Theater Spotlight: Ken Ludwig

Ken Ludwig / photo by Leslie Cashen

Ken Ludwig / photo by Leslie Cashen

Ken Ludwig is a DC local and internationally acclaimed playwright who has had numerous hits on Broadway, in London’s West End, and throughout the world. He has won two Laurence Olivier Awards (England’s highest theater honor), two Tony Award nominations, two Helen Hayes Awards, and an Edgar Award. His work has been commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Bristol Old Vic, and his plays have been performed in over thirty countries in more than twenty languages. His new book is called How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare.

I spoke with Ken about his love of Shakespeare, the Bard’s history in DC, and choosing to make this city his creative home.

Joanna Castle Miller: How did you first fall in love with Shakespeare?

Ken Ludwig: Well, I became enamored when I was a young teenager. My parents had years before seen Richard Burton do Hamlet on Broadway. They bought me the album – an LP at the time – of the entire performance. And I still have it. It was so beautiful. I listened to it so much that I memorized all the soliloquies by the major characters. And that just did it. From that time on, all I wanted to do was read Shakespeare.

JCM: Did you ever wish you had learned Shakespeare at an even earlier age, to get even more of a head start?

KL: It would’ve been great having it at my fingertips starting at six years old. And that’s the whole notion of this book, that when kids are young they just start learning these beautiful lines and they absorb them like sponges.

JCM: Were you memorizing passages for the first time when you helped your children memorize?

KL: I knew all the plays pretty well, but about half and half.

JCM: What was the hardest thing about teaching Shakespeare to children?

KL: You know, it’s almost like a nursery rhyme to them. They love learning it. And I enjoyed every second because I love Shakespeare and it’s fun to pick which passage would be next.

I did sort of fall into a couple of sneaky things which ended up being very helpful, like typing the passage out in about 20pt font in Comic Sans, so they’d only have about 6 lines per page.

JCM: Performing in Shakespeare is what got me started on it. Do you think the process of hard memorization in your book works for kids who don’t take to Shakespeare as quickly?

KL: Well I’m ashamed to say that I never acted in a Shakespeare play ever in my life. My kids, however, once they got the bug I sent them to a little camp here in Washington: Camp Shakespeare run by the Shakespeare Theatre Company.

They’ve been in a lot of Shakespeare now. That’s a great way to learn, a great way to get the bug. I just didn’t get it that way. I wish I had.

JCM: If you could play any part, what part would it be?

KL: Viola. I’d have to change genders. Ah, she tears my heart out. She tears my heart out!

As a guy? I guess I’d want to play Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing. The women get all the best comic roles in Shakespeare… Rosalind, Beatrice, Helena. Petruchio is a great character. And of course, Falstaff is the greatest of them all.

Benedict or Falstaff!

JCM: You serve on the board of a number of Shakespeare organizations. Why does DC have such a rich relationship with Shakespeare?

KL: Washington as a city for Shakespeare goes back to the 1930s when Henry Clay Folger and his wife gave their extraordinary collection to the United States government and got permission to build the Folger Shakespeare Library right behind the Capitol.

It is, without a doubt, the greatest collection of Shakespeare in the entire world. It has 82 of the 240 first folios in the world, which is 81 more than anywhere else. It has hundreds of thousands of items in its vaults, which go down several levels below the museum. It’s got everything. Nothing comes close to it. And that of course has brought great Shakespearean scholars to Washington since.

Folger built a theater right into his museum, and it’s a working theater. From the beginning it had dressing rooms and a green room. He always planned for Shakespeare to be performed in Washington. And it has, for many years.

JCM: How long have you been based here in DC, and what brought you here?

KL: I’ve been based in DC since the late 80s. My brother moved here after law school, and we were always very close, and I just thought if he moved here I would. That was before I had success in the theater, so I didn’t have any sense that I had to be around New York or Los Angeles or London at the time. And then I just stayed.

JCM: We now have around 250 playwrights that we know of who call DC their home. As a playwright who built your world here but have been successful on a national and international stage, do you have any advice to playwrights trying to get their start from here?

KL: Washington is tremendously rich in theater – in the numbers of theaters, in theater culture. And it’s very sophisticated. I can’t imagine being in any better place to break into the theater as a playwright.

Different people thrive on different atmospheres and in different ways. For some playwrights it’d probably be better to be in New York or London, but I find it easier to navigate psychologically being here, because you don’t see as much happening around you that gets you nervous.

Having said that, the other advantage for me is that I love living here. It’s a wonderful city. I can’t imagine a better place to be creative. It’s a beautiful place. It’s beautiful.

Ken Ludwig’s new book How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare is available wherever books are sold. Read excerpts and sample Shakespeare passages on the book’s website.

Joanna moved to DC in 2010 knowing she’d love it, and as usual she was right. She enjoys eating fried things, drinking scotch and smoking cigars, and makes up for the damage done by snacking on organic oats and barley and walking long distances to wherever with her dog Henry. Joanna now lives with her husband and said dog in Los Angeles, and they all miss DC terribly. Follow her on Twitter or contact her at

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