– Enjoy an interactive discussion on Twelfth Night with acclaimed author and Tony Award-nominee Ken Ludwig, followed by a book-signing for his new book, “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” Saturday June 9 at 12pm at Folger Theatre-
Ken Ludwig’s name is synonymous with stage comedies: Lend Me a Tenor, Moon Over Buffalo, Fox on the Fairway, and the musical Crazy For You. The playwright and Washington resident has also adapted classics such as The Beaux’ Stratagem and Treasure Island.
Among his works, there are snippets and hints of perhaps the world’s greatest dramatist, William Shakespeare. The operatic version of Othello shows up hilariously in Lend Me a Tenor. In Leading Ladies, two second rates actors barnstorm America with scenes from Shakespeare’s plays, until they decide dressing in drag could be more profitable. And in Shakespeare in Hollywood, Ludwig manages to incorporate A Midsummer Night’s Dream, via the Warner Brothers film adaptation, in an homage to movie legends and the Bard himself.
Ludwig, a self-described “lifelong Shakespeare fan” began instilling a love for the words and characters in his own children when they were still in elementary school. He has now written a book to help other parents and educators teach Shakespeare. “How to Teach Your Children Shakespeare” will be published on June 11, 2013.
This weekend, Ludwig gives a preview of the book at a free event at the Folger Theatre, preceding the Saturday matinee of their critically acclaimed Twelfth Night.
DC Theatre Scene’s Jeffrey Walker was able to catch up with Ken Ludwig to talk about the book, how he developed his teaching method and the world of William Shakespeare.
Jeffrey Walker: You honed your method of teaching Shakespeare to kids with your own children. How did that come about?
Ken Ludwig: When my oldest child, my daughter, was in first grade, she came home from school one day and out of the blue, she very proudly spouted a line of Shakespeare. It was from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” And I thought, oh my gosh, what’s this?
Her teacher was this lovely, smart English woman who had a great love of Shakespeare. She had taught her class some little passages. I was so impressed that my daughter had absorbed this so quickly, as did the other kids in the class, a sort of light bulb went off in my head. I thought, gee what a good idea. I love Shakespeare; I’m a real Shakespeare fan, studying Shakespeare all my life. I hadn’t been looking for a way to teach Shakespeare, but when this happened, I thought maybe I could teach my daughter some passages from Shakespeare.
I tried it out, using A Midsummer Night’s Dream, since that’s the one they learned about in school. I thought that was perfect, since it’s a comedy, and it has Oberon and Titania doing magical things, and there’s Puck; it’s very friendly. I started by extending the quotation she had learned, to make it longer. My daughter gobbled that up. The next one I did began “Captain of our fairy band, Helena is here at hand;” (Where Puck says “Lord, what fools these mortals be.”)
As I would sit with this six year old, things developed along the way; I found she learned it best when I typed it in big, friendly type, with only three or four lines of verse per page. This was so that she could really see it, since she was just starting to read in the first grade. She would see it and then I would say it out loud, and she was able to imitate me while seeing the passage clearly.
Little by little, we did this every week – an hour on Saturday and an hour on Sunday. This turned out to be really great family time between parent and child. And she was learning Shakespeare by leaps and bounds.
I understand you taught her more than the lines.
If someone is learning these passages, they should also understand who is saying them and what the basic story is, so they learn them better and they remember them. I started telling her the story of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And I made sure she understood every single word that she was learning. “I know a bank where the wild thyme blows.” A bank is the side of a stream or a river. And ‘wild thyme’ – t-h-y-m-e not t-i-m-e – is a fragrant flower. It ‘blows;’ it blows in the wind, but in Elizabethan times, blows also meant that moment at which the flower appeared, when it blooms. ‘I know a bank where the wild thyme is blowing in the wind and blooming.’
By seeing what worked with my daughter, and then my son when he reached the same age, little by little I developed these ways to teach my kids Shakespeare.
When did the idea for the book come along?
