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Susan Hayden: California Poets Part 7, Scene from a Play

Susan Hayden (photo by Alexis Rhone Fancher)

July 1st, 2024

California Poets: Part VII

Susan Hayden

Scene from a Play

Author's Note:

"Scene One was once the original Tent Showa twelve minute play produced in a workshop at Padua Playwrights and in the Other Voices Writing Workshop at the Mark Taper Forum (starring Alan Toy and Grace Zabriskie). I used Scene One as the jumping-off point for what would become an extended one-act, produced at the Met Theatre in Los Angeles, starring O-Lan Jones, Arliss Howard and Tom Bower."



A play by Susan Hayden





An entertainer in the old-fashioned sense. Ageless.



A paraplegic magician/mystic.



A pseudo-cowboy-gambler.



A tent show in a mythic town outside Hibbing, Minnesota. Very far north. The kind of town that was once occupied by a “real” population but has been semi-deserted for decades.

SCENE ONE: Production


ESTELLE’S dressing room/sleeping place. ESTELLE’S performance has ended and she is unwinding with LUCKY.  The song,”I’m a Woman,” sung by Peggy Lee plays. Center stage is a speckled card table and next to it sit ESTELLE and LUCKY; she, in a fold-up chair, he, in his wheelchair. ESTELLE’S legs are stretched over LUCKY and he is rubbing her feet. ESTELLE wears a tight black lace slip, seamed pantyhose and full makeup. Her worn stilettos are strewn on the floor. LUCKY wears a wildly-colored paisley suit and tie and bubble-toe boots.


ESTELLE (cigarette dangling from her mouth)

You have NO idea what he smelled like.



Can’t say I wanna find out.



Cashmere. In the winter time. Wet wool. His sweat smelled like wet wool.



Why ya tellin’ me this, Estelle? Tryin’ to put me off? I’m only just startin’ to love you.



I know you are, Lucky. And I like it.  That someday you’ll love me. That you probably love me now…



So I ain’t interested in the sweat of another man. Only my own. My sweat!



Well, if anyone knows how to work my pulse, it’s Vaughn.  He was here! But he didn’t say anything.  And I played his song. Our song. That Peggy Lee tune. It was after your act. You were sitting there when I climbed onto that table-top and did that little dance. You saw me.



Yeah, I saw ya.



I watched your eyes on me.



An’  I watched your eyes on him. (Stops rubbing her feet, drinks from a bottle of Maker’s Mark).  I gotta say, Estelle., I never seen ya like that. Like someone cast a spell on ya. Like ya was possessed.



“My old flame, I can’t even think of his name..” God! That was our song before we were even split. Doomed from the get-go! Bastard ran out before the end of the song.  I didn’t get to give him a hug, nothing. And he didn’t bother to go to a Hallmark shop and buy me a real card with a sweet sentiment printed inside. Just a flat flower-shop card, the kind you get for free. Do you know what it said, Lucky? “I’m offa booze and into purity.” (Groans). Good riddance!


LUCKY (Resumes massage)

Yeah. You deserve someone who knows how to handle a real woman.  Treat her right! Someone…who’s good…with his hands. (Stops massage, reached for a pair of round balls under his wheelchair and begins to juggle).



Do you know how to handle a real woman, Lucky?  (He nods). Then don’t stop with the feet.  It feels too good. You know how to make me feel too good.


LUCKY (Reluctantly resumes massage. ESTELLE reached for his bottle, drinks straight from it). Real women. Ain’t many o’  them left.  An’ I ain’t talkin’ ole-fashioned types, neither. It’s the edge I like. The edge.



I have “the edge,” don’t I, Luck?


LUCKY (A bit shy)

Ya hafta ask, Estelle? (Concentrating on massage). Golly, ya got beautiful feet. Dancer’s feet. Toes like fingers. Makes all the difference in the world when you’re rubbin’ them.



Now Vaughn, he had the best feet. Jesus-Feet.






Jesus-Feet! You know when you see those ancient paintings of Christ. Whether he’s carrying the cross or if he’s on it? Haven’t you ever noticed his feet?  They’re flawless. Smooth. Tan.



Yeah, right. With nails through ‘em.



