rowell
In 1959 I was a member of the professional company at the Erie Playhouse, Erie PA. In an effort to bring Shakespeare to the area schools, we would tour during the day with a cut version of a Shakespearean play to schools within a 75 mile radius of Erie. This particular time a stalwart troupe of 8 headed by our director, Newell Tarrant, would leave the playhouse at 6 a.m. dressed in costume and make-up to make the first assembly of the day at 9 a.m.
After many performances later of "Julius Caesar", we weary actors would try to break the monotony...I was one of three women in the cast, and backstage we were the crowd of hundreds. Instead of yelling "Caesar....Caesar....Casear" we began the crowd scenes with "Squeeze her.....squeeze her.....etc." No one was the wiser, except 3 very tired actresses looking for a break!
We made quite a scene when we stopped at hamburger stops along the way...we did receive stares back in the day...."We're Actors!" We would get back to the Playhouse in time to relax in the Green Room, change into costumes and make-up for the nightly performance of "L'il Abner" starring Natalie Ross as Daisy Mae! I LOVE THE THEATRE! This lasted for 3 weeks! Another year we toured "Twelfth Night"...my twin brother had better looking legs in tights than I did!
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: Eight actors doing Shakespeare plays for kids: what could be better. I'm sure the discipline (and the exhaustion) has lasted you a lifetime. I think it's also terrific that you alternated Shakespeare with really great popular entertainment. I'm a particular fan of L'iI Abner. Do you know the movie based on the Broadway musical? It's perfect. And it's wonderful to see how Shakespearean comedy is the basis of so many of the plots and characters - and spirit - of American musical comedy at its best.
From Nathan Bradshaw
In the fall of 1993, I was a very precocious seven-year-old on my way to getting very dirty looks from a theatre full of very senior citizens, and it was all my father’s fault. He had raised me on Charles and Mary Lamb’s “Tales from Shakespeare” and had decided that I was finally old enough to go to my first live performance—and what was the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival performing? Not a tragedy of great depth, nor a history of great dignity, but a comedy. Nor was it just any comedy—it was maybe the bawdiest, raunchiest, most innuendo-ridden piece of sexual satire in the canon: The Taming of the Shrew.
I put on my very best (and only) tie, my very best (and only) suit jacket, and my first pair of actual dress shoes, and I listened to my father’s stern lecture on theatre etiquette as patiently as I could manage. I had been there and done that—movie theatres, local college productions, children’s plays—but I understood that the stakes were higher here: THIS was Shakespeare. My father, who lectured for the Festival, had received front-row seats for their performance at Montreat College, the home turf of Billy Graham and the strictest of strictly conservative religious blue-hairs of the Bible Belt. As we walked in, all of them noticed the youngest member of the audience looking solemn and awed, and they nodded and smiled in polite approval. They understood that I was on my way to being an urbane, sophisticated young man of the highest values. I was not attending just any cultural event, after all: THIS was Shakespeare.
The lights finally went down, the artistic director came out to welcome everybody, and after the dignified applause, the curtains finally opened. The introduction to the play passed uneventfully, as did the expository first act. I was paying rapt attention and keeping quite the respectful silence, despite my huge grin at getting to see the difference between the words as I had known them—on a page—and as I now saw them dancing between actors on the stage. And then Petruchio met Kate (and no, I will not call her Katharina, for she is call’d plain Kate, and bonny Kate and sometimes Kate the curst). Allan Hickle Edwards and Beth Slaby, who were to become my imagination’s default cast for any theatre from that moment on, took over the stage and set about wooing and warring in violent slapstick filled with bawdy comedy. Every line from Kate came with a new attempt at physical assault, and every response from Petruchio turned both word and deed into an opportunity to poke, pinch, peck, and otherwise provoke the shrew with lewd banter and playful physical liberties. The retirees in the audience were stone-faced and silent in their disapproval of such indecency. You could almost hear a pin drop in between the actors’ lines. Almost—but for one irreverent and uncontrollable stream of laughter erupting from the front row.
Did I understand all the puns, all the plays on social mores, all the jokes about pregnancy? Of course not—precocity did not preclude my being merely seven. But I certainly knew the right way to respond when a cocky man suffers a kick on the rear to direct him offstage, or when an angry woman receives in return a playful smack on the rear after boasting of her waspish sting. I could not contain my delight at such a display of hilarity and physical childishness from two adults—and the other, less childish adults in the room could not contain their disdain for yet another youth lost to impropriety. As I regarded one matron of furrowed brows and she regarded one child of cackling lips in return, we both had the same thought of each other: such a waste. But I understood far better than she ever had been capable of, as I tried to bury my face in my father’s arm to control my laughter at Petruchio’s question, “What, with my tongue in your tail? nay, come again, good Kate; I am a gentleman!”—I knew why these plays had remained at the center of our culture for four centuries and why I would look forward to the Festival’s return every year from then on, why I would major in English, perform in a few dozen scenes and plays by the Bard (whom my lisp wisely named “Bawd” at seven), direct “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” as a student and have both “Kiss Me Kate” and “Shakespeare in Hollywood” on my wish list to direct as a teacher—I knew then why I was destined to return again and again to the theatre for laughter and tears, each spilling into the other: THIS was Shakespeare.
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: It sounds to me that you had the best Shakespeare education possible. What a wise father! Charles and Mary Lamb's "Tales from Shakespeare" is one of my favorite books of all time. They somehow captured the spirit of the plays, while telling the stories with great momentum and integrity. And seeing the Taming of the Shrew is the best, best, best start I can imagine. A good knockabout Shakespeare comedy is just right for kids. Whether we get all the references or not doesn't matter (though it's exciting as a kid to get some of the bawdy stuff). I hope you get to direct Shakespeare in Hollywood soon! Keep me posted!
From Rick Clark
My first experience with Shakespeare: I was living in England (this was 1979 to 1980) and my mom was appearing in a production of "Midsummer Night's Dream" at the local community theatre. I have distinct memories of being such a theatre rat, sitting in the auditorium of the Bedford Civic Theatre, listening to the strange language and seeing the differences in bearing between and among the Mechanicals, the Royals, and the Fairies. My mom was playing Titania and she was so beautiful and powerful. I became hooked then and there. Soon after that, my school took a trip to the Royal Shakespeare Company and watching MSND in the Cottesloe Theatre and I remember sitting in profile to Puck as the actor bounded into the audience. What I remember most about that moment was the amount of spit showering the audience as Puck spouted his spells and jokes. I've used that moment to teach my own acting students about committing to the role and to the clarity of the diction. But it all started in that little theatre in a small town outside of London, watching my mom turn those words into something believable and imminently watchable.
Ken Ludwig's Reaction: Lucky you. How magical to watch your mother play Titania. I was lucky enough to see my mother, also, act in a local theater near my home in York Pennsylvania when I was about ten. She was in a play called Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin. I adored my mother and it's a memory that I'll never forget as long as I live. I'm also a huge fan of community theaters. They bring so much to our lives. And to see your mom in such a magical, emotional part must have been transformative. It takes my breath away.