The Oxford English Dictionary describes a shill as “an accomplice of a confidence, trickster or swindler who poses as a genuine customer to entice or encourage others.” That’s a pretty good definition of the ethically dubious but somewhat interesting position that I was in when I was twenty-one years old, living in Las Vegas, looking at the similarities between the level of everyday performance and escapism that was happening in Las Vegas versus what I thought I wanted to do onstage with words and language, via the Greeks. I did think “the efficacy of art replaces religious faith,” as Genet writes. Theatre was my religion, and I had come to it in dire need, it was a haven, a solace. It was for me a habitable space, the first habitable space I’d ever found.
I worked as a slots shill one summer so that I could save up for the green contact lenses that I so desperately desired. This was back during my short-lived heyday: my naturally bright red hair, my fake green eyes, my leopard print tights, my white go-go boots. I was from Las Vegas, and I thought that I looked pretty good. Reflecting back, what I looked like was pretty bizarre.
That summer, between my second and third year of graduate school, I had just turned twenty-one, and I was finally able to work on the Vegas Strip in what I thought was a glamorous job—more glamorous than washing dishes, my usual summer job. The only casino jobs that I could get were the nonunion ones. So I was a shill, hired by the casino to play for the casino and entice other customers into playing.
Las Vegas has its own rules and regulations. What sounds illegal, unethical, and unthinkable is often de rigeur in Las Vegas. There are indeed shills playing with house funds at the card tables. The State of Nevada Gaming Control Board issues a list of bylaws that governs the use of shills at the tables. There is some skill required to play the tables. You need the confidence of a real gambler. Luckily for me there was a lower circle of shilling, where confidence was not necessary and was possibly an impediment: the slots. I was instructed to dress like a tourist, I was pointed toward a certain slot machine, one that had been set to win, I was handed a bucket of tokens and chips (not real coins), and I pulled the lever until the machine hit. After ten minutes the bells went off and the Cocktail Waitress with the Microphone hustled over and congratulated me, asked me my name and where I was from—Brenda, I lied, from New Haven. I worked afternoons at Sassy Sally’s and nights at the Golden Goose. This was before Glitter Gulch was made into an outdoor mall. Glitter Gulch was the term for the glut of small casinos off the Strip, a seedy downtown area for the lowbrow and the locals. This was back before slot machines were both push-button and ATM card friendly. There was an element of embodiment to the work of playing the slots. Slots were “one armed bandits,” so you pulled the lever with one hand while you nestled your cup of nickels in the other.
I thought that as a “theatre person” being a shill would be a good summer job for me. It was performative, yes, and though I wasn’t a performer, I was a playwright, this was good experience, wasn’t it? Except that I hated it, I hated it, I hated it. I hated the cigarette smoke, it made me wheeze; I hated the carpet, it made me dizzy with its swirling bad designs, its paisley hodge-podges. But most of all I hated lying that I’d “won”—especially when tourists would ask me questions about my “strategy”— “how long were you playing before you hit?” “How did you pick your machine?” I was always tempted to say that I chose the Ideal machine. I’d be using my theatre training in that description. My head was full of the Greeks, even as my feet were in Vegas.
My first year at Yale had been transformative. When I arrived I was very young and very fat and very shy. I wanted to go back home to Las Vegas, Nevada, from the split-second I set foot in New Haven. The Yale campus was full of slim, attractive, witty Oscar Wilde types. I was terrified. My first class was Leon Katz’s “History of Drama.” I squeezed into a chair in the back of the room. Leon just started talking. He sat in a halo of cigarette smoke. He wore a natty blazer and his only jewelry was a large silver ring. Later I saw that the ring was the head of Medusa, a swirl of silvery snakes. He did not use notes. He did not need notes. He was like a lounge singer, stage center, and he spoke his lyrics, just as Sinatra did.
After the lecture ended and the slim witty people filed out into the fall day, I remained. Possibly I was stuck in my desk. I was also—mesmerized. I’d never heard anyone witness theatre like Leon—he covered the ancients and the ordinary theatricality of surreal everyday life. He could yoke the Dionysian to the present tense with astonishing alacrity. After that lecture Leon sat and watched me. I watched him back. He said to me, across that room, “Would you like to join me for a cup of tea?” It was not only his vast erudition and his capacity to witness theatre that I learned from Leon—I was also always struck by his kindness. I tried to learn that, too.
He told me that my work reminded him of Gertrude Stein. That was before I knew of her writing and of his long-ago friendship with her, and of how much he admired her work—that was before I knew the extent of the compliment. That was before I understood the kind of self-invention that gets handed to you as “the other”—the woman, the queer, the behemoth. What a blessing to have met this man. In one of my classes at Yale I’d been told to write “likeable characters in a familiar situation.” I couldn’t do it, I was actually incapable. It was against my religion. I was told that my plays had too much language and hence were “too fat to fly,” as one director told me. Leon devised an independent study in which we read Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths, so that I was able to drop the “likeable character in a familiar situation” class.
In a parallel universe of My Own Life I am working the steam tray table at the Golden Nugget because no one else ever gave me the permission slip to write the non-narrative, weird, large, landscape plays that have at their heart language. Later I realized that it was not actually Aristotle vs. Me and Me Alone—and that other playwrights had, of course, felt constricted by the Aristotelian misprisions that were so deeply part of the theatre scene that I was flung into.