Those damn stilettoes. They’re killing my feet.  Destroying them. Sometimes my feet burn so bad. It’s from the inside. Like something’s gone wrong. (Catches herself and lightens up).  One night, I’m going to show up on stage in my sequined gown, wearing a pair of thermal socks with rubber sneakers.


LUCKY (Changes motion of his fingers)

This here’s called “The Caterpillar.” Helps make the right kind o’ contact with the deposits under your skin. See, the form here, at the ball o’ your foot. (Elaborate display).  Means…your body’s clogged, in certain areas. I learned all this from one o’ them Globe Mini-Mags ya buy at the store, called “Asian Secrets of the Hand and Foot.” They’re into rubbin’ feet in Japan. It’s considered a healin’ art over there. So… this guy Vaughn, he ever rub your feet?



No, but he was good at other things.



Best way is to rub toward the direction of the heart. This calls for a one-handed focus.



I remember one time Vaughn gave me a Swedish massage. And he wasn’t even from Sweden!


LUCKY (Throws her feet town in anger)

It’s like I’m livin’ in the shadow of a loser. A ghost. From your past. Who’s still alive and well in your memory. Happens to me all the time. There’s always a fuckim’ ghost when I meet a lady. Someone better. Who came before.



Better? You’re wrong there. No man is better than the next. Just different.  The word “better”only applies to women. (Frantically searches her purse for cigarettes and when she can’t find them, empties the contents onto her lap).






You see, Lucky. Men come in all shapes and sizes. Women, too but it has more to do with quality-control. A woman’s mind…seems to have so much more room for expansion, growth. And you know, a woman will change for a man. A man will never change for a woman.



Don’t count unless ya change for yourself.



And Vaughn, he was like a teacher to me. Caught me in “mid-cycle.” I was available. To learn things.



Ya ain’t available now?



It’s kind of the opposite with you. You’re…refreshing. Vaughn, he’d been to college. Well, trade school. He was a wood-finisher. A craftsman.  He had a skill. It’s not easy to finish wood.



I got a skill. Magic’s a rare skill!



Now, now. You don’t have to compare yourself.



I ain’t. You brought this guy up. (Resumes massage again, a little less enthusiastically). Hey, did ya catch that little tike on the sidelines who wanted me to teach him the Invisible Rooster trick? Couldn’t o’ been more than four.



Vaughn…read books. A lot of books. Literature. Got me to read too. Before him, I only read beauty and gossip magazines. Tabloids. You know, like the National Enquirer, etceteras. He…started me with Sleeping Beauty. “The Basics” he called them. Next thing you know, I’m reading The Classics. Writers, from places like the Far East. Like Europe!



I think my parents were from Europe.



Lucky, that’s not the same thing. (She laughs). Everyone’s parents were from Europe unless they came off the Mayflower. These writers…had theories.



What’re ya readin’ now?



I don’t know the name of it. It’s under my bed.  Something about the French Revolution, some revolution…Oh, who has time anymore?



Listen, Estelle. I’ve had about enough of all this talk. Let’s close up this hole an’ go somewhere pretty.



Lucky, it’s Two a.m. Maybe even Three. I need my beauty sleep.



So the hell what? That river outside’s got real live fish in it! Eel an’shit. I can teach ya to swim. Teach ya to fish.






I done a lotta swimmin’ in my day.



I’m an indoor woman. That’s the edge you like. Besides, water scares the living daylights out of me. Many years ago, at a show in Vegas, they wanted me to do a water dance in the shallow end of a plastic pool. Do I look like Esther Williams to you?



A little.



Well, I flat-out refused to jump in. So I stood there. Looking swell in my one-piece.  And they still paid me, I might add. They honored my contract. That was the year I got to shake Dean Martin’s hand, for real life. Bet you didn’t know he had sweaty palms? At first, I thought it was because he was so nervous to be meeting me, an up-and-coming up-and-comer. But—much to my chagrin—I later found out that it’s an actual medical condition lots of people acquire. Apparently old Dino used it to his advantage. His wedding ring finger was especially slippery, if you know what I mean. Jewelry of convenience.  (Pause). Please keep rubbing, Lucky. (He won’t). Plleeeeasse! (He can’t refuse now). I taught Vaughn so many things. He was a good listener, too. Way back when, he’d listen to me for hours at a time. Singing. Talking. Rambling on like I do. And he’d sit there. Drinking. Polishing wood. And listening. Kind of like you. Kind of like now. Then I taught him to talk, and watch out! Pretty soon, I knew all his secrets. Hidden meanings to things. From his past. Things about the world. Mystical stories of his travels. He used to frequent the tents way before he met me. One time, outside a show in Des Moines, he met a two-headed lady with one big heart! Said she could love a whole circus. She was the headlining act for tricksters like you. Only it was she who held all the real magic. Her two brains could



transform anything. Relationship got tough, though, when he couldn’t figure out which set of lips to kiss first. He had trouble making decisions. That’s when he met me!


