Looking for Las Vegas
An Austin playwright discovers Sin City by going to Louisville
He's wearing a jumpsuit and a cap pulled down low, curly hair and dark moustache peeking out from underneath. He looks like a shorter version of Schneider from the Seventies sitcom One Day at a Time. And he's coming right at me.
"You on Flight 6610 to Louisville?"
"You got a boarding pass?"
"Could I see your boarding pass, please?"
That's it, I think. They've overbooked the flight and I'm going to get bumped. I prepare my speech:
Listen, I have to get on this plane. I have a show at the Humana Festival of New American Plays. Curtain is in 90 minutes. It's a 50-minute flight. You do the math.
He maneuvers behind the counter usually reserved for harried airline reps and starts tapping away at the little keyboard, his face serious and intent. A final tap-tap and tap and a boarding pass spits out of the printer. He hands it to me.
"I think I've found you a better seat."
I look down. Seat 1-A. First class. Any further up and I'd be flying the plane.
I blink for a moment. "Thank you," I finally say.
"Not a problem."
I stand there. I want to ask him why he did this for me. Was my seat in coach given to someone else already? Were they upgrading passengers to make up for the weather delays? Or is he just some disgruntled worker sticking it to the man, with me as his "it"? I open my mouth to ask ...
... but don't. If I've learned one thing from life in the theatre, it's that miracles don't like questions.
I shut my mouth, step away from Schneider, and await the call to board.
In July of 2005, I received an e-mail from my friend Adrien-Alice Hansel, the literary manager of the Actors Theatre of Louisville. It was titled "A Proposition."
From: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Subject: A Proposition
Hey, Dan. I'm writing to see whether you might be persuaded to take part in this year's apprentice anthology project for the Humana Festival. This year: Vegas! Actually, it's an examination of American culture through scenes set in Vegas, but I'm focusing on the glitz factor myself. We're asking each writer to write two pieces scene, monologue, or combination for our Acting Apprentices. We'll fly you out to Louisville twice for development (once to meet the apprentices, in the middle of your writing period, and again for the first weekend of rehearsals), and, of course, again for the big weekend.
If you're interested and available to participate, will you email me?
Was I interested? This was a chance to write for one of the most prestigious regional theatres in the country for money. Was I available? Baby, I was more than available, I was unemployed.
I won't bore you with the details of my full reply. This about sums it up:
To: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Subject: Re: A Proposition
Great. Now all I had to do was write two short pieces, and ...
From: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Subject: A Plea
I've been doing some tricky arithmetic, and it turns out that we don't have quite enough people writing for this anthology project. I was wondering whether I could entreat you to write another for us? Think of the children, Dan. They need to perform.
Make that three pieces. About Las Vegas. No problem.
Well, maybe one problem. A big one. I've never actually been to Vegas. Not once have I made that supercharged, all-American, Sin City pilgrimage. I've never driven all night to watch the sun rise over the Strip. Never blew all my savings on one massive chip-soaked weekend. Never even stepped foot inside a casino.
In short, I am not a gambling man.
So what on Earth possessed me to agree to write three short plays about a city I've never been to for a cast of actors I've never met, plays which would be presented at a festival considered to be the theatrical equivalent of Sundance and seen by many of the most influential theatre professionals in America (not to mention abroad)?
If miracles don't like questions, work hates them. So with the calendar counting down, I fly west in my mind across the desert to take the journey I never made.
Faced with a subject I know nothing about and a looming deadline, I do what any sufficiently wired person would do: I go online. Luckily there's no shortage of sites detailing all the ghosts of Vegas past. While cruising through stories of ranchers and gamblers and mobsters, the word "atomic" suddenly pops out at me. I read more closely: above-ground nuclear tests ... veterans whose health was damaged due to proximity to the blasts ... Is this some Internet hoax-slash-conspiracy-theory?
Sadly, it's as true as it gets. After World War II, the American government decided to prepare for combat in the nuclear age by dropping atomic bombs in the Nevada desert and then measuring their effects on vehicles, structures, and ... people. On a Web site dedicated to these Atomic Veterans, I read heart-wrenching stories about the terrible ordeals they went through.
But it's a photograph that really brings it all home: row after row of uniformed men seated on the ground, while in the distance a massive mushroom cloud surges into the air. Just minutes after the photo was taken, these soldiers stood up and marched right into the blast. This was an actual military operation carried out just an hour outside of Las Vegas in 1951. It was called Dog Shot.
I want to write the story of these men on the ground, but I feel too close somehow. Every time I try to put words down, I feel upset and the play just fizzles. Then it hits me. If the story on the ground is too close, leave the ground. Put the play where the action is: up in the air.
Two young pilots sit in the cockpit of a B-50 bomber, getting ready to drop a bomb on their buddies down below. Their voices pour out of me, fast and easy, their banter masking a deep dread for what they're about to do. I polish it up and hit "Send."