Leon Katz taught me the Greeks. What I remember from his lecture notes, even now, is that attending the theatre was connected to one’s civic duty: it was an interior housecleaning, a civic reckoning. The capricious gods could choose to show up at any time, and so the citizen had better be prepared for a spot-check. There were two modes of preparation for a soiled soul: one was to go to a sporting event and, by rooting for an athlete, profound and cleansing emotions would be activated. The other option was to go to the theatre, and, in passionate sympathetic contemplation, witness a story, a tragic turn of events, to identify, to empathize and to walk away purified. To create both holy terror and whole receptivity, then, was at the root of the experience.
My first year of graduate school I started walking everywhere and eating vegetables. I lost almost 100 pounds that year, and I came back to Las Vegas half the girl I used to be. Hence the green contact lenses and the go-go boots: I was making up for lost time. I was also less shy than I used to be. I even considered trying to act, because so many of my favorite playwrights had also acted. At Yale they encouraged but did not require us to act. I later discovered that teaching was similar, I didn’t have to actually be onstage to act.
My experience as a shill was so deeply uncomfortable, so discomfiting, it felt so wrong, but I did it till I got another job: as the Galaxy Giveaway Girl at the Stardust. From my post at the lip of the casino, I could see the slowly revolving neon sign of the Tam O’Shanter, a marketing strategy I will never understand. A casino named after a hat…it was a fantastic sign though, and I appreciated it. But not as much as I loved the Stardust sign with its sprinkles and sidereal galactic substance. The Stardust was demolished several years ago, and I haven’t cruised the Strip since, though I return to Las Vegas for family occasions.
The next summer, the summer that I graduated from drama school, I was asked by Sheldon Harnick, who wrote the lyrics for Fiddler On the Roof, why on earth I wanted to go into theatre. This was at the O’Neill Music Theater Festival, where the short-lived collaboration of my post-apocalyptic musical Pagan Babies was being workshopped into oblivion. “Why are you doing theatre? Go to Los Angeles. Write movies!” I didn’t know what to say. But I’ve been thinking about his question ever since.
Tony Kushner writes that “what we refer to when we speak sentimentally about the ‘power of the live event’ is merely the frisson, becoming rare in this age of electronic simulation, of being proximate to something that can end up soaring or falling flat on its ass.” I would say it’s not only your proximity to the event, it’s your participation—that’s what I used to tell my students at my first teaching job, at San Francisco State University. You create the exchange as an audience member. It is part of your “civic duty” after all, as Leon taught, as the Greeks saw things.
The more I taught, the more I saw, and the more I saw, the more I had to expand my own definitions. Who were, what were, the antidotes to Aristotle and all of the interpretations of Aristotle that had become the rubric of what a “well-made” play was? A “producible” play…the kind of play that featured the likeable and the familiar? Gertrude Stein, of course! No plot, no character, no plot, no action… Another one of my antidotes was Ntozake Shange who writes that
...as a poet in the american theater/i find most activity that takes place on our stage to be overwhelmingly shallow/stilted and imitative. that is probably one of the reasons I insist on calling myself a poet or writer/rather than a playwright/i am solely interested in the poetry of the moment/the emotional and aesthetic impact of a character on a line....theater...is an all-encompassing moment/a moment of poetry/the opportunity to make something happen.
One of the parameters of theatre’s draw is indeed its live quotient-factor as well as our participation as audience members. “Drama began as the act of a whole community. Ideally there should be no spectators. In practice every member of the audience should feel like an understudy,” as W. H. Auden writes.
Now I teach The Poetics every chance I get. It was through teaching that I began to see the innate beauty of the Aristotelian tenets. I realized that Leon Katz always had a gleam in his eye when he spoke about the Greeks. Leon’s heart was with Gertrude Stein, after all, just as mine belongs to Beckett: both of them use all of Aristotle’s categories, but in an original order. Aristotle is vital because he is “prior” as a friend of mine, a classicist, once told me. Plot, character, thought, diction, music, spectacle. These are the Aristotelian categories, and there is no better way to think about a play. Vegas entertainments privilege spectacle over plot, over character, and thought/diction is a distant notion. But the communal aspect of the importance of “Being There” is very much in evidence, still. In Las Vegas, it is a commonly-held belief that you can influence the roll of the dice by getting all the people at the table to want the same number—that is one reason that gambling holds a communal function. Indeed, an early advertisement for Caesar’s Palace admonished: “You don’t come to Las Vegas to play solitaire.” A group situation for personal redemption is, after all, located at the craps table. Reflecting back, I see that I was participating in a kind of spectacle-based theatre, an ambulatory theatre, theatre without walls. That perhaps it’s not all warring factions, these modes of aesthetic being, perhaps it might be reconciled on some level. That’s it, that’s my Aristotle, as I thought of him once upon a time on the Las Vegas Strip, he was my conduit, a way of thinking outside of the big givens, no matter how real they seem to be—the signage, after all can be demolished, but the communal aspect, that goes on new combinations, anywhere we gather to see, to hear, to follow, to participate in a larger than personal event…a play.