K-Lud, or The Story of Ken Ludwig's MIDSUMMER/JERSEY
Every production is really two productions. The one we think of is the final product that the audience experiences. But the other one is what the cast and crew develop along the way as each individual sets his or her own goals and standards. In that production there are the easy bits and the ones that may not come to fruition until opening night, the experiments gone awry and the triumphs and inspirations along the way.
This is even more intense in high school theatre. High school theatre is unlike community or professional theatre. It’s not about a critic’s review or a paycheck; it’s about family...and like Midsummer/Jersey, sometimes all those hours in the theatre are about staying away from one’s real family (like Mia). Sometimes it’s about having a safe place to express one’s creativity among a group of supportive peers (like the “Hair and Gone” beauticians). Sometimes it’s about finding love (like Helene and Dennis). Sometimes it’s a place to just let loose and be a bit crazy/mischievous (like Puck). Sometimes it’s about really making magic (like Oberon and the fairies). And sometimes it’s about leading the way through the uncertainty, to bring all the elements to a fine and final happy ending (like Gov.Chris Athens/Oberon). In a high school production, that “parent” that the kids want to make proud is their director. My students tell me they always wait for that near-final rehearsal when I bring them all together and say, “NOW, we’ve got a SHOW!”
When I agreed to work with Ken Ludwig on the premier of Midsummer/Jersey a new element was added. Instead of my being the ultimate arbiter of whether we had successfully conveyed the playwright’s intentions, the playwright was right there! Not only did we do readings of the early drafts and provide feedback, but if we were having trouble with a scene (or a line), we could pick up the phone and go to the source, and find out exactly what the playwright’s intentions were. And since we were working directly with someone whose shows were on Broadway and the West End, as well as all over the country, we wanted to be worthy of a standard even higher than the one of which our school was already proud. THIS one had to be our BEST!
That spring reading was done so Ken could hear what the show was sounding like, and he spent a most generous couple of hours afterwards hearing what the students had to say, what they liked, were confused by, wondered how this or that could be accomplished and so on. In high school it’s really true that “they don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.” They left the reading/talk-back really impressed with how authentic and honest Ken was with them, and how significantly he valued their opinions.
Midsummer/Jersey was to be our fall production, but since we had a major read-through of the draft version the previous spring, the anticipation and excitement was high, and we got the ball rolling during the summer instead of when the school year began, although we delayed final casting until then, lest the freshmen be left out of the running.
The final draft clearly incorporated some of the feedback we had provided, and Mr. Ludwig earned himself the nickname “K-Lud.” He even gave the cast his cell number to call if anyone had questions about a line or turn of phrase (and several of them did).
Our Helene was also our set designer and went through about a dozen drafts of our “boardwalk” set on Google Sketchup to develop blueprints that would serve both the play and the restrictions of our thrust stage (and wing space). We had very long discussions about just how to play the fairies in this “Jersey Shore” version of the play, since “K-Lud” had left plenty of room for interpretation (he left us to our own devices for long stretches of rehearsal), and we discovered that several of the male fairies were musical, and they created original background music for several of the scenes.
The biggest day was probably our first Act 1 rehearsal fully off book. When Ken arrived, he had in tow both the photographer and the theatre critic, Peter Marks, of The Washington Post. The costumes were largely finished, so plenty of pictures were taken, and the energy from having the playwright there while we were still a work in progress (which he totally understood) was astronomical. When he asked for Act 2 as well, we swallowed hard and pressed on. Afterwards, we got plenty of feedback, all of it supportive and constructive.
Although our musicals frequently sold out, we’d never done that with a straight play, but the word of mouth - bolstered by a terrific Post article and massive color picture on the top half of the front page of the Arts section - made all the difference. Even our former-football-coach school principal pulled me aside to confirm, “This is a big deal, isn’t it?!”
On opening night, with Ken (and something of an entourage) in the audience, the energy was through the roof, and the show was an undeniable hit with the audience. With all three full houses, in fact, and when we toured it to the state Thespian conference, we were all rock stars the rest of the weekend. The show was even nominated as Best Play in the NCA Cappies, which entitled us to perform a short scene at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. during the Cappies awards gala. So the “product play” was a success, and Samuel French has published it as Ken Ludwig’s Midsummer/Jersey.
But clearly, our Midsummer/Jersey Family wanted (and got) their “process play” validated, too, by those who knew what the journey had involved all along the way, their Gov. Athens (that’s me, the guy officially in charge) and especially by their Oberon -- the man who brought the magic, and blessed it when all was said and done.
Thanks, K-Lud, for a once-in-a-lifetime experience we will always treasure.