By Sarah Gianelli EBS Associate Editor
BIG SKY – “Just Add Water” is a new comic play written and directed by John Ludin, the Emmy Award-winning executive director of Bozeman’s Ellen Theatre. In partnership with The Ellen, the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center will host two performances of the play at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 30, and a matinee at 2 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 1.
In “Just Add Water” three grown siblings who don’t agree on anything are faced with a family dilemma—how to best memorialize their dearly departed father. Toss some simmering childhood memories into the pot and the family drama boils over despite the best intentions of loopy Aunt Maggie, a philosophical TV repairman and a vagabond priest.
“Just Add Water” draws from Ludin’s real life experience. The idea for the play came to him as he and his three brothers were sitting around the table discussing what to put in their father’s obituary.
“I remember leaning back in my chair and thinking, ‘I’m watching a play right here and now,’” Ludin said. It wasn’t until he decided to write a play years later that the idea came back to him. Because his training is in comedy, he decided to take that approach. “To treat it any other way would be just too heavy, and probably not that entertaining,” he said.
While some aspects of “Just Add Water” are pulled directly from his life, Ludin took advantage of poetic license and fabricated, exaggerated or borrowed others, while playing up the plot’s conflict and tension.
“The balancing act is keeping it real,” Ludin said. “To me, [that’s what] keeps it relatable, so it’s not just my family, but many families.”
Ludin said he often hears, “I have a brother (mom, dad, aunt, etc.) just like that,” or “it’s as if you were eavesdropping on my family.”
Although when Ludin started writing the play in 2015 it wasn’t with the intention to revisit or process familial grief, he said those emotions did percolate during the process.
“And not just about my father, with whom my relationship was not always great,” Ludin said. “It also had me revisiting my connection to my mom and brothers.”
Since its completion, “Just Add Water” has had two runs at The Ellen which led to some script edits before taking the production to Billings for a number of successful shows.
“The audience laughed more than ever,” Ludin said. “Interestingly, it was because I had cut many of the jokes, which gets back to that point of it needing to be real.”
This first-time partnership between the two performance venues came about over coffee, while John Zirkle, WMPAC’s artistic director, and Ludin were having a casual discussion about theater and performing arts in Montana.
“When I laid out the WMPAC plan of dedicating itself to the development of new work, John perked up and let me know about [his] play,” Zirkle said. “With a cast of brilliant actors … the show makes perfect sense to bring down to WMPAC. We always want to be good neighbors and support each other’s work when we can.”
As summer winds down, “Just Add Water” is a chance to catch some professional local theater before events taper off until winter. And anyone who has family will likely relate to this comic exploration of parents, sibling rivalries and family reunions—and the cornucopia of emotions they tend to stir up.
Ludin tweaked another five or six lines in the play for the shows in Big Sky. “There’s an old adage that ‘plays are not written—they are re-written,’” he said. “And I can tell you, that is my experience.”
Visit warrenmillerpac.org/events-and-programs/upcoming-events/just-add-water/ for tickets and more information. Please note that parental discretion is advised, as some material might not be suitable for children under 15 years of age.