As Joni Mitchell sings it, "sometimes you don't know what you've got till it's gone." That's sort of the story of what happened to the play Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home, written by Texas actress and playwright Mary Rohde Scudday in the 1970s, when she was 24, and produced back then at the Dallas Theater Center (twice) and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
The play returns with most of its original cast - including Cheryl Denson, Elly Lindsay, Michael Scudday, Nancy Smith Munger, Pam Hoffmann, Beverly Renquist Barry and Paul Munger, directed once again by Chris Hendrie - onstage at Kalita Humphreys Theater at 7 p.m., Monday, April 30, for a reunion and staged reading as part of the Preston and Mary Sue Jones Play Reading Series produced by Trey Birkhead. The event is a fundraiser for the Dallas Theater Center Guild.
Set in a small-town Texas beauty shop, Ladybug received rave reviews when it premiered at DTC's downstairs space (no longer in use) in 1978. It moved to the main stage two years later and was a huge success. "Long before Steel Magnolias hit the scene [and] since overshadowed by that wash-and-set weeper, Ladybug proves the better play," wrote critic Tom Sime later in the Dallas Morning News.
Other critics drew comparisons to Ibsen's A Doll's House and other important plays that feature a feisty young woman trying to break free of ... something. In Scudday's script, the woman is Margie Lynn Bunton (played by Elly Lindsay), who has run away from her husband and child to work as a call-girl in a traveling brothel. Sneaking back to her hometown for a visit, she's confronted by a brutish uncle, her mother and grandmother, a gossipy Baptist aunt and others.
Scudday, now 60, wrote the play as her master's thesis project in DTC's graduate theater program with Trinity University. She started it in Professor Eugene McKinney's playwriting class and then found plenty of material to mine during months on the road in a touring production booked in tiny Texas towns. She and other DTC actors crammed into a Chevy Impala as they barnstormed the state. "As we were touring these little towns, we were really seeing firsthand what my characters would have seen. Living in little hotels and going to the diners and Dairy Queens. That was certainly seeding some of it," Scudday says. "I got the idea of driving around the country with a truck full of whores. My grandfather's second wife ran a beauty shop in a little bitty town. I have strong memories of going there. So I used that, too."
She put it all in Ladybug, Ladybug. Set on a career as an actress, Scudday was suddenly hailed as a hot young playwright. At 25, she signed with a powerful New York talent and literary agent. Film rights to Ladybug were optioned by two young movie producers at Polygram Pictures (the same guys who now are executive producers of the NBC series Smash). There were trips to LA, with limos and cocktail parties and high-powered meetings. Polygram was going to get Mike Nichols to direct and Ellen Burstyn to star.
Steel Magnolias was still almost a decade away. So Scudday's play about funny, bitchy Southern women dealing with life's big issues should have been what Magnolias became.
Why didn't it?
Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home came out of the period at Dallas Theater Center when artistic director Paul Baker encouraged (some might say forced) his resident acting company members to branch out into writing, directing and design. Dallas director Cheryl Denson, playwright Octavio Solis (whose musical Cloudlands has just opened to raves in Southern California), lighting designer and photographer Linda Blase and many others were contemporaries as young artists at DTC in those years.
"You don't realize it at the time - you're too busy living it," says Mary Rohde Scudday, speaking by phone from her home in San Antonio, where for many years she's been head of the fine arts department at TMI-The Episcopal School of Texas. "But hindsight being what it is, it was really an incredible time. I lived at the Dallas Theater Center for 10 years. We had a company of actors and directors and designers - I think it was a really fertile place to plant things. It was an incredible environment because of Paul Baker."
Baker had encouraged her to write the play and he shepherded Ladybug through its first production in Down Center Stage, to its move upstairs, then its inclusion in the annual DTC "Playmarket," a huge new play festival that featured back-to-back productions by DTC writers (including Preston Jones) and aimed at drawing interest from agents and producers from New York and Hollywood.
Ladybug had all the good buzz any playwright could wish for. Then ... nothing.
"There was all this talk. Then nothing happened," says Scudday.
The agent told her not to get the play published by Samuel French or New Dramatists. So it wasn't. Scudday still owns all production rights (once the movie option dropped after a year, with no movie in production, the rights reverted back to the author.) There have been a few productions, very few, in regional theaters, but no major professional stagings. "It sort of died on the vine," says Scudday. "When the option was up, it sort of lost its momentum."
After that, Scudday "got busy livin'," she says. She married one of the actors in the play (they are since divorced but he'll be onstage for the reading in his original role) and raised a daughter and a son, now both in their 20s. She started teaching school, introducing high school kids to Shakespeare and directing them in plays.
She wrote another play, Keeper of the Home Fire, "but it never took off," she says.
Two years ago, Scudday experienced a life-altering event that shook her up. "That summer of 2010, I fell off a mountain and broke my back," she says. "I had two major operations within 14 days. Now I have two titanium rods in my spine. It was kind of a wakeup call. I had a serious conversation with myself about why I wasn't writing. Last summer I started writing again. Have I got a full play yet? No. But am I excited about some of it? Yeah, I am."
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She says she tries not to think too much about Steel Magnolias, which became a hit movie and is still one of the most-produced plays in regional theater. Its writer, Robert Harling, is now executive producer of the ABC series "GCB," which is Steel Magnolias set in a fictional version of Highland Park.
Scudday says she is hopeful that Ladybug might now have a future and that Monday's reading will be a chance to re-introduce it to audiences. "I don't care how good your play is or your acting talent is, if you're not in the right place with the right connection with the right people, it doesn't matter how good it is. I would love for this play to have a life now. You bet I would."
Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away Home will be read by its original cast at 7 p.m., Monday, April 30, at Kalita Humphreys Theater, 3636 Turtle Creek Blvd. Tickets are $10. Go to dtcguild.org for tickets in advance. Cash and checks only at the door. (Not suitable for young audiences.)