LUCKY (Stops rubbing again)

An’ you believed this crock o’shit?



Of course I believed it. What’s not to believe?



We share things. We’re just startin’ to, ain’t we? We share our dreams. Never had that with no one. Well, maybe one other gal.



It’s the hardest thing finding someone to talk to. And we can…be intimate…and feel safe about it, I suppose.



If this “thing” ya had goin’ with this Vaughn character was so good, why’d he leave ya, huh? Why ain’t he here with ya now, rubbin’ your feet?



I left him! Men don’t leave me, ever! Couldn’t sit still. I got restless. He hated me singing in public, got jealous of all the guys looking up my skirt, and you know, I never could perform household chores very well. And…I ran out of secrets to tell him. I had to go create some more. So I took off, but he followed me.  Detroit. Iowa City. Mississippi. Even Nashville. Planted himself on every redneck barroom across the country while I’d play the moveable tents, the traveling minstrels. When I landed in Texas, that about did him in. He was born there, but he couldn’t come home, if you know what I mean. He said he was tired of not being his own man. Said he couldn’t’ polish wood for five days in a town, then take off again and leave the wood unfinished.  He was a wood finisher.  Besides, everywhere didn’t have good wood. Texas did, but it also had younger men.  And he was getting old. Anyway, we lasted off and on until Hollywood. Florida, that is. I tried to be faithful, but I had lots of opportunity. And…I used to have trouble saying “no.” Infidelity runs in my family. It’s a genetic thing. So here I am. In your arms. In your hands…



Are ya with me, Estelle



Do my calves. Lucky. (He does so, reluctantly).  “A beautiful woman is only beautiful if she’s a balance of two things. One: Purity. Two: Violation.”  Vaughn used to say that. And now he himself has swung to purity.



I’ve a feelin’ he’s pullin your chain, Estelle. If he’s tellin’ ya he’s swung to purity, he’s totally corruptible. Take it from a man who knows.  Purity is just a standard we set up to follow, like the Bible an’ shit.  I seen churchgoers who were the cheatin’ kind, like on their loved ones. I seen priests who were queer. I done some things too, Estelle. Bad things. I know ya think I’m clean, but don’t let this face fool ya. I got my own set o’ rules.



What rules?



It’s a silent code. So, uh, ya still never told me what ya taught the son-of-a-bitch. What d’ya really teach him, Essie? To kiss? That real special way ya know how to kiss?!



No, Lucky! I have to admit, he taught me!  He taught me to kiss that way I do. Said the key was, don’t let the other person’s mouth intimidate you and take over. He said…kissing really started…with a decision to surrender to it. To be set free. And then your mouth starts to have a life of its own and then your brain gets put to rest for as long as the kissing lasts. Eventually, the two mouths grow familiar if they kiss enough times.  You know, Lucky, I believe that in my lips lies the power to ruin a man’s life!!



I believe ya. Cuz o’mine. You’re ruinin’ mine! (He throws her feet down once and for all).


They freeze in position.





Tom Bower, O-Lan Jones and Arliss Howard

in the actual production of Tent Show at the Met Theatre

Alan Toy and Grace Zabriskie in the first version of Tent Show (what is now Scene One)


July 20th, 2024

California Poets Interview Series:

Susan Hayden, Memoirist, Poet, Playwright

interviewed by David Garyan

DG: Storytelling is a major component of your latest work, Now You Are a Missing Person. Can you talk about how the work came about and also how poetry, with its form and versatility, ultimately influenced the way you told this story?


