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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Everything Is Already Something Week 43: Kander And Flubb or Don’t Make Me Sing

Allison Page, mistress of horror. And singing. 

Gather ‘round the campfire, young’uns— for here comes the tale of the most foolish of ideas which have so far come to pass on this great earth. YES, this is the tale of Allison singing “Cabaret” with piano accompaniment.

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The year is 2006. I had just finished my first paid acting gig, as Myrtle Mae in a summer stock production of HARVEY several months before. I got that part by way of auditioning with the least age-appropriate monologue for a 21 year old – Martha from WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and when they asked me to sing my song as part of the general audition, I said proudly, “No. I will not be singing a song for you today, for I do not wish to waste your time or mine. I am an actor, but I am not a singer.” I thought perhaps that would mean they wouldn’t even consider me for something, being that I was a weirdo and didn’t do everything they asked. So when I got a part, I was beyond thrilled and surprised and delighted and all that shit. Being paid to act was some super cool bragging rights for me, particularly because I’m not sure I had ever known anyone who’d gotten paid to act before. (This is a good time to remind you that I’m from a tiny town which might as well be on the moon.)

So much was my confidence boosted, that when I scheduled my audition for the same company’s next season, I decided I would sing. It would be magnificent. I chose the song “Cabaret” because…I like that movie, Liza Minnelli made it look so easy, and it didn’t seem as crazy high and complicated as some songs that I had heard in my life.

Definitely exactly how Allison looked in her living room.

Definitely exactly how Allison looked in her living room.

I took a voice lesson. That’s right, a voice lesson. We worked on the song for an afternoon. I was what I like to call Diet Confident. It’s sort of like being cautiously optimistic but pretending not to be cautious even though you are.

On the day of the audition, I drove the 90 minutes to the theater. Sure, there was some wringing of hands, some clenching of teeth, but I considered myself ready to go. I went in and said hello to the person working the door, waited until I was called, went into the theater and greeted the people I had worked with last season. So far, so good. I handed my music to the pianist.

I was probably sweating. I had to be. I don’t like singing. And obviously I don’t like it because I’m not good at it and it makes me nervous. But today would be the day! Today I would crush my own feelings down – pack them in hard like potato chips that have settled to the very bottom of the bag after riding in a truck. I showed the pianist where I wanted to start in the song. I had a specific place I wanted to go from because there was a note I was avoiding. An awful, awful note that I just knew I couldn’t hit. I was avoiding “What good is sitting” because it just felt too low and I didn’t want to start on it for fear of falling apart when it inevitably went awry. All was planned for. All was right.

“Uh, I’m Allison, obviously, you guys know that…and I’m gonna sing Cabaret, from…well, from Cabaret. Heh.”

I look to the pianist, the pianist looks back at me, smiling. I do a big old inhale so I don’t run out of breath. Aaaaaaaand…

“Put down the knitting, the book and…the…UHHHHHHHHHHHHHH”

The pianist is not playing the same thing as I’m singing. I can’t be sure where the pianist was in relation to where I was but it wasn’t the same place, I can tell you that. It fell apart so quickly. All that practice and thought and the whole things collapsed. At some point it just petered out and we didn’t address it. I just paused and then went into my monologue, which – SHOCKER – didn’t go very well because I was freakin’ panicking like the last Tickle Me Elmo was snatched out from under my nose on Christmas Eve 1996 and Tiny Tim was waiting back at home for the last gift he’d ever receive which would now have to be a tube of toothpaste and a necktie. It was a disaster. I piled myself into my ’87 Dodge 600 and drove the 90 minutes back home, crying all the way.

…And that is why I don’t sing, kids. Now eat your s’mores and go make out in your tents, Miss Page has to watch puppy videos on her phone to forget the torment of the past.

What good’s permitting some prophet of doom
To wipe every smile away
Life is a cabaret, old chum
So come to the cabaret

SLEEP TIGHT!

Allison Page is an actor/writer/director/comedy person. You can find her on Twitter @allisonlynnpage

Theater Around The Bay: Burlesque, Creating New Art by Reaching Back to Old Traditions

Today’s guest blogger is Red Velvet, a Bay Area Burlesque goddess who will has been performing at the EXIT Theatre for over a year now, and will be tearing it up this May as part of DIVAfest.

