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Lost City

Spoken Word Poet Bridie Squires on Her Upcoming One-Woman Show, Casino Zero

19 February 20 interview: Ashley Carter & Derry Shillitto
illustrations: Leosaysays

Bridie Squires has certainly been keeping herself busy since stepping down as our Editor last year. Not only was she Nottingham Trent University’s first ever Writer in Residence, but she’s been quietly working away on a one-woman show based on her experiences as a croupier. With a performance scheduled for later this month, she told us what to expect from Casino Zero

Tell us a bit about Casino Zero…

I performed a version of it at Nottingham Poetry Festival last year – that was a compilation of a few poems I’ve written over the years that I threaded into one narrative. I plotted the poems according to how emotionally intense they were, and weaved them all together in a sort-of story. This new show has plucked the characters out of that version and written a whole new narrative. 

How difficult has it been to form that into a coherent narrative?

That’s been one of the toughest things to get my head around. I had an idea of different structures you can apply to plots, but actually applying it has properly mashed my head. It’s taken a lot longer than I thought it would. A massive puzzle. Knock one thing out and a vortex appears.

What does the narrative of Casino Zero involve?

It’s about Croupier, who needs to buy a caravan for her grandad. The whole thing is set in the casino, where the staff get free energy bars so they can deal faster. Croupier’s supervisor Janet loves the things but every time Croupier eats one things get a bit weird. With the promise of an eventual promotion and raise, Janet encourages her to deal faster – which is true to how it actually is in a real casino. Obviously, the odds are always in the casino’s favour, so the more spins you get in, the more money the casino makes.

And that’s based on your real experiences as a croupier?

Yeah. I want it to be true enough to the experience of a real casino that people who have worked in that environment recognise it, but at the same time it’s turned into this surreal, abstract, caricatured beast.

How long did you work as a croupier for?

Two years in total. I was at university doing an English degree and working in a pub. I decided to drop out and start cleaning toilets in the casino ‘til 4am. In retrospect, it was a weird move, but I wasn’t feeling great at the time and I knew I had to change something. 

It seems exciting from the outside, but how much was it just like any other job?

It was mundane. Repetitive motions over and over again. At times, it was satisfying. You know where you stand with the routine. If there were no people at the tables, those that had been working there for a long time would talk about the good old days when there were stacks of chips on the table and everything was a bit crazy, but nowadays it’s all just a bit sad. A lot of people would come in with wads of cash, and then you’d see them working in a restaurant. You just thought, ‘Where did you get that money from?’ Some shifts ran until 7am, so when you’re spinning at half-six and there’s nobody there it’s all a bit bleak. 

I saw it in the eyes of one lad, the first time he gambled. He put a fiver on red and it came in. His money doubled just like that. His pupils dilated, he started sweating. He was in.

Even though you’re working for the casino, did you want customers to win money? Or do you ‘win’ when they lost money? 

It was awful when a customer you liked was losing to you. You’re willing the cards, or the ball, to land in their favour. In the same breath, you have this clicker on the table that tracks how much money you’re taking in, so if you take a lot and keep all your cash chips, you’re given a very subtle ‘well done’ when you come off the table. Every so often the casino will lose money, but they always win it back. I remember one guy winning £30,000 one night, but he came back the day after and lost it all. 

Were you sad that he lost it all?

No, he was a prick with too much money. He wasn’t a bad person, just a smarmy, unlikeable guy. He actually tried to ban himself from the casino. As much as I’m cussing casinos all the time, they’ve got these social responsibility schemes in place, which are important. One of the questions I ask myself is, to what extent is it their responsibility to look after people who are free to make their own choices? It’s tricky. Balance it all with the intense advertising and the hypnotic slot machines that emit a continuous sound of winning. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many sensory tricks casinos use to keep people playing. All the numbers on a roulette wheel add up to 666.

Did it have an effect on your own attitude to gambling?

You’d get people who’d come in and put a grand down on red, win, and leave. It does make you wonder. I’ve had a good punt myself. Croupiers are the biggest monsters in a casino. You trick yourself into thinking you can beat it. The general manager frowned on us going to other casinos, but I loved rocking up with all the gaming staff, doing chip tricks and getting lairy. You can see how it gets people

How could you tell when someone was addicted to gambling?

They have these guidelines of certain behaviours to look out for, but there were times you could just see the anger in people who’d lost. One guy throwing his stack of chips at the wheel, frustrated he couldn’t claw it back. Another kid was still knocking around at 4am, and his mate mentioned the money in his bank account. There was sheer panic in his eyes when he turned to his mate and said, “What money? What bank account?” He’d literally done all of his wages. One guy did his entire restaurant business loan on three-card poker. 

I saw it in the eyes of one lad, the first time he gambled. He put a fiver on red and it came in. His money doubled just like that. His pupils dilated, he started sweating. He was in. You could see it clear as day. 

How difficult was it to transform all of those visceral experiences into Casino Zero?

It all started when Roger Robinson got me to turn all the stories into a stack of poems on a Mouthy Poets writing retreat. Last year at Nottingham Poetry Festival, Anne Holloway, who runs the publishing house Big White Shed asked me if I wanted to perform an extended set as part of her event. After I had a half-hour show, I put in a funding bid for Arts Council England’s Develop Your Creative Practice Grant, and it made me really think about what I wanted to explore with it.

For this development phase, I’ve had a lot of support from various mentors: Deborah Stevenson, Hugh Dichmont, Hannah Silva, Adrian Reynolds, Motormouf, Siobhan Cannon-Brownlie. Talking to people about the ideas has been the most helpful thing. It’s been a tough nut to crack so far - I’ve been learning a whole new creative process.

I knew I wanted it to be a one-woman show, because I’m a narcissist and I can’t afford to pay actors. But this new version has turned into more of a monologue interspersed with poetry, soundscape and song. I’ve been thinking about Fleabag a lot, and what Phoebe Waller-Bridge did with that. I knew I wanted to use a loop station because of the repetitive nature of the casino too. My ambition was to have a finished product by now, but I know I want to keep shaping and improving it after the February showing. You need to respect the process. 

Bridie will be performing Casino Zero at Nonsuch Studios on Friday 21 February.

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