It was years later, while I was sitting in my study, sort of between plays, thinking about what I would write for my next play. I thought, maybe someone else would like to do the same thing with their kids. I had learned so much, and by this point, I had notebook after notebook filled with the all the different quotations that I thought my own children would like. At first I thought about maybe just publishing the notebooks, but I realized I would have to explain what they’re about and what the method is. So I sat down and began writing the book.
Was there a key factor that really helped make it stick with them?
I suppose the way I did it was by not rushing, not being in a hurry and making sure they understood everything. It’s not like this method is magical, it’s just good, common sense. In terms of the language, I made sure they understood every single word. But Shakespeare’s plays were written over four hundred years ago; a lot of the words are archaic, so it’s tricky. Some of the words we don’t know at all. A bodkin – nobody uses the word bodkin today; turns out, it’s a dagger. (It’s in the ‘To be, or not to be’ speech.) Other words had different meaning back in Shakespeare’s time. ‘Wherefore art thou Romeo?” – or ‘Why are you Romeo?’ It doesn’t mean where are you, Romeo? It means why do you have to be named Romeo, because that means you are a Montague and our families are at war.
In school we learn about the rhythm and meter of the verse. How did you cover that with your kids?
I tried to make it fun, even when I was explaining how the poetry works and how Shakespeare used iambic pentameter, this poetic rhythm, a particular kind of verse and what that means. As a six year old, she didn’t really care about fancy words like ‘iambic pentameter.’ Iambic pentameter just means “pent” means five, five beats in a line; and “iamb” is ‘da-dum.’ It’s a line that sounds like ‘da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum.’ Which when you’re six years old, sounds like a horse galloping. [Emphasizing the rhythm of the line] “If music be the food of love, play on – da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum da-dum.”
So I tried to make it fun, and telling the stories is fun, too. A Midsummer Night’s Dream – my gosh! – a girl who wants to marry her boyfriend and her father says no. She runs into a forest to elope with him – what could be simpler or clearer? And in that forest, they stumble into the great fairy kingdom, in this wood near Athens, where the king and queen of the fairies are having a feud. And you look at all the different ways you can love somebody with parts of the story. So we talked through the stories and what they meant and little by little, we conquered A Midsummer Night’s Dream, using 15 or 20 long, chunky passages. And then we tackled another comedy, and then onto the next one.
By the time my daughter was in her mid-teens, I’d say she knew about a thousand words of Shakespeare. She was able to just rattle them off.
Could you give another example from the book of breaking down a passage?
In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, I would start out with Theseus and Hippolyta, in the opening section of the play. Theseus and his bride-to-be are just talking.
Now, fair Hippolyta, our nuptial hour
Draws on apace; four happy days bring in
Another moon: but, O, methinks, how slow
This old moon wanes!
That first line “our nuptial hour draws on apace” is a great example. If you don’t know that “nuptial hour” means our wedding, you’ll be confused. “Draws on apace” – “apace” means soon; so “our wedding night is coming soon.” “Four happy days bring in another moon” – in four days the moon will change. “But, Oh, methinks this old moon wanes!” If you think that he’s yearning for this time to pass because he wants to consummate the marriage. And the words that Shakespeare chooses, that “ohhh”- sound is repeated in that line four different ways – “OHH, methinks, how slOW this OHld mOOn wanes!” This is Shakespeare’s way of using that sound as if time is passing slowly and that Theseus can’t wait for those four days to pass.
Suddenly, those two lines are not mystifying; by explaining that, it’s not frightening. And that, in a sense, is what the whole book is about.
I would imagine a good sidebar to this book is that parents or even educators who are a little apprehensive about Shakespeare will be able to see how breaking it down into small doses and understanding it little by little, can help alleviate the mystery of Shakespeare.
I think that’s exactly right, especially since Shakespeare tends to be a frightening word to people and a frightening subject. People say they don’t know anything about it or it makes them feel behind the eight ball, like they don’t know anything. This way I devised tries to set it out with complete clarity, so that you as a parent or as an educator can teach them with confidence because you understand it.