From: Adrien-Alice Hansel
I'm really excited to have "Dog Shot" in the mix. It widens the scope of the piece without changing the terms of the whole project.
The Electric Former Feminist Studies Major Bares It All for You
Another fascinating historical moment occurred in the 1950s, regarding a completely different kind of bombshell. On January 10, 1957, Vegas' first topless showgirls made their debut in Minsky's Follies at the Desert Inn. It never occurred to me that there was a first for this kind of thing. I figured nudity had been around Vegas since the first dancer strutted out on stage. But to be the first that's an interesting moment to explore.
But no, I already set one play in the Fifties. I can't do that again. I sit down to write about something else (Bugsy Siegel? His mob moll girlfriend, Virginia Hill?) when a blinding light fills my head. The bright glitzy headdress and costume of a chorus girl glimmers into my mind. She's covering her bare chest with a little towel. She's about to go onstage naked, but she's not thrilled or even jaded about it. Her eyes are shooting fearful sparks. She's trapped and terrified and about to explode. And she's sort of demanding I tell her story.
Okay, I say, I'll make you a deal. I'll write your story if you'll be contemporary. Words come gushing out of her mouth, the fast verbal rush of someone addicted to action, to ideas, and, yes, to methamphetamines. But best of all, and I don't realize this until she says it herself, this showgirl is a feminist-studies major.
From: Adrien-Alice Hansel
"The Electric Former Feminist Studies Major Bares It All For You" is fantastic, both in giving an actor something wonderful to play and in giving her a whiz-bang theatrical ending.
Vegas has the highest suicide rate in the nation. Which can mean only one thing: comedy. The idea for this play leaps out at me all at once. The unluckiest man in the world and the luckiest woman in the world both decide to commit suicide in a Vegas hotel, but they wind up booked in the same hotel room.
This is my third play, and by now, I'm feeling the need to go wild. If the folks at Humana reject one play in this entire commissioning process, I decide, it's going to be this one.
I start with an elaborate setting: a posh Vegas hotel room, complete with chandelier. Maybe the theatre can stage it without a chandelier, you say? Wrong! Leo, the Unluckiest Man in the World, enters and ties a noose to it! Then he tries to hang himself. Lola, the Luckiest Woman in the World, swallows a massive handful of pills. Leo sits in a chair it collapses! Broken bones, gunshots, technical mayhem right and left. I'm reveling in the transgression, the gamble of it all. Maybe this is what going to Vegas is like, I tell myself. Taking one crazy risk after another, knowing that all your time and effort could (and probably will) go straight down the drain, and you'll have to start over from zero.
I send the play off, expecting a prompt rejection and slap on the wrist. Instead, I get this:
We love your pieces. Really they cover a great range of subjects and tone. "Breaking Even" Have you gotten a time on it? Ultimately, we're doing some 15 pieces all told, and need to keep the two-character scenes to about five-six minutes.
Wow. In a fit of self-indulgence, I write a play with no consideration for how difficult it might be to stage, and all they can say is it needs a little trimming (okay, a lot of trimming)? These people are awesome.
So I did it. I managed to create three plays about a city I've never been to. But that flight of fancy to Vegas is about to be followed by a real flight to Louisville. It's time to meet the actors.
Meeting the Actors
The rehearsal hall at Actors Theatre is filled with soft, beautiful natural light and gleaming wood floors. The apprentices are bustling with energy, all chatter and darting looks. We gather in a circle and introduce ourselves. Their ages range from young to way young, and they all look nervous and eager and ...
A familiar voice interrupts my thoughts. "I'm Robin from Austin, Texas. Hello, Dan Dietz."
I look over and see Robin Grace Thompson, a diminutive young woman with dark hair and a sweet smile. I recognize her from several wonderful roles in productions at St. Edward's University. She always managed to walk a line between performative power and heartfelt simplicity. I can't help but smile back.
"It's so good to see you," I say.
First up is a talent show. The actors perform all sorts of feats, from juggling to magic to somersaults to singing. It's wonderfully energetic, but also really self-conscious. We take a break and discuss what to do next. The playwrights all agree: We want to see some acting. The word goes out to the actors to choose a monologue they have in their repertoire and dive in.
They do. And the rehearsal hall lights up. This is what I came to see. From a powerful, sexy monologue from Naomi Iizuka's Polaroid Stories to Robin's simple piece about love, the pieces create a kaleidoscope of emotion. Is this what it's like to go to Vegas, I wonder? Does it resemble this wonderful rushing carousel of quiet and loud and funny and sad? Or is it more like the talent show act after desperate act until you're almost numb from it all?
The First Rehearsal
Three months later, I'm back in Louisville for the first read-through of Neon Mirage, the title we've landed on for our big crazy Vegas play. There's something magic that happens at first read-throughs. Don't get me wrong, it's a rough magic. Your words sometimes shine and sometimes, well, suck heaving and jerking like some big guy lumbering around on crutches.