“Burlesque?” I am often asked. “Don’t you take your clothes off with that?” How to answer – maybe, sometimes, frequently, only when I want to? So, if burlesque isn’t just about taking off clothing, what is it about?

Let’s start with the definition of burlesque. Burlesque: 1. an absurd or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work; a parody. 2. a variety show, typically including striptease.

Burlesque has a long and varied history, but many people historically attribute the art form we consider “burlesque” to Lydia Thompson and her London Blondes which arrived in New York in the late 1860’s with shows consisting of a variety of music, comedy, social satire, and the shocking sensation of women playing men’s roles while wearing tights. While women in tights seems pedantic today, in the 1860’s female legs were a hot commodity.

Lydia Thompson

Lydia Thompson

Another offering of the same genre, The Black Crook, has been both attributed to a “burlesque” tradition, as well as to the first “musical theatre.” It certainly involved dance, music, and some element of dialogue, but was also considered by many to be demoralizing and outrageous due to the exposure of the female leg.

Regardless of the potentially sinful nature of the female form, these theatrical offerings were exactly that – theatre. Despite shocking some people’s sensibilities of the era, the productions involved more than just prurient diversions, but actual entertainment.

In the early 20th century, burlesque was typically a variety show with singers, comics, and dancers. Risqué comic sketches and bumps and grinds kept away the “family atmosphere” associated with Vaudeville and, burlesque was often considered “low class.” Burlesque has most often appealed to the working-class audiences, many of whom felt overlooked by the offerings (and often expense) of attending the “legitimate” theatre. Burlesque may have been the “lowest branch” of the theatre, according to Ann Corio, burlesque performer and author of This Was Burlesque, but it was also “the limb nearest the people.”

burlesque fan dancer

burlesque fan dancer

With all of its variety acts, stripping in burlesque shows didn’t actually begin until the 1930’s. Stripping at the time often involved taking off clothes off stage and appearing in less on stage. Burlesque shows, with the bawdy bumps and grinds, required performers to be in a minimum of g-strings and pasties, sometimes more, which could include net bras and panties, which would give the appearance of nudity. Meanwhile, “real” theatre, including Ziegfeld and other (comparatively) expensive Broadway shows could have women appearing in nothing, as long as they were considered to be part of the “scenery” or “staging.” At that time, being nude and holding a candelabra while the holder remained as still as a statue was apparently considered a fine art fit to be shown in the legitimate theatre: While burlesque houses of the time were often raided and Mayor Fiorella La Guardia deemed them a “corrupting moral influence,” Ziegfeld never had a show raided or deemed corrupt.

The 1940’s was often considered to be the “beginning of the end” for burlesque, the start of the slow decline which culminated in what many thought was to be the “death” of burlesque in the 1970’s, when nudity was commonplace and sexual gratification was often expected.

However, burlesque is having a resurgence, slowly starting back up in the late 1990’s, with burlesque variety shows, typically featuring “neo-burlesque” stripping acts, but also singing, comedy, dance, aerial, acrobatics, you name it. Modern acts are frequently classical in nature, and may emulate prior burlesque “legends.” However, most acts tend to put emphasis on style and sensuality rather than sexuality. Performer self-expression and self-esteem is often a big focus of acts, and the act itself (even striptease acts) can be used to challenge stereotypes, including sexual objectification, orientation, and other social taboos or pressures. Striptease acts in the neo-burlesque scene are often mini theatrical events in themselves, with a story plot wholly encompassed within the act. As such, neo-burlesque has gone back to the burlesque of the early 1920’s to refine, expand, and create a new art from that which previously existed.

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

Neo-burlesque star Dirty Martini

But, we are going even farther back than that. Last year, DIVAfest produced, as part of its 2013 festival Rebel Without A Bra, which was a combination of burlesque, cabaret, and theatre. With that show, we went back once again, to cull from the burlesque theatrical experience of the 1860’s to combine elements of the stage into a more cohesive program and create a show that was a connected whole, not just a variety show or similarly themed acts. That show traced (albeit in a nonlinear fashion) the history of women in burlesque (a theatrical version of the treatise above, if you will). We combined the theatrical expertise of director Amanda Ortmayer and our key narratrix Sean Owens, with a bevy of burlesquers including co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself, Bunny Von Tail, Josie Starre, Laika Fox, Shimmies Galore, and Dee Os’Mios. We managed to go back to the beginnings of burlesque and once again combine song, dance, dialogue, (and some clothing removal) to lovely, insightful, and hilarious effect.

