Interview with Ken Ludwig for the Ford's Theatre production of Leading Ladies
By David Binet, Assistant Director
DB: You set the play “Leading Ladies” in your hometown of York, Pennsylvania. Is there a specific reason you did this?
KL: I loved growing up in York. It’s part of the Amish Country, with beautiful hills and gorgeous farms. More importantly, it’s typically middle-American, with good values and great people; a deep and richly traditional place. I loved the idea of the play being a part of all that.
DB: Your plays are strongly comedic. Do you consciously try to interject a dose of positive psychology in your plays and musicals?
KL: I think it’s impossible to write well without being yourself, and I’m basically an optimist. I take great joy in making people laugh and feel better about themselves. At the same time, I care deeply about changing the world, inching it as best I can, in my own tiny way, toward a climate of tolerance and respect and a sense of humanity. So I tend to write about people changing their lives; and I try to say something about the world – about growth and caring – in the midst of the comedy. Because of this, I’ve always been drawn to the classic comedies that are part of what I call “the great tradition” – Shakespeare’s high comedies, the plays of Goldsmith and Sheridan in the eighteenth century, Shaw and Wilde in the nineteenth, Wilder in the twentieth – and the great screwball film comedies of the 1930s and 40s. All of these plays and films make us laugh with delight; But they also make us think and care and feel more human.
DB: Have any hilarious moments in your life been the basis for the comedy in your plays?
KL: Not in the sense of any specific situations. I’ve never run an opera company for instance, as they do in Lend Me a Tenor. And I’ve never been a Shakespearean actor working in the hills of Pennsylvania. However, my plays reflect the tone of my life, the zany things that seem to occur again and again within the fabric of my life and in the fabric of all our lives. If you knew my family, you’d know what the word “zany” really means.
DB: You recently directed one of your own plays. What are the disadvantages and advantages of directing your own play?
KL: One disadvantage is that you don’t have that extra set of eyes to give you unbiased critical evaluations and comments. ‘Could this specific beat be funnier? Can this stretch move faster?’ So when directing my plays, I try to be only the director during rehearsals, then I revert to being the author during previews. One advantage to directing your own plays is that you know in your head exactly what they're supposed to look like.
DB: As a playwright, it’s important to know how humans behave in order to develop distinct characters. How do you cultivate your understanding and curiosity of human behavior, where do you get your ‘voices’?
KL: My process for coming up with ideas is to lock myself in a room for hours with no distractions and just think it through. I then hear the characters in my mind and see them on the stage acting out the story. The next step is structuring the story, and structure is all-important in plays, especially comedies. All of the comedies I referred to earlier – Shakespeare’s twelfth night, as you like it and much ado about nothing; goldsmith’s she stoops to conquer; Sheridan’s the rivals; Shaw’s arms and the man; Wilder’s the matchmaker - are structured impeccably. Each one is architecturally breathtaking. Growing up, I always wanted to be in the theatre, so I read and saw hundreds and hundreds of plays, both classical and popular. That's the learning part. After that, it’s sheer instinct.
DB: Why bring “Leading Ladies” to Ford’s Theatre?
KL: Its world premiere was at the Alley Theatre in Houston - a theater which I love deeply - when Paul Tetreault was Managing Director. He then came to me and asked to bring it to Ford’s to open this season. Ford’s has a great tradition of presenting a high standard of theatre, and really entertaining its audiences. It’s a popular theatre, and a perfect setting for this production.
DB: Since “Leading Ladies” hasn’t been published yet, when do you know that a play is finished, etched in stone?
KL: Usually, when the play is done on Broadway OR IN LONDON, that’s the definitive production. But you also know by instinct. Something in your head tells you to stop tinkering.
DB: What achievement would be for you the crowning recognition of your work?
KL: For me, my plays are successful if they give people joy – if they uplift them and change them in some positive way. That’s why I write.