Ludts help young actors grow on stage

TUPELO – Minutes after about 50 young actors had left with their “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” costumes, Steve and Dianne Ludt felt a familiar feeling.
“It’s kind of sad when it all goes away,” said Dianne Ludt, as she surveyed Milam Elementary School’s empty auditorium. “It’s like Christmas, throwing away the Christmas tree.”
The couple have volunteered their time with Pied Piper Playhouse for years. She’s the group’s president; he’s the treasurer.
Both had performed in plays in high school, but they didn’t feel the pull of the theater until their daughter, Maddie, started auditioning for, and getting, parts when she was in grammar school.
“Once Maddie started, she was bitten by the bug,” Dianne Ludt said.
“Maddie was working with both Tupelo Community Theatre and Pied Piper,” Steve Ludt said. “That’s how we got involved.”
Maddie now goes by Madeleine, and she’s a 21-year-old senior at York College in Pennsylvania, where she’s pursuing a degree in sports management.
She’s moved on, but her parents continue their work. It’s a mission, they said.
“If you focus on the children and the needs of the children,” Steve Ludt said, “it helps put everything in perspective and helps you through the rough periods. You have rough periods. Things don’t always go the way you’d like them.”
His wife added, “But we always say, ‘We’re doing it for the kids. What’s best for them?’”

A shift
When Pied Piper Playhouse started in the early 1990s, it featured adults performing plays for children. The Ludts have overseen a shift to all-kid casts.
“About seven or eight years ago, we had 70 or 80 kids show up at auditions,” Dianne Ludt said. “You feel like you have to give them more opportunities.”
To accommodate a larger number of young talent, Pied Piper Playhouse’s 15-member board selects plays with plenty of parts.
In the case of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” the script isn’t clear about the number of Oompa Loompas, Willy Wonka’s diminutive helpers. Pied Piper packed the play with young Oompa Loompas.
“Some of the kids come to the audition and they look down and you can’t hear all that they’re saying,” Dianne Ludt said, “but you give them a chance. It’s neat watching them get their confidence.”
Steve Ludt said, “You can’t be a perfectionist. It’s too much of a process. The child doesn’t immediately become a theater person. They have to grow into that over a period of years.”
Those rough periods Steve Ludt mentioned usually involve parents who’d rather see their child featured more prominently. The Ludts will double-cast productions, so two actors play the same character for different performances.
“We tend to go over backwards to let a lot of people participate,” Steve Ludt said. “Sometimes, we have arguments about that.”
“There are some times you can’t please parents,” Dianne Ludt said, “but the kids are generally happy to be here.”
On the whole, the Ludts say Pied Piper Playhouse benefits from an abundance of cooperation from parents, board members and other volunteers.
“It’s a team effort, not just the adults, but the kids, too,” Dianne Ludt said. “They come together as a team.”
“When you have creative people, it makes it easier,” her husband said.
The Ludts get a break now that “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” has closed: Jane Miller will direct “Babes in Toyland,” which will be staged Dec. 3-5, and Jimmy Grisham will direct “Beatles Slept Here” in early 2010.
Of course, they still have their mission.
“You start missing the kids after the show,” Dianne Ludt said.
“Part of the fun is working with the kids when they’re pre-kindergarten and working with them four or five years and seeing them grow,” Steve Ludt said.
“They grow in confidence and experience,” she said, “and they grow a whole community of friends in the cast. A lot of them are regulars.”
“It’s part of a big family,” he said.
“That’s right,” she said, “a big family.”

Contact M. Scott Morris at (662) 678-1589 or scott.morris@djournal.com.

M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal