'The greatest works of art incorporate humor'
New York — Funny, Charles Ludlam doesn't look ridiculous. But he is, and proudly so -- as head of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, which he has run since 1967. This whimsically named troupe specializes in comedy. As its founder and guru , Ludlam specializes in everything -- writing, directing, and starring in its productions. Over the years, he has become an influential figure in the theater far from the company's Greenwich Village base, teaching and directing for various schools and colleges in addition to touring with his usual Ridiculous cohorts. In the past, some of the troupe's work flew past the boundaries of good taste and propriety, but a major change has occurred in recent years, with the Ridiculous company embracing family entertainment in such shows are "A Christmas Carol" and "The Enchanted Pig."
At this writing, Ludlam is playing the leading role in a revival of "Reverse Psychology", a farce with overtones of Noel Coward. Later this year will come a "Sophisticated Comedy" about Catherine de Medicis. Sound ridiculous? You bet.m
Has your work always focused on comedy?
Yes. But comedy is a broad field, and we use a lot of differrent genres. Some of the plays are tragedies treated in a farcical manner, and some are parodies or satires. Sometimes we use different elements on a collision course -- forcing together two things that don't usually mix. That's one of my tactics. Sometimes the greatest effect comes from treating a comic situation seriously.
What accounts for your fascination with comedy?
I don't like serious plays where people don't laugh. they seem too artificial. Sure, I like melodramas, and I like a good cry.But the greatest works of art incorporate humor.
You see, comedy is serious. I don't like it when the idea of seriousness is applied only to unhappy thoughts. Comedy is just as profound in its view of the human condition as any decorous or depressing work.
But too often, people substitute the depressing and the horrifying for seriousness. They don't have any truly serious ideas, so they try to create a synthetic seriousness -- the seriousness of fear, horror, loathing, revulsion, dread, or feeling sorry for people. That's very superficial, though. After all , there are plenty of people in the realm world who are desperately deserving of our sympathy. Why go to a theater, and pay money, to indulge your sympathy synthetically and vicariously?
In making your plays, do you rely on your instincts as well as your intellect?
Yes. And I work with the other actors, too. Our work is performancem art. Some pantomimic bits are like coloratura passages in opera, that are left up to the singers.In "Stage Blood" I had to make an entrance where I stepped in a wastebasket, my wig got caught on the flypaper, I bumped into a door and couldn't find what I was looking for . . . I have a penchant for physical comedy , so I was able to work that out. Another actor might not enjoy stepping in the wastebasket and losing his wig. But for me, it's one of the great things to do!
How did your career begin?
I began with a very freewheeling approach to theater. We did everything in a defiant way -- radically wrong, you might say. It was a new-found freedom.
You see, I felt the theater had great expressive possibilities, and I used them without holding back. I had nothing to lose, so I threw my cards in the air and let them land where they would. I threw out the idea of professionalism and cultivated something much worse than amateurism. I used actors for their personalities, almost like "found objects." The character fell somewhere between the intention of the script and the personality of the actor. The textures of meaning were incredibly rich. Everything contributed to the effect -- the script, the performers, even the accidents that were always happening onstage.
That sounds like a "camp" approach.
No, we weren't chic enough. We did have glamour and grandeur, but we have always avoided nostalgia. We feel thesem are the good old days: it's never been any better than this moment, and it may never bem any better.
Was your early work popular?
We developed a cult following, but we had to work for free. Our shows didn't start before midnight -- in movie theaters or lofts -- and most of the actors only had a limited commitment.
I knew it couldn't continue that way. So I took a winter off -- we couldn't find a place to perform, anyway -- and wrote a play that was very traditional and formal. Then I look the most dedicated and loyal performers, and made a production that was much smaller than our usual ones. It was a critical success -- the first time the critics had even bothered to come -- and this begun our period of experiments with concentric dramatic form.
In other words, you got involved in traditional forms -- at a time when theater in general was hopping with avant-garde ideas.
Yes, I went against the trend, because I saw that theater had taken a materialist turn. Left-wing politics got all mixed up with revolutionary theatrical ideas.
Art is form and spirit. But those things are not materialistic, so they don't fit in with the left-wing interpretation of the world. Under left-wing influence, theater became more and more materialistic. There was lots of big spectacle with no words, and stagings that were supposed to be entertaining for their own sake.
How did these activities lead to your present work?
It's been a natural progression from the beginning. After a few years of freewheeling experiments, we realized we had broken a lot of ground, and it was time to rake it and plant some seed. That's when I passed into my formal period , which has lasted for a decade.
Now I've broken into a new area of expressiveness and intuition. I've broadened my subject matter and approach -- we even do family entertainment now -- and I feel a whole new life and energy.
Why did theater attract you in the first place?
Theater is the supreme art. It's life itself -- you give people two hours of your life, onstage. Time is all we have, and sharing that with people is different from just creating an object.
Still, film has a wider audience than theater does, these days.
I love film. I'm working with film now, and enjoying it a lot. On coming to terms withthe objecthood of film: movies are involved with time, like theater is , but the relationship is different. In my film there are no unities. You can be in New York, and go through a door, and come out on the other side of the world.
Right now I'm making a silent-film comedy, sort of like "The Perils of Pauline." The whole thing is quite a learning experience. The first day, the scenery was ready and the actors were in costume, and I had to figure out how to load the camera.
So you do all the different jobs in making your film, just as in your theater work?
Yes. A lot of people want to be in the director's seat, even though they don't deserve it. That's not how I operate. You see, I deserve to have my theater because I took all the little baby steps up to that point. A lot of people want the results without the drudgery.
I felt I had no right to direct a film until I knew the technical stuff. So instead of just announcing I wanted to be a film director, I approached it through the camera.There's no such thing as Santa Claus (don't print that!) and nobody is going to come down your chimney with the technical knowledge you need.
Can you make a few guesses about your future directions?
I think we're in a romantic period.After 10 years of repressing emotional content, the emotions of the individual are now going to come forward.
In our theater, I think we're going to see a flowering of emotion and character. This will fill the void that's been left by a lot of experimental theater.
Have you reached the goals you originally set yourself?
As a teen-ager, I wanted to live in Greenwich Village, have a theater of original works by me, and do a new play every year. Now I'm there, and suddenly there are a million otherm things in the air, giving me another sense of where to go. It's too easy to be successful; I've always liked my failures better than the popular shows. There's no struggle if you just sit around and lap up the praise. When you're disapproved of or misunderstood, or you can't get something to work, you grow. You become somebody else. And the next play is very different.
But it's hard, because people always expect you to repeat what you've just done. After "Camille," for example, I had offers to play similar roles in major productions all over the place. But i refused, because there's nothing more definitive than Camille! And anyway, it's good to be untypical. It's always refreshing to be unlikem yourself. . . .