Stephen Ludwig of Costa Mesa was bored and looking for a change, so at the age of 50 he decided to investigate whether he had the makings of a playwright.
Three years later, Ludwig's first full-length work, "Accidental Dancers," is running at the Long Beach Playhouse's Studio Theatre and earning critics' plaudits. Ludwig is working on two other full-length scripts, and several of his short plays will have a three-week run next season in Santa Ana, produced by the Rude Guerrilla Theater Company. Boredom no longer is a problem.
Ludwig is a tall, pleasant but earnest man with spiky, dyed-blond hair that halfway circles his prominent bald dome. He chain-smoked through an interview this week on the balcony of his fourth-floor apartment and sipped coffee from a white mug stamped with the Latin motto carpe diem on one side and its translation, "seize the day," on the other.
"My writing is serious," Ludwig says. "I have basically a serious temperament. I want my work to have an impact on people's lives. I want to entertain them, but I want to reach them."
Indeed, "Accidental Dancers" is an intense drama in which ideas matter. Its protagonist, Kevin, is a novelist and poet who spends much of the play in anguish. The first act finds him fighting to submerge his true sexual nature. He is a gay man newly married to a woman who is his intellectual match and whose aesthetic tastes perfectly mirror his own.
In the second act, Kevin leaves a devastated Louise for John, the lover with whom he finds hearts-aflame passion and steady, domestic contentment.
In the end, though, Kevin leaves John too. He realizes he can no more suppress his drive to be an artist than he could his sexual nature, and he feels that life with John looms as too regular, too safe, for him to realize his potential as a writer. By play's end's the tally is Kevin's true sense of self achieved and two hearts broken.
By finding another layer of undiscovered self in Kevin after his sexual crisis has been resolved, Ludwig makes "Accidental Dancers" more than a gay identity play.
The parallel work that leaps first to mind is James Joyce's novel "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man." The aspiring writer of "Portrait" is ready by book's end to cast aside family, country, friends and religion to do anything to realize the artist inside him. "I do not fear to be alone or to be spurned for another or to leave whatever I have to leave," he says.
Kevin's effort to stifle his sexual nature leaves him as frozen as an overwound clock; he can't write, and as played by Christopher May, a perpetual, taut grin stretches his face as if it were a rubber band about to snap. He moves from guilt about deceiving, then dumping, Louise to confidence in the path he must take in leaving John.
In "Accidental Dancers" the playwright could have used more of a humorous counterpoint to balance long stretches of tension, but Ludwig, with only a brief lapse during one talky disquisition by Kevin on the necessity of change, manages to do justice to the play's ideas without turning his characters into mere faucets for his theories on identity. They stand up as real people.
Ludwig says "Accidental Dancers" sprang from a teacher's challenge to write from a real and personal perspective.
He has lived in Orange County since his teens in the mid-1960s, having moved to Tustin with his family from Philadelphia. He wrote for high school and campus literary journals as he moved from Tustin High School to a bachelor's degree in English from UC Irvine and a master's in comparative literature from Cal State Fullerton.
He switched from the doctoral track that would have made him a professor of literature to working at local community colleges as an adult education teacher, then as an administrator. He wrote a novel and short stories but couldn't get them published. He wasn't interested in writing plays, he says, because "I didn't want to have to deal with actors, directors, producers and stuff."
Ludwig seldom had gone to the theater, preferring classical music concerts and ballet. But five years ago he joined friends from Golden West College, where he runs the campus bookstore, on a theater-going tour of London. Back home, he began to take in occasional plays at South Coast Repertory. While attending David Henry Hwang's "Golden Child" at SCR in January 1997, he saw a notice in the program about a playwriting class at the theater.
"I was kind of bored with what was going on with my life, and I was looking for something different," Ludwig recalls. Through the course he found a passion. "I was getting positive feedback from everybody. It was a very supportive group, and I was satisfied with what I was writing. I thought, 'Oh, so this is what I'm supposed to do with my life.' "
Ludwig began "Accidental Dancers" as a writing exercise for the class. He remembers following teacher Cecilia Fannon's advice that "it helps to take risks and embrace confrontation, and part of that is writing about something personal."