The theatre and the theatrical environment was a very supportive venue for burlesque – both in the performance aspect as well as the creation aspect. The theatrical process, including very extensive rehearsing; directorial advice, guidance, and input; costuming guidance and creation; stage sets; etc. made the individual neo-burlesque acts stronger as well as providing the crucial cohesion to tie the entire show into a whole. Bringing burlesque back into the theatre provides burlesque performers the opportunity to grow and expand our capabilities and capacities – bringing more to our personas, our caricatures, and broadening the horizons of what is possible on stage, both internally and externally. Burlesque also brings something back to the theatre – aspects which have always been in the theatre, but sometimes are forgotten – musicality, humor (sometimes downright slapstick and juvenile), irreverence, and that ability to take a serious subject and make people address it without lecturing or alienating the audience. For some reason, an act addressing a serious subject such as feminine equality or spousal abuse can relay the message but doesn’t create quite so much angst when clothing removal is involved.

This year, we are again hitting the DIVAfest stage in another new burlesque/theatrical production entitled At The White Rabbit Burlesque… We are again directed by the ever-patient, persevering, and inspirational Amanda Ortmayer, and joined by local theatre maven Mikka Bonel. The burlesque cast this year includes co-creators If-N-Whendy and myself (Red Velvet), Laika Fox, Tornado Supertrouble, and Ophelia Coeur de Noir. The audience will be attending a somewhat surreal burlesque show run by the White Rabbit with the assistance of stage hand and general gopher, Alice. The show features the on-and off-stage antics of the two aforementioned plus the rest of the cast, representing the familiar Alice tropes, including the diva-like Queen of Hearts, the jocular Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the perplexing Duchess, the Hare, the Hatter, and more! We are working to create individual acts as well as develop the characters and interactions which create context and story-line. It is a challenging, but fun, process and we are excited about our upcoming production. While creating a burlesque variety show is certainly applause-worthy, combining burlesque into an overall theatrical experience is a more complex level of creation and, we hope, audience enjoyment.

If this intrigues you and you are interested in joining us for this experience, you can find out more and get tickets at www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to www.DIVAfest.info.

For more information go to http://www.DIVAfest.info.

Red Velvet, a life-long dancer, began studying dance at the age of 2. Proficient in tap, ballet, and jazz, Red Velvet continues to study new forms of dance such as samba and flamenco. Ms. Velvet currently performs Isadora Duncan dance, she has performed with the Hot Pink Feathers, Bombshell Betty’s Burlesqueteers, and Alegria Samba Dance Company. She is a co-artistic director of the “DIVA or Die” burlesque show (a production of DIVAfest) at the Exit Theatre, and the co-creator of the burlesque play “Rebel Without a Bra: A Burlesque Cabaret” which was presented as part of DIVAfest 2013. Ms. Velvet has performed solo acts at various burlesque festivals in North America and won an award for “Most Humorous” at the Great Burlesque Expo 2014. Red Velvet currently teaches Can-can, Duncan dance, and burlesque classes.

Introducing The Writers Of Pint Sized Plays IV! (Part One)

Pint Sized Plays IV is only a few weeks off and we’re excited to have two writers who are contributing a play to Pint Sized for the very first time! Though Carl Lucania has been a staple of Theater Pub from early on, this marks his first time as part of the festival, while Peter Hsieh will be making his Theater Pub debut! We took a moment to get to know these guys a little bit better, and find out what drew them to Pint Sized, what challenges they faced, and what they’re excited about both at Theater Pub and beyond!

So how did you hear about Theater Pub’s Pint-Sized Play Festival and what possessed you to send something in?

Carl Lucania: I got in on the ground floor, having worked with all the Theater Pub founders at some point or other as an actor. I love to tell stories and enjoy writing, but I’d never written a play before.