SH: Now You Are a Missing Person is a multigenre memoir, albeit a lyrical one. It’s my first published book. I had written two others long ago, a book of poems as well as a novel, but they never made it to print. Having written those definitely shaped me as a writer and steered me toward creating this mosaic. And having been published in numerous anthologies these last few years gave me the confidence to believe it was time to create and complete and release this book. I wanted to write about love and grief over a lifetime, and about emerging into healing. I used three crucial losses as a jumping-off point and even included a handful of pieces I’d written decades ago. I didn’t have a blueprint, there’s nothing that’s constructed quite like this (that I know of). It is entirely a crazy quilt of my own making. My writing, no matter the form, is always rooted in story. But I find the act of writing poetry to be truth serum for me. And the poems are the pillars of this book.


DG: You’re a mainstay in the LA literary scene and have run the well-known spoken word series, “Library Girl.” How did the series come to be and what are some things, for you personally, that make LA the quintessential writing city?


SH: I became friends with John Ruskin and Mike Myers of Ruskin Group Theatre when I produced a few performances there of a one-man show, The Backroad Home, by my then-husband, actor Christopher Allport. We were just about to mount a full production of Chris’ play at the Ruskin when he died suddenly, in a ski accident in the local mountains. My son Mason was only eleven. We were shattered, in shock, adrift. Chris was our engine, our mascot and our anchor.

John and Mikey came forward with their huge hearts and opened the arms of the Ruskin to me, inviting me in as a board member and later, asking me if I wanted to create my own monthly show. (They had heard about an event that Chris and I had once created and produced, a performance fiction series in the 90s called Gas/Food/Lodging which was a huge light in both our lives and greatly supported by a community of novelists, essayists, actors and directors).


The path to Library Girl started with John Ruskin saying to me, “You should do this. It will help you heal” and Mikey Myers adding “This will give you something to look forward to.” Both things remain true. Mason, who at the time was a burgeoning singer-songwriter, ended up being my opening act from age twelve to twenty five, through many changes, including attending and graduating from Thornton School of Music at USC, where he met his now-fiancé, Hannah AKA Irene Greene. They formed a duo called The Prickly Pair and now live and perform in Nashville.

This October will be the fifteen year anniversary. I try and make every show different. I keep it fresh by often co-curating with other writers, bringing in other perspectives. And I make a point of creating events that celebrate the small presses of Los Angeles and their writers. So far I’ve presented Punk Hostage Press, Moon Tide Press, El Martillo Press, FlowerSong Press, Cahuenga Press, Perceval Press, Rare Bird Books, Padua Playwrights Press, Santa Monica Review and many more.

As long as I reimagine the show every month, I see the possibilities as endless. I love growing community, encouraging and inspiring writers, providing a safe place to be seen and heard, discovering new voices and saying YES. And the Ruskin is currently expanding into a state-of-the-art theatre with two spaces in a new location, under construction just a couple doors down from the 42-seat theatre we are currently in at the Santa Monica Airport.


Re: LA, I’ve lived here my whole life so I don’t have a basis of comparison. This city is transitional, nothing stays the same. You fall in love with a favorite restaurant or a movie theatre or a home of architectural note and at some point, when you return, it has been torn down. I’m a preservationist at heart and there’s no loyalty here insofar as keeping any kind of sameness. It’s always been this way, starting with growing up in Encino and watching it turn from a tiny village into a business district, to the harsh and corrupt development that’s happened in Santa Monica, where I’ve lived since 1990. The disappearing landscape of Los Angeles is a crucial aspect of Now You Are a Missing Person. Certainly the nostalgia for an America that never was has infused my writing. And that writing is often done in my head for short and long stretches, while driving on an LA freeway and/or in traffic. And sometimes, when I’m at home and find myself stuck and can’t get any work done, I’ll get in my car and just start driving. I do think that if I moved to a small town where I could walk everywhere, I would never write again.


DG: Let’s return to Now You Are a Missing Person. It’s a genre-bending work and reflects your ability to work across different forms and styles. To what extent was it a challenge to blend different forms into one cohesive whole?


