“Stories Around the Table” meets a couple of times a year to present and critique their writing. (photo from Karen Ludwig)
Today, at Karen Ludwig’s home in New York, the actor, director and teacher regularly leads a group of women in story sharing.
Ludwig, whose father is from Winnipeg but whose family origin is Russian, grew up in San Francisco. “It was a very antisemitic San Francisco town,” said Ludwig of the time. “And the German-Austrian Jews kind of ran the city, and they looked down on Russian Jews.
“We had a rabbi in my temple, Emmanuel, who used to say, ‘Hear, o-Is-roy-ale,’ and I never knew he was actually saying ‘Israel.’
“My mother would speak in a whisper, ‘Is she Jewish? Is he Jewish?’ I never heard the word ‘Jew’ out loud until I came to New York. Then, someone asked, ‘Are you Jewish?’ And, I said, ‘Hey, take it easy.’ But, New York is a Jewish town.”
Ludwig’s parents were amateur actors, acting in synagogue plays, and her family regularly went to see musicals and plays together in San Francisco. Ludwig knew that, when her parents were on stage, they had such a good time and she wanted to be up there with them.
When she was 14, Ludwig subscribed to Theatre Arts Magazine. The late Anne Bancroft was on one cover; she was in the play The Miracle Worker and was making the sign of the letter “L” for love.
“There was something about that picture that was magnetic,” Ludwig told the Independent. “I thought, that’s what I want to do.”
Cabaret was all the rage and Ludwig went to see a show with her then-boyfriend. She enjoyed it so much that she went to see it again on her own a couple more times and the lead performer, Kaye Ballard, noticed her.
“She came out one time,” said Ludwig, “and saw me and said, ‘What, do you sleep here, kid?’ And, I was born. I thought, ‘That’s it. I’ve been recognized.’ And, I became a follower of hers, because … I loved anybody who made me laugh.
“She met me for coffee a couple months later, very graciously. And, she said, ‘If you’re serious about being an actress, don’t go to college. It won’t do you any good. Go to New York while you’re young and study.’ And so, I did, [after] I went for one year of San Francisco state college. I played the lead in a play called The Wingless Victory, by Maxwell Anderson, and I thought, well, this is easy.”
Ludwig went on to perform in other plays – some on Broadway and some off-Broadway. She even had the chance to work with Bancroft, and they became friends.
This is what led Ludwig to start her women’s group for actors who could write.
While the group took a hiatus for several years, Ludwig restarted it two years ago. They meet every Wednesday and write about topics that are rarely discussed or written about by men.
Ludwig said she developed her writing skills out of necessity. “I did it because I was tired of waiting around for parts, because, as I got older, as a woman, parts became fewer and fewer. So, I decided to write my own show about my career – who I met, who I worked with and, then, another thread through it was my mother and my relationship with her. And the show was very successful.”
Ludwig won a one-night space rental in a competition at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre and so performed her stand-up show on that one night. She described it as a wonderful but terrifying experience. Later, for almost two weeks, her show ran at another little studio in the city.
One of the pieces of history that Ludwig shared in the show was her experience playing Ethel Rosenberg in the movie Citizen Cohn. She was very involved in it, even raising money for the Rosenberg Foundation for Children, which “supports children whose parents are incarcerated,” said Ludwig. “I did all kinds of research about how Ethel Rosenberg died, and how many volts of electricity she had to have to still her heart, and then I showed the clip of it in the show I did. I did quite a bit about Ethel Rosenberg and the two boys she left behind, and that she, in fact, was not guilty.”
In her writing group, Ludwig prompts participants each week with a topic to help them focus their writing on different aspects of their lives. This brings about a variety of views on any given topic and the women push one another to dig more deeply than they would on their own.
“There are things that happen in a room with just women that don’t happen with men,” said Ludwig. “So, I thought we would take advantage of that. I use prompts like…. ‘My mother walked into my bedroom and said….’”
Living in the Westbeth Artists Housing complex allows Ludwig to have a big table, so the group has dubbed their meetings, “Stories Around the Table.” They present and critique their writing about twice a year and the subject matter ranges from family to politics to hair and beyond.
Ludwig began her teaching career in Israel. “I kept saying, ‘This country isn’t going to affect me that much,’” recalled Ludwig. “I’m a Reform Jew. What do I care really about Israel? But, from the moment we landed at the airport and they started singing, I began to weep, and weep and weep. And then, there’s a clip of me going toward the Wailing Wall. Again, I’m saying, ‘This doesn’t affect me. It has no meaning for me.’ And, before you know it, I’m davening. It was hard for me to leave Israel, because the actors were saying, ‘You’re a Jew. You should stay here and teach. This is your place to teach us what you know.’ It was very hard to leave; I did love it there.”
In a way, Ludwig’s Israel encounter parallels what she aims to get her writers to experience in their sessions – to discover a connection, to one another, to their past, to the world.
“The whole idea is about sharing each other’s feelings and thoughts about what’s going on … so you don’t feel so isolated,” said Ludwig. “There isn’t a goal exactly. It’s just about the sense of feeling united, together … critiquing each other’s work. And, if we don’t understand something, we talk about it.
“There’s a certain kind of pressure that’s off. There’s a certain feeling of generosity. Really, how many feelings are universal? There’s not that much that separates us, really, in terms of human experience.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.