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Playwright Ken Ludwig Talks Christmas, Alec Baldwin, and the Jersey Shore

We catch up with the acclaimed local playwright to discuss his new children’s show at Adventure Theatre.

Photograph courtesy of Adventure Theatre

Ken Ludwig is probably Washington’s most accomplished playwright, with six Broadway plays and six in London’s West End under his belt. The former Steptoe & Johnson lawyer garnered a Tony nomination for his first Broadway play, Lend Me a Tenor, which was described as “one of the two great farces by a living writer” by the New York Times. Ludwig also wrote the book for Crazy for You, which ran for three years in London and won the 1992 Tony for Best Musical. His new play, ’ Twas the Night Before Christmas, is at Adventure Theatre through January 2. We caught up with Ludwig to talk about the show, as well as his writing routine, other new projects, and why he’s a fan of Alec Baldwin.

Tell us about ’ Twas the Night Before Christmas . Is this your first children’s play?
It is. It came about because, of all serendipitous things, I was at a convention in New York, and Michael Bobbitt came up to me. He said, “Hey, would you write a play for us?” and I said, “I’d love to.” Maybe a month or two later, he called me and said, “What’s the title, because I need to put it into advertising,” and I said, “I don’t know, because I haven’t written it yet.” So we agreed on the title ’ Twas the Night Before Christmas, and I wrote it after that. It’s about a sweet, neurotic mouse named Amos who’s afraid of having an adventure and doesn’t want to leave the house. His best friend is a girl named Emily. They find an elf at the window and have to fly off to the North Pole to save Christmas. The play isn’t really about the Clement Moore poem, but I weave that in.

Was it a challenge writing for children, or did it come naturally?
It was very natural. I love children’s books, and I have two kids, whom I’ve taken to children’s theater for years. I loved the innocence of it, and being able to write about things like adventure, honesty, and good nature. Working with Michael is fantastic because he’s very smart and very able, and doing an amazing job over there.

Do you have anything else going on this season?
In November, I had three world premieres and four openings in 30 days. I have a brand new comedy at Cleveland Play House called The Game’s Afoot, directed by Aaron Posner. A Crazy For You revival just opened in London. And there’s also a play I wrote for high schools called Midsummer/Jersey, an adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream set on the Jersey Shore. That came about because an organization that works with theater in high schools asked me to write a play for them. In most modern plays, with the way theaters are run, you want as small a cast as possible, and only one set. But for kids, you want to write a play with as many parts as possible, especially female parts, because so many more girls try out for high school drama than boys. So I wrote a play for 20 girls and five boys, and the four lovers are like Snooki and the Situation. And the mechanicals, instead of being men, are all women—they run a beauty shop on the boardwalk. That premiered at the James Robinson High School in Fairfax.

You’re obviously enormously prolific. What’s your usual writing routine like?
I write every day, which I think is important for a writer. I normally get up very early and write from 7 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon.

You’ve worked with some incredible actors over the years. Do you have any favorites?
So many have been a pleasure. There’s Alec Baldwin in Twentieth Century—you get to go to his favorite table at Elaine’s, and he’s always surrounded by interesting people. Carol Burnett in Moon Over Buffalo, because she knew how to get laughs—it was just innate. People just adored her. Hal Holbrook, who was in Be My Baby, is a fantastic guy and a great actor, and John Collins, who was in Moon in London, is as smart as can be and really knows how to hold the stage. I’ve also been lucky in Washington to work with great people like Holly Twyford and Rick Foucheux.

Ever tempted to move to New York?
I wouldn’t do very well raising a family in New York. It’s just not me. Washington is a great place; it’s sophisticated, it’s beautiful, and it’s big, and it also has one of the biggest theater scenes outside of New York. I get to roll up my sleeves and work with theater people here, and that’s all I want.

’Twas the Night Before Christmas is at Adventure Theatre through January 2. Tickets ($18) available at the venue’s Web site.

An abbreviated version of this interview ran in the December issue of The Washingtonian.

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