Interview with Ken on 'Shakespeare in Hollywood'

By Andrew Ford
Gainesville Sun

It took Ken Ludwig, the two-time Tony-nominated playwright, one day to come up with the idea for "Shakespeare in Hollywood," a play originally commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company that opens tonight at the Gainesville Community Playhouse.

The play is a comedy inspired by the 1934 filming of Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a film that starred James Cagney, Mickey Rooney and Olivia de Havilland. In Ludwig's play, however, the real Oberon and Puck arrive on the movie set by magic and, wooed by Hollywood glitz and glamor, come to play themselves in the film.

When Ludwig met with the Royal Shakespeare Company, his first idea was turned down because there was already a similar play on commission. "I went back to London, back to the hotel room," said Ludwig in a phone interview from Washington, DC. "I supposed they wanted something comic ... I'm an American, so it should have American roots ... there were wonderful movies made in the '20s and '30s. I figured, let's put it in Hollywood. That's very American," Ludwig said.

The Pennsylvanian-born playwright, whose plays include "Lend Me a Tenor," "Crazy For You" and "Moon Over Buffalo," said he chose to adapt "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for several reasons.

"'A Midsummer Night's Dream' is one of my five favorite Shakespeare plays. That particular movie was probably the most famous Shakespeare movie of its day. (Director Max) Reinhardt was interesting, having fled Austria to get away from the Germans. There were a lot of things that resonated from that choice," he said.

"I'm a huge Shakespeare fan. I studied Shakespeare all my life and I had always wanted to write a play with some specific Shakespeare references," Ludwig said. "All my plays have Shakespeare in one way or another."

A native of York, Penn., Ludwig attended Harvard, where he studied music with Leonard Bernstein, and Cambridge University in England, where he studied theater history.

Now based in Washington, D.C., Ludwig has written 14 plays including "Crazy For You," a Tony Award-winner for Best Musical; "Lend Me a Tenor," which received five Tony nominations and won two (Best Direction and Best Actor); and "Moon Over Buffalo," which starred Frank Langella and Joan Collins in London and marked Carol Burnett's return to Broadway in 1995 after 30 years.

Commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company, "Shakespeare in Hollywood" premiered in Washington D.C. in 2003 and won the Helen Hayes award for Best New Play of the Year. Having both studied and taught classes on Shakespeare - including at the Globe Theatre in London - Ludwig conceived the idea of telling a "backstage" story about the filming of a Shakespeare comedy in Hollywood.

"It was fun to actually take on Shakespeare in a head-on way," Ludwig said. "('Shakespeare in Hollywood') gave me an opportunity to dig deeper into issues of classical comedy that I love so much ... while keeping it really light and funny," Ludwig said.

"The one thing you can't do in a comedy is try to be funny. You just have to tell the story. You have to tell it quickly. You have to jump on your cues. The stakes have to be very high. As long as the actors do that, it should work," he said.

"It's similar to 'Lend me a Tenor' in that it's meant for the audience to sit back and have a zany time ... hopefully it has things that interest them intellectually," he said.

Within the play, there are bits of trivia for the more astute audience member. Ludwig was going to name the main female character Olivia de Havilland, but didn't out of concern some part of the play might offend her. "The main female character is not named Olivia de Havilland, but she sure resembles her a lot," he said.

"Ken Ludwig is one of my favorite authors," said Pat Thomson, director of the play and a legal skills professor at the University of Florida Law School. "A lot of the shows this season have to do with the 'behind the scenes' of entertainment ... in a magical way, this (play) shows us how the magic behind the shows equates to the magic of life," she said. "It's interesting to think about what would happen if the real Oberon and Puck came into real life."

Ludwig said he views plays in a holistic way.

"There's a reason 'playwright' is spelt 'playwright.' Writing a play is not sitting back and saying 'I'll be artistic'... in order to amuse an audience and keep them on the edge of their seats, keep them interested in the 'two hours traffic on our stage' as Shakespeare said. It takes an enormous amount of craft, something that you learn how to do."

Ludwig's future projects strive to offer that level of craftsmanship. His "A Fox on the Fairway" had a reading this summer at Signature Theatre, just outside of Washington, D.C.

And he is halfway done writing a stage mystery he was inspired to write after his children enjoyed seeing Agatha Christie's "The Mousetrap" on a family trip to London. "I got to thinking, why do people like stage mysteries so much? Talk about well crafted," Ludwig said.

"It's called 'Poison can be so Glamorous' ... you're the first person I'm telling this to."

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