Irony is a staple of theater, so consider the irony of an indispensable member of Orange County's playrighting community, Stephen Ludwig, traveling to France for a writing vacation,only to die in the place that inspired him so much.
Yet, there is also something romantic about both dying in the place you love, and to do so while doing what you loved. Ludwig, who passed away at the age of 65 of apparently normal causes in Arles, France, May 10, was found near his laptop. He was working on a novel.
An early member of the New Voices Playwright Workshop, which evolved into the New Voices Playwrights Theatre, Ludwig told the Los Angeles Times in 2000 that, three years earlier, at the age of 50, he felt bored and wanted a change, so he decided to see if he had the “makings of a playwright.” He quickly discovered he did.
His first produced play, Accidental Dancers, was staged by the Long Beach Playhouse in 2000. It was an emotionally engaging work about a married, closeted man who comes out and leaves his wife for a male lover. But then he leaves that lover to construct his own identity.
As Ludwig said, “And that is what the play is about: the degree to which we construct our own identities, the choices we have and don't have, the responsibilities we have to ourselves and to those we love.”
The play received across-the-board critical praise, and was tabbed as Best New Play in 2000 by OC Weekly.
Ludwig continued to write and help develop other playwrights work. Though he did write comedies, he admitted in the LA Times article that “my writing is serious. 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.”
Eric Eberwein, a co-producer of OC-centric, an Orange County new play festival, and the founder of the county's other playwrights group, the Orange County Playwright Alliance, recalled both Ludwig's writing talent and his breadth of intellectual pursuits.
“I really thought Steve was one of the finest playwrights to emerge from the Orange County Storefront theater scene,” he said. “The plays that stand out to me are Accidental Dancers and the one-act No More Angels, which I saw in a New Voices show at the Theatre District at the Lab in Costa Mesa. He wasn't as produced as much as he should have been, and I hope those two plays and others are revised and published. They deserve to be.
"Steve was born and raised in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia and came out here when he was a teenager. He was a real renaissance man, incredibly well read…he could give you a five- or 10-minute dissertation on a fairly arcane corner of philosophy and render it accessible and totally fascinating. He could talk to you about the Paul Butterfield Blues Band or Rene Descartes with equal enthusiasm. I remember him as being very generous–with his talent, time, resources and insights. I always looked forward to seeing him and seeing what he had written. Always.”
Sharyn Case, who was both a close friend and collaborator, echoes those sentiments.
"I knew Stephen very well and directed some of his early work. He was my roommate for almost five years (until the last year of his life, when he moved to Las Vegas) and a more funny, engaging, intelligent and sensitive person than anyone I have met. He died in a place he felt he belonged–France–literally doing what he loved–writing. He told a mutual friend just before he passed that he had fallen in love–with himself, and was more inspired and creative than he had been since Accidental Dancers.”
Dave Barton, who worked closely with Ludwig on a myriad of productions. said that besides writing plays, Ludwig also "was a huge patron of the arts, served on Rude Guerrilla's Board of Directors and helped produce too many shows to count. He brought one of the first productions of Sarah Kane's work to the U.S., Blasted, in its California premiere, as well as our productions of Mark Ravenhill's Some Explicit Polaroids and the U.S. and LA premieres of Pool (no Water).
"I have a hole in my heart from his passing, but I can't really grieve. I'll miss our conversations about history and sex and activism and philosophy and Rimbaud and Genet and revolutionary politics and foreign films, but he died doing what he loved in a place that he loved and I'm grateful for that.”
New Voices is dedicating its next show, which opens June 1, to Ludwig's memory and lasting impact. Ludwig's ashes will be scattered in France and a celebration of his life will be held later this month. Details are pending.