Interview with Playwright Ken Ludwig
Also see David's review of The Game's Afoot (Or Holmes for the Holidays)
Ken Ludwig is one of the most successful playwrights working in the American theater. He is known for Crazy for You, Lend Me a Tenor, Twentieth Century, Shakespeare in Hollywood, Leading Ladies, The Fox on the Fairway, Moon Over Buffalo and many other audience-pleasing plays. His new play, The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays), was the backdrop for our conversation.
The Game's Afoot deals with William Gillette, the nineteenth-century actor who co-authored with Arthur Conan Doyle a play titled Sherlock Holmes. Gillette played Holmes in the play on Broadway in 1899.
David Ritchey: Why Sherlock Holmes?
Ken Ludwig: I wanted to write a comedy, mystery thriller. I visited the Gillette castle in Connecticut and thought this would be the perfect setting for a Sherlock Holmes mystery that features William Gillette as the leading manthis leading man wants to be Sherlock Holmes.
Gillette was a romantic. His wife died early in their marriage. He didn't remarry. This seemed to make him romantic to his female audience members. Women thought he was romantic and dashing. So, he built a successful career playing dashing heroes.
Gillette loved his castle and often invited other theater personalities to spend the weekend in the castle. That became the basic plot of The Game's AfootGillette invites cast members and a theater critic to the castle he shares with his mother.
DR: The Game's Afoot is set at Christmas. Why?
KL: Originally, the play was not set at Christmas. I added Christmas in the second draft. I might rewrite the script and take out the references to Christmas. If I do that I'll take out the subtitle, Holmes for the Holidays. But, sometimes we need a little Christmas cheer in July. What's wrong with having Christmas in March?
KL: I've always had good experiences in Cleveland. The Cleveland Playhouse has a congenial atmosphere. I respect the Cleveland Playhouse enormously. That company has the facilities to stage a big production. DR: What did you think of Cleveland production?
KL: I stayed through the previews but couldn't stay for opening night. I had to take one of my children to college. Being a father is the most important thing you can do. But, I liked the previews.
DR: How did you develop the characters? When did you know who would be murdered and who did it?
KL: First I read Agatha Christie's plays and her articles about how to write a mystery. Second, Alfred Hitchcock startles the audience as much as possible in Psycho. He kills Janet Leigh, the leading lady, early in the movie. Janet Leigh has star billing and the audience thinks she'll live to the end of the movie. When she dies before the mid-point of the movie, the audience is surprised.
I wanted to kill off an unlikely candidate early in the playwell, by the end of the first act. That's why that character is killed so early. And, I wanted the young couple to be working together. They're an unlikely pairing and that's good fun.
DR: How long did you work on this script?
KL: This script was about a six month affair. I researched, read and thought about it and then wrote for two months.
DR: Are you still working on it?
KL: YesI've learned a lot through the rehearsal process. We would go in the rehearsal studio and sit around a table. The actors would ask good questions and would make good suggestions. The Cleveland cast was excellent, willing to be open and talk about lines. This was fun for all of us. Many of those questions and suggestions have worked their way into the script. I still have to re-write from stage manager's script and I haven't done that.
DR: What's the future of The Game's Afoot?
KL: I want to get this to Broadway. But, Broadway is expensive. People love this type of theatera mixture of comedy and mystery. I'd like to take the Cleveland cast to Broadway.
DR: You are known for your humor. Where does it come from?
DR: I don't know. I don't tell jokes. I'm not funny in my life outside of the theater. My characters say funny thingsI don't.
If we have dinner together, you won't laugh. I'm fairly serious in my personal life. I love opera. I'm writing a book that's titled How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare [Crown Publishers will publish the book in 2012.] The book isn't for children. It's for parents who want to teach their children to understand and enjoy the greatest playwright of the English language.
DR: Besides Shakespeare and yourself, what playwrights to you admire?
I like Tom Stoppard and Woody Allen. Midnight in Paris is a wonderful script and a wonderful movie.
DR: What are you reading now?
DR: I have several things going. I'm reading P. D. James' Death Comes to Pemberley and Sheridan Morley's John Gielgud: The Authorized Biography. And, I'm reading Anthony Powell's twelve volume series, A Dance to the Music of Time.
DR: What else would you like our readers to know?
DR: I hope they flock to The Game's Afoot and they have a good time. I hope they think The Game's Afoot is relentlessly entertaining.
The Game's Afoot (or Holmes for the Holidays) at The Allen Theatre, The Cleveland Play House, through December 24, 2011. Ticket Information: 216-795-7000, ext. 4, or visit www.clevelandplayhouse.com/.
- David Ritchey