You know what it’s like? I make this point in the book: It’s like a foreign language. If you don’t know French and you walk into Paris, it all sounds like gobbledygook because you just don’t understand it. But if you learn little by little to be comfortable with what it means, in no time, it stops being frightening. And with Shakespeare, you could really get to that point within a month or even a week or two. You just realize you aren’t going to try to read this whole play from beginning to end to start with.
You said you’ve been studying Shakespeare all your life and I know, of course, you have incorporated Shakespeare into some of your plays. How did your love of Shakespeare begin?
I grew up in a small, farming town in Pennsylvania, but my mother’s family lived up in Brooklyn and we’d go to visit them once a year. And we would go in to see a play, either in Brooklyn or sometimes in the city, and I got really turned on with the theatre. And then, the other thing was, I got a four disk record set of Richard Burton playing Hamlet, from when he did the play on Broadway. I got the records about ten years after the play was on Broadway. When I listened to that recording, I just fell in love with it. I just loved the sound of it – I mean what could be better than Richard Burton’s voice. I listened and listened and listened to those records until I memorized all the soliloquies. Then when I would go the theatre, if I heard it and someone was a word off, I knew it immediately.
From Hamlet, it expanded out to everything else.
Was there one play or character that was a particular favorite?
In the early days, it was clearly Hamlet. Then as I got older and gained a more mature sense of the whole canon, I was drawn to other plays. I write comedies, so I have I felt that Twelfth Night, to me, has always been maybe the greatest masterpiece in Western literature. It’s so perfect in so many ways, and it’s so inventive and the language is so beautiful. So I suppose, I have these twin peaks of Hamlet and Twelfth Night – which were written very close to each other in time.
And you have had a chance to see Twelfth Night at the Folger?
I sure did. They always do such a beautiful job.
Speaking of the Folger, where you are doing your book event, what do you have planned?
The event is starts at 12 noon and the show is at 2pm, so I have a good bit of time. I thought I would talk about Shakespeare, just like you and I are talking about him now – but I’d center on Twelfth Night, and then have the audience learn a passage from Twelfth Night.
They will get a little taste of your method of teaching Shakespeare.
Exactly. And then I suppose a number of them will stay for the matinee, so it will be fun having pinpointed one moment in the play, and discuss it.
Pre-Show Talk and Book Party with Ken Ludwig
Saturday, Jun 8 at Noon
Folger Elizabethan Theatre
201 East Capitol St SE
Note: This is a free event, but
tickets are recommended
Why do you think Shakespeare still gets our minds and imaginations going, more than 400 years after these plays were written?
It’s quite a phenomenon isn’t it? Here is this one man, who grew up in a small town in England and he changed the entire face of our lives and how we live our lives. Hal Bloom, the famous critic from Yale, titled his most famous book “Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human.”
Who knows how a genius exists? The fact is he had some ability to write with such breadth of humanity that it somehow goes to the very heart of who we are. And not only gets to the heart, but explores the heart. And we ask things: why do we do things? Why do we fall in love? How do we fall in love? Why do we feel the need for revenge? Why are we jealous? Why are we prejudiced? And Shakespeare has this uncanny ability to choose words in such a beautiful poetic way; sometimes you can’t explain it one-for-one. You can’t quite translate them literally because they work on our senses and they put us in touch with something deep down inside us that no one else does.
Look at the landscape. And no matter how many playwrights or novelists or anybody produces anything in the 450 years since he wrote, nothing sells as much, nothing plays as much in the theatres in America and Europe by a factor of ten, to this day. Not Pinter, Shaw, Chekhov. It’s remarkable.
I want to go back to what you said earlier, about the time sitting with your child to go through the passages. I think that is a wonderful aspect to the method in your book. It’s such a wonderful idea for a parent and child to spend quality time, even if it’s a half hour a week, getting the child off of a video game, and teaching them beautiful, poetic language and the great characters we find in Shakespeare.
Thanks for mentioning that. It’s great quality time together, but it’s not just any quality time, it’s not the same as watching a movie or doing a video game, because there’s something so innately joyous about learning Shakespeare. I am so glad that I know certain lines from Shakespeare and that my children and I can say them together. It just gives you such a boost. It’s this joyous time you spend with your children or your pupils.