Ken Ludwig returns to York for 'Leading Ladies' production at YLT

By Erin McCracken
For The York Daily Record

Ken Ludwig has been to Broadway. He's won Tony Awards. Big stars have read his lines.

But, from time to time, the playwright's thoughts drift back to York County.

"It's such an artistic area," he said during a recent phone interview from his Washington, D.C., home. "I remember being surrounded by the arts. The German roots of the community are very musical."

Ludwig said that when he was a child, seeing a play at York Little Theatre was "an enormous treat." In the summers, his family would pile into the car and drive to Totem Pole or Allenberry playhouses.

Ludwig still considers a trip to YLT to be a treat. He said he was delighted the theater staff invited him to view its production of his comedy "Leading Ladies."The play opens Friday, and Ludwig is scheduled to see the Sunday matinee.

His visit comes after a period of economic decline at YLT.

In 2010, the theater reached the end of its line of credit. Later that year, it eliminated three staffers and, because of its financial troubles, lost funding from the Cultural Alliance of York County.

"It's been the same story all around the country," Ludwig said of YLT's problems. "The arts are in danger. It's so wrong. They are not a luxury. That's what feeds our souls."

But last month, YLT announced good news: The theater's deficit has dropped. Attendance, theater class enrollment and volunteer participation are all up. Corporate donors pledged $236,000 to a fundraising campaign.

Ludwig said he was glad that YLT has rebounded, especially since theater is crucial for childhood development.

From an early age, Ludwig knew he wanted to be a thespian. Acting was the obvious thing to do in his young eyes. When he was a little older, he saw that there were jobs - costumer, set designer, producer - behind the scenes.

By the time he attended York Suburban Senior High School, he was involved in theater and band. He acted and, when the school staged a play with all-female roles, he worked as an assistant director. He started to write scripts in his early teens.
"I loved all things literary," he said. "I studied literature . . . and that took me to Shakespeare. I never studied playwriting; I grew into it."

Ludwig studied traditions and titans of English and American stage comedy, including George Farquhar, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. Ludwig said he tries to not name his modern favorites, but added that Woody Allen scripts will last forever as great comedic works.

"A comedy is not just about laughing," Ludwig said. "It's not just about seeing a play with a happy ending. It has to do with the world that's created. It makes you think differently. It raises social concerns (to help the audience) understand our common humanity."

After studying music theory at Haverford College, he went onto Harvard Law School, which led to a subsequent scholarship to England's Cambridge University. While earning a law degree, he studied music with Leonard Bernstein and theater history.

After school, Ludwig practiced law to pay the bills and wrote plays at night. He never felt the need to live in The Big Apple to be close to Broadway. He opted to live in Washington, D.C., to be near his older brother, Gene, instead.

In the '80s, Ludwig was able to switch to being a full-time writer and part-time lawyer following the success of "Sullivan and Gilbert," which was staged at the Kennedy Center, and "Lend Me a Tenor," which won two Tony awards.

Ludwig's success continued in rapid succession.

"I've often thought about coming back to York or having a weekend place," he said. "I've been so busy, I haven't been able to follow through with it."

Inspiration sprung from his memories of his godparents' farm near Spry. He used York as the backdrop for "Leading Ladies," which hit the stage in 2004.

"The storyline is based on part of a novel by Mark Twain," he said. "Most of my comedies are set in small towns that I'm familiar with. Comedies thrive on the society in which they're set."

Ludwig said that's why he's interested to see "Leading Ladies" on YLT's stage. He gets several invitations to stagings of his plays all around the world, but, aside from Broadway premieres, he said he rarely attends.

"Going to see my plays . . . makes me feel like I'm living in the past," he said. "This will be a unique opportunity. I'm proud to be doing it."

Even though he's known for comedy, Ludwig's works span several genres. He's been commissioned by theaters to write stage adaptations. He's worked on historical dramas and has penned screenplays, including one for the recent Muppets movie. Studios usually ask a few writers to work on screenplays for one project, he said, and ultimately, movie writers have little control over their scripts.

He recently wrote a children's play, finished a script for a thriller and completed a manuscript for a book on how to teach kids Shakespeare.

"I'm really embarking on the next comedy - another sort of small-town (story) with eight characters," Ludwig said. "Like storytellers, you start out with a blank page; it's exciting. I write about things that I care deeply about. Raising my children has been a major influence."

When Ludwig mentioned his two teenage children, it reminded him to check the time. He said he had to run.

"I have to take my son to a music lesson," he explained. "(He) plays oboe."

About Ken Ludwig's visit

Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig will visit York Little Theatre for the production of his comedy "Leading Ladies" 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 5. He will be the guest of honor at a 1 p.m. reception before the show and will make remarks at 2 p.m. He will also host a brief question-and-answer session after the show and will sign copies of his play anthology, which will be available for purchase. Autographed copies of the book can be ordered by calling 854-3894.

While Ludwig is at the theater, federal, state and local officials from York County will present him with a proclamation that makes Sunday Ken Ludwig Day.

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