But there's a shimmer of possibility in the room that is only matched by the moment when the house lights go down on opening night and the audience gets ready to experience the first moment. It's beautiful, and just when I think it can't get any more beautiful, I look out the window and see a mass of tiny snowflakes drifting down outside.
I'm from Texas. Snow like this just doesn't happen for me. I feel giddy.
But when I hear "Breaking Even," the joy comes crashing to a halt. It's too long. Like waaaaaay too long. I squirrel myself away in the literary offices and start cutting and slashing. We read through it the next morning. One of my actors smiles and says, "I really like the changes you've made." This is a good sign. Usually actors express keen disappointment whenever you cut their lines, especially laugh lines.
I feel like I've done my job, and fly home. Now all I have to do it sit back, relax, and wait for opening night ...
From: Adrien-Alice Hansel
Subject: A love letter to you
So ... Mr. Dietz. We're in the middle of tech for Neon Mirage and our run time is hanging out around an hour and 38 minutes, which is a touch too long for us. And the time has come for the ruthless cuts. Could you take a look and let me know what you think?
Only a dramaturge could call a request for cuts a love letter. I open the attachment.
Some of the cuts make perfect sense and work wonders to quicken the pace and flow of the play. But they want to cut Lola's "plucking gesture," the one she makes when she talks about "plucking failures from life like ripe fruit from an orchard." To me this gesture is key. It communicates a dreamy otherworldliness that Lola is tapped into, something simple and pure and idealistic. Like the snowfall from our first reading of the show. It's like the whole little play is encased in a silly snow globe that manages to be beautiful and sweet and ridiculous all at once.
(Maybe that's what Vegas is like. A giddy bubble enclosing a world that's fast, loud, larger than life, and full of death. Or is that too extreme?)
I write them back accepting most of the cuts, but keeping the section with the plucking gesture. Somehow plucking failure from the jaws of victory sums up everything I dream Vegas might be about.
We've landed and I've hopped out of my luxurious first-class seat (thank you, Schneider). I'm rushed to the theatre, arriving 15 minutes before curtain, when my phone buzzes with a voice mail. It's Christi Moore, producing director of Austin Script Works! She's here with Steven Tomlinson, the brilliant writer/economist whose plays Managed Care and Curb Appeal have charmed and moved Austin audiences for years. Now he's here to accept the American Theatre Critics Association's Osborn Award for his latest work, American Fiesta (which Christi directed).
I rush into the theatre and see Christi and Steven sitting there, waiting for me. This sudden sense of dislocation passes through me. I'm in Louisville, in Vegas, and in Austin all at once. And somehow they all feel like home. Christi pats my knee as I sit down next to her.
"Hey, mister," she says, "We were looking all over for you."
"Congratulations, Dan," says Steven warmly.
"You too, Steven," I say.
And then the lights go down, and that shimmer of expectation fills the air. The lights come up on Robin as a drifting ghost cracking wise about the destruction of the Earth. She draws us into a world of dust and quiet, and then ... BAM! The lights shoot up, the music kicks in, and a glittery showgirl steps out and begins singing "MGM Grand," a wonderful song by Rick Hip-Flores about taking risks and winning big.
Then all the characters in the whole show enter the stage: the two pilots from "Dog Shot," Leo and Lola from "Breaking Even," Gina the feminist-studies major turned showgirl. Lola makes her plucking gesture. It's like one of those dreams where all the people you ever cared for friends, lovers, family are waiting for you at the same party, and they're all friends. Why does this work so well? What is it about theatre that can make the impossible happen right before your eyes?
Shut up, says the miracle.
No, I answer back. I can't stop thinking about it. This feeling of a sudden, unexpected gift. Maybe that's what draws people to Vegas. That moment when, out of the dark, the jackpot hits. An unexpected shower of riches. A shook-up snow globe raining renewal down on those within. A maintenance worker bumping you up to first class for no apparent reason.
In a weird way, it's like the bet you make on theatre. That something inherently obsolete and ridiculous (grown men and women playing dress-up and spouting the most outlandish things) will suddenly become something special. Something more precious and real than the money and time you spent getting into your seat.
It's a sucker's bet to be sure. You'd be a fool to wager your money, not to mention your heart, on a payoff like that. Theatre is a lot of work for very little reward. Plays are often bad. Stories are often flawed. The house always wins.
But before you dismiss this gamble completely, consider this:
I'm in Dallas, having flown back from Louisville in a tiny 30-seat jet through what I learn later were tornados that tore through Tennessee. I'm shaken to the core, feeling an inch away from having lost it all for nothing but a set of three five-minute plays that were performed three times before they went away for good. And then I look down at my ticket for my connecting flight back to Austin.
Seat 5-A. First Class.