Ken Ludwig wins Falstaff Award

By Ron Charles for The Washington Post

Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig knows how to make people laugh. His farce “Lend Me a Tenor” is one of the classic comedies of the 20th century. So it’s no surprise that he’s also a serious student of the master comic playwright William Shakespeare.

Two years ago, Ludwig shared his love for the Bard in a smart, engaging manual called “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.” And this week that title has won a Falstaff Award for Best Book from PlayShakespeare.com, an online resources for all things Shakespearean.

“How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” could just as easily be titled “How to Teach Yourself Shakespeare.” Ludwig takes readers through nine plays — from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to “The Tempest” — with a heavy emphasis on the rich language of the dramas.

He unabashedly uses the M-word — “memorization” — even though he knows it’s out of style.

“People have this incorrect view that if you can look something up, that’s just as good as knowing it. But that gives you a really false sense that you know something. When you memorize something, it just sticks with you forever,” he said.

And kids, he insists, “love to memorize!”

In fact, this book was inspired by his daughter when she came home from first grade one day reciting a line from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”: “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.”

Ken Ludwig (Photo Credit Leslie Cashen)
Author and playwright Ken Ludwig (Photo credit Leslie Cashen)
He began setting aside a couple of hours each weekend to teach her and his son favorite passages from Shakespeare. Now, they’re in college and high school, but he says they can still recite about 1,000 lines.

I gently suggested that maybe the children of a world-famous playwright are unusually responsive to Shakespeare. “What if your kids are just ordinary kids, out in the backyard eating sand?” I asked.

No, Ludwig insists, anybody with a little patience and a sense of fun can enjoy introducing the poetry of these plays to children. He gets letters all the time from parents — non-Tony-winning parents — who have used his book to wonderful effect: “One woman sent me pictures of her family cross-country skiing as they yelled out lines from ‘Midsummer’s Night’s Dream.’”

The first challenge, Ludwig says, is to stop feeling intimidated. “Most adults are afraid of Shakespeare,” he admits, “but they shouldn’t be. And the way to make them less afraid is to say, ‘This is not as complicated as it looks.’” His book shows how to take short, pithy passages and give yourself time to hear, memorize and understand the language.​

As schools shift away from literature and grow increasingly obsessed with test scores, Ludwig thinks the need is greater than ever for parents to help their children appreciate Shakespeare. “If they’re going to live a rich life and have a part of their soul taken care of, if they want to be humanized,” there’s no better place to start, he said.

“He is our modern Bible.”

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