SH: Well…my background as a writer has been in poetry, fiction, playwriting, essays and memoir. When I envisioned this book, I could always only see it as a collage of genres. This may not make any sense to anyone else but I will sit down to write a piece not knowing which form it will take. The writing will show me what it wants to be. And in Now You Are a Missing Person, I view each form as a different level of intimacy. I actually found it helpful to switch between them. My hope was that not writing a straight narrative would leave room to help digest some of the sometimes painful subject matter. I was also incredibly lucky to work with poet (and now Poet Laureate of Vermont) Bianca Stone. I hired her as developmental editor of the book and her suggestions were extremely beneficial, especially in the way she’d let me know if the transitions between forms were working and if not, what subjects needed more exploring for structural (and emotional) cohesion.


DG: Apart from writing novels and poetry, you’re also a playwright. To what extent does the performative nature of this genre make it different from the others, and do you see it as being closer to poetry or fiction?


SH: There’s an immediacy to playwriting that I long for and miss. You get to hear your words read aloud and performed by others right away and it’s the best way to know if something is or isn’t working.  


Poetry and playwriting are inextricably linked by their reverberations of subtext. One of my writing heroes is poet/playwright Sam Shepard. His books Hawk Moon and Motel Chronicles were early influences and gave me permission to fuse forms. And Lorca, a master at both, once wrote: Theatre is poetry that rises from the book and becomes human enough to talk and shout, weep and despair.


DG: The play you have published in California Poets Part 7 has a fantastic backstory and the premise of the work itself is interesting. Can you talk about its development, its performance history, and what inspired you to write it?


SH: Thank you so much for wanting to publish Scene One of Tent Show in LAdige! It’s an honor.

In the late 80s, I was a student at the Padua Hills Playwrights Workshop. A small group of us were fortunate enough to learn from the brilliant teachings of master playwrights John Steppling, Maria Irene Fornes, David Henry Hwang, Jon Robin Baitz, Leon Martell and John O’Keefe to name a few. One day Steppling gave us an exercise to “get over ourselves.” He said he was tired of everyone writing about their own lives, He instructed us to “write a play about two people you’ve never met in a place where you’d never go and have them talk broadly about the world and their values.”  That’s how Tent Show was born.

I’d always been obsessed with old carnivals, and gatherings like the Renaissance Faire where the “entertainers” are hermetically sealed in this out of time, otherworldly container. Also, I’d been going to a lot of swap meets and eavesdropping on vendors’ priceless conversations. And their specific and varied collections contributed to my creating characters who saved certain remnants of the past, artifacts that defined them.

In my own life, while writing Tent Show, I was struggling with the wild in me versus the longing for some sort of a domestic life and not knowing if I could ever pull off being able to settle down. I was rebelling against the conventional expectations of my parents and certain friends, while creating nowhere-road relationships to bide my time. I threw those questions about “home” and my own age-appropriate instability into the character of the restless chanteuse, Estelle.

Months after Padua ended, Leon Martell recommended that I join the Other Voices Writers’ Program at the Mark Taper Forum as the one able-bodied writer in a group of playwrights with physical disabilities. “Scene One” continued to evolve. We did a workshop reading at the Taper and in a play festival at Padua Playwrights with actor Alan Toy and actress Grace Zabriskie. Soon I was working privately with the director of Other Voices, dramaturge Irene Oppenheim, who saw something in my writing and urged me to complete the play.

I couldn’t get anyone to produce it and then, miraculously, actor Tom Bower called to say he’d read Tent Show and wanted to mount it at The Met Theatre, where he ended up starring in the play as Lucky, with O-Lan Jones as Estelle and Arliss Howard as the character of Vaughn, directed by Alan Vint. It was a most memorable (and barebones) production, with a dream-come-true cast at what was considered, in those days, to be the best equity-waiver house in town.

And then it kind of disappeared until thirty years later, when my dear friend Darrell Larson, a comrade from both Padua and The Met Theatre, asked me to bring Tent Show back, so we did a staged reading of it at Library Girl. O-Lan returned to play Estelle, Jim Turner played Lucky and Michael Harris played Vaughn. And The Prickly Pair performed some live music at the beginning and end of the play.

I suspect that one day, someone will want to produce a full production of Tent Show again. And if anyone’s listening, I would really love that.


DG: In a Tribe LA interview you called yourself “an extroverted introvert, a shy person who pushes herself out in the world to connect.” That interview was in 2018. How did the pandemic affect your writing? Do you feel you’ve become more or less prolific and should output even be a concern for writers?


