Hi-Ho, the Glamorous Life: Emotional Karaoke

Marissa Skudlarek, putting her heart into it.

Two schools of thought as to why people do karaoke even if they have mediocre singing ability. The first is that Americans are obsessed with fame and the idea of becoming a “singing sensation”; mediocre people think they have more talent than they actually do (the Dunning-Kruger effect); they crave attention and glory out of a narcissistic need. This theory is rather cynical for my tastes, though, and doesn’t seem to account for many of the types of people you’ll see at karaoke. I prefer the alternative explanation: as a society, we have only a few acceptable places in which to enact big, possibly overwhelming emotions in public, and one of them is singing karaoke. For hundreds of years, church served as the outlet for most Americans’ singing-in-public needs, but as fewer and fewer of us are religious regulars, we need somewhere else to go.

This theory explains why many people at karaoke sing songs that aren’t particularly famous or even particularly catchy, but obviously have great personal meaning for the singer. (If people were just trying to get applause and attention from doing karaoke, you’d think they’d stick to singing fun ‘greatest hits’ material.) It explains why, especially when you go to karaoke in the off-hours (when the Mint opens at four in the afternoon, say), you can get the feeling of being among people whose emotions run a little closer to the surface of the skin than most people’s do. There can be a desperation to these singers, but it doesn’t seem like a desperate yearning after fame and fortune; more the desperation of heartbreak or disappointment. And, while I’m by no means a karaoke regular, I’ve been known to use it in this fashion, as an emotional outlet; there was a period of time when, as soon as I had an exciting new romantic prospect in my life, I absolutely had to go to karaoke and belt out “Maybe This Time” from Cabaret.

(I’ve also often thought that, if I were a Stephen Sondheim-level songwriting genius, I would write a musical about the regulars at a karaoke bar, with all the songs being pastiches of music from the ’70s through today. Just as Follies tells a story of heartbreak and disappointment through a series of brilliant pastiches of Tin Pan Alley songs, this would do the same for the music of the Top 40 radio era.)

Karaoke lets you take another performer’s words and music and use it to process your own emotions, in a more powerful way than just listening to the song would allow. In the same way, reading a play aloud in a group setting can allow you to have a more powerful emotional reaction to it than you would if you read the script silently, or even attended a performance of it. Taking a playwright’s words into your own mouth — even if you are not a professional actor — can sometimes be more moving than watching even the most talented actor perform them.

On this blog, we’ve probably written some pieces praising the value of holding a living-room reading of a play if you’re a playwright who’s seeking to revise a script (hearing the current draft version of your script read aloud is a great way to discern what works and what doesn’t). But today I also want to emphasize the value of a less frequently mentioned kind of living-room reading: the kind where you gather people together to read a polished, published script, a classic of world literature or an overlooked gem.

Like our new columnist, Robert Estes, I find great comfort in the writings of Anton Chekhov, whose empathy for our funny little human lives is still bracing over one hundred years later. Several years ago, I got together with some friends in a living room to read Chekhov’s Three Sisters. As the youngest woman there, I was asked to play the youngest sister, Irina. Things were going along well — we were sitting on comfortable sofas and drinking wine — until I got to Irina’s Act Three monologue of despair. This is what I read aloud (from the Paul Schmidt translation):

Where is it? Where did it all go? Oh my God, my God! I’ve forgotten everything; my head is all mixed up… I can’t remember the Italian word for window, or ceiling… I keep forgetting things; every day I forget more and more, and life goes by and it won’t ever come back and we’re never going to Moscow, never, never. I can see it all now–we’re never going to get there… Oh, I’m so unhappy… I can’t work anymore, I won’t work anymore, I’m sick of it, I’ve had enough! I worked at the telegraph office, and now I work at the municipal building, and I despise it, I hate everything I have to do there… I’m almost twenty-four, I’ve been working all this time, and my brain has shriveled up; I’ve lost my looks, I’ve gotten old, and nothing, nothing! There’s no satisfaction in any of it, and the time passes and you realize you’ll never have the beautiful life you dreamed of; you just keep digging yourself deeper and deeper into a hole… I’m in despair, I am really in despair! And I don’t understand why I am still alive. I should have killed myself long ago.

At the time, I myself was about to turn twenty-four, I too was feeling bored and burnt-out at work, I too was learning to deal with the disappointment that comes from being a few years out of college and having to lower your expectations as you make your way as an adult in the real world. Reading Irina’s monologue aloud cracked something in me open; I felt an obscure comfort in knowing that a fictional character written over 100 years ago felt the same way that I did. The powerful emotions that I felt when speaking Irina’s words gave me permission to acknowledge that yes, I was unhappy, and I shouldn’t try to just smother or forget my unhappiness.

I therefore highly recommend the practice of getting together with friends to read plays aloud. In a culture that often frowns on the overt expression of negative emotions, the chance to explore different facets of the human condition, through the words of great playwrights and in the supportive company of friends, is a much-needed way to release emotional tension. (This could also work with appropriately dramatic works of fiction; think of the satisfaction that people in the Victorian era used to get by reading Dickens’ serialized novels aloud around the fire with friends and family.) Plays were meant to be spoken and heard. You were meant to feel and process and play out your emotions.

Marissa Skudlarek is a San Francisco-based playwright and arts writer. For more: marissabidilla.blogspot.com or Twitter @MarissaSkud.

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