SH: Linda Albertano got that confession out of me! I stand behind those words, they still apply. Every time I get behind the podium at Library Girl I have to remember to breathe. It’s why I quit trying to be an actress when I was twenty five. Stagefright.

And the pandemic was a time where I did very little writing. I immersed myself in keeping Library Girl afloat, and did so by creating a different-themed show every month online on Facebook. I didn’t do a LIVE show on Zoom but instead, had each writer create an individual video of their work that I would post and all those posts would add up to a show. I nearly crashed my MacBook Air by using up all its memory. But those shows kept me going. By the way, they can all be viewed in the Library Girl group on Facebook if you look under Media.


I am not a prolific writer and haven’t forced myself into steady output. I am not proud of this. But the amount of focus and discipline it took to write and complete Now You Are a Missing Person makes me want to do it all over again.


DG: In a world where you couldn’t be a writer, what job would you do and why?


I think I would be a clothing designer because I can never find what I think I’m looking for. Or maybe a parfumeur because scent is memory.


DG: The issue of identity is an important part of what constitutes a writer’s work, but some writers emphasize it a great deal and others in more subtle ways. Does your work tend to start with the questions “who am I and how do I feel?” or are you more concerned with the idea of “how does who I am influence what’s around me?”


SH: Identity and belonging are clearly two huge focuses of my writing. And certainly, in my memoir, many of those pieces began with a question not unlike your first one- only in the past. “Who was I then and how did what happened make me feel and change me?" In Now You Are a Missing Person, I was compelled to write about key moments, turning points.


DG: In addition to all your creative efforts, music also plays a large role in your life. In fact, your son is a singer-writer. Do you wish music could have a closer relationship to poetry or are lyrics essentially meant to be sung and poetry read and recited?


SH: My first poets were singer-songwriters. I believe the best lyrics are poetry. I actually came face to face with Joni Mitchell about a year ago, introduced myself to her and said, “You’re the reason I’m a poet. You were my first poet.” She seemed to love hearing that! But don’t get me started on this topic or many fights will break out in my house.

These days, I am married to an amazing music journalist, Steve Hochman, and we’ve done a couple book events together where he’s interviewed me. Both times, he forgot to ask me about the role music plays in my book. There are at least 45 songs mentioned in Now You Are a Missing Person. At last, we have finally booked an event at Beyond Baroque on the night of September 27th, where music will be the main focus. I can’t wait for that conversation.


DG: What are you reading or working on at the moment?

SH: My son was just in Portugal and brought back Fernando Pessoa’s I Have More Souls Than One for me to read. And last year he recommended a book by the late poet/singer-songwriter David Berman (of the Silver Jews) called Actual Air. Both those books are at my bedside. Also, poet Lynn Melnick’s gorgeous memoir, I’ve Had To Think Up a Way to Survive: On Trauma, Persistence, and Dolly Parton, which I am currently reading and highly recommend. I am the slowest reader so generally I read mostly poetry.


I’ve been working on trying to get my book to a larger audience, It’s had a strong, consistent presence in Los Angeles and thereabouts but I want to get it into more people’s hands. And I am always working on Library Girl. It’s been a fantastic year so far, every month full of surprise and delight, and I’m thrilled about the show I’m planning for my 15 year anniversary on October 13th. 


I wish I could tell you that I’ve started working on my next book but I haven’t yet. I am thinking of resurrecting that novel I wrote decades ago and turning it into another multigenre memoir. I do feel like it’s just waiting to come back to life.

Author Bio:

Susan Hayden is the author of Now You Are a Missing Person (Moon Tide Press). The book received a Kirkus Star from Kirkus Reviews, was a Finalist in the Eric Hoffer Award 2024, a Finalist in the 18th Annual National Indie Excellence Awards, a Zibby Awards Finalist and included in Los Angeles Public Library’s Best of 2023/Literature and Fiction. She has contributed to numerous anthologies, including From Venice to Venice (El Martillo Press), Beat Not Beat (Moon Tide Press), Los Angeles in the 1970s (Rare Bird Books) and The Black Body (Seven Stories Press). Hayden is creator/producer of Library Girl, a monthly literary series now in its 15th year at Ruskin Theatre in Santa Monica. The proud mother of singer/songwriter Mason Summit, she lives in Santa Monica with her husband, music journalist Steve Hochman.


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