Peter Hsieh: I probably saw stuff about it on Facebook, but it was during one of my meetings at Asian American Theatre Co’s New Works Incubator that Sunil or Kirk brought up Theater Pub and my first time submitting was actually for the evening of sci-fi and horror that Sunil was producing. Also I like beer and short plays.

What’s the hardest thing about writing a short play?

Peter Hsieh: Keeping it concise and to the point, there’s no beating around the bush when it comes to short plays and a lot of times it is hard to know what to keep and what to change and what to get rid of.

Carl Lucania: The most difficult thing for me in any self-motivated project is blocking out the time to get it done. After that it seemed fairly intuitive; who doesn’t have at least one good story that takes place in a bar?

What’s the best thing about writing a short play?

Carl Lucania:  That it isn’t a full length play.  That would make my head hurt.

Carl Lucania: Never One To Let His Head Hurt

Carl Lucania: Never One To Let His Head Hurt

Peter Hsieh: It is more focused, for me at least. When I’m writing a short play I usually know where to go and I more easily connect the beginning to the end to give it that extra kick. Also I feel there are a lot more production opportunities for short plays in terms of being an emerging writer, theaters may do maybe one new work a season that is a full length but produce an evening or weekend of five to eight short plays once or twice in their season.

Who do you think is a major influence on your work?

Carl Lucania: I was greatly influenced by Audrey, an 11 year-old whose short play got produced In Pub From Another World back in May. It convinced me to get over myself and contribute something.

Peter Hsieh: Keroauc. I’ve always loved his writing style, his form, his poetry, his sense of rhythm. I think I take a lot from his style and incorporate that in my plays and poems.  American Haiku is so good it makes my balls hurt. Seriously. I am also a big fan of Sarah Kane, I’ve read 4.48 Psychosis more times than I’ve read any other play.

Peter Hsieh: Keroauc cool.

Peter Hsieh: Keroauc cool.

If you could pick one celebrity to be cast in your show, who would it be and why?

Peter Hsieh: Michael Fassbender. Hands Down. He is an awesome and incredible actor and I like him in everything he’s been in. Hunger. Shame. X-men First Class. Heck I’d probably change the script so he takes off his pants so I can have some full frontal Fassbender in my play.

Carl Lucania: Since I’ve got an older woman of Italian heritage in the piece, how about Isabella Rossellini? I’d watch her do just about anything.

What is a writing project you are currently working on?

Peter Hsieh: I am currently working on a new full length play, which is about two high school friends who kinda hold these grudges against each other over different things. Things escalate when one beats the other at this video game and ends doing it with the other kid’s mom. There will be flame throwers, chainsaws, fast cars, gaming, college applications, and a splash of futuristic dystopia. I hope to have a first draft by end of July so I’m pretty stoked.

Carl Lucania: I have this notion to try and adapt Isherwood’s Christopher and his Kind into a sort of Cabaret: The Real Story type piece that includes some music of the Weimar era. I thought an adaptation would be easier than writing an original piece. I was wrong. So wrong.

What’s next for you?

Peter Hsieh: I have an art installation / open house gala of my monologue and poems called Collectives: Volume One going up July 12th at Avid Coffee in San Jose. There are these paintings, installations with headphones that play my poems and monologues mixed to cool music and ambience and stuff. There will be an auction there as well for my installations. Also on that same weekend Rama and Sita a play that I collaborated on with my friend Steve Boyle is going up as part of SJREAL’s Late Night Series at San Jose Rep. My play Even Spies sit on Park Benches is being workshopped at West Valley College as part of Alpha Project, a summer festival of new plays and that is going up end of July and playing through early August I believe. We are also planning our next season for SJREAL so I’m looking forward to cool and innovative new season.

Carl Lucania: Good question. Anyone have any interesting parts for a middle-aged man with all of his hair and most of his marbles?

So what upcoming shows or events are you most excited about in the Bay Area Theater Scene?

Peter Hsieh: Wow, there are so many. I’m excited to see Bay One Acts when it goes up. No man’s Land at Berkeley Rep. The Snow Queen at San Jose Rep this winter. Mutt by Christopher Chen at Impact. City Lights Theatre Co, has an amazing entire season that I’m really looking forward to, and  I always enjoy their shows. There are a lot of them, but one thing that I am probably most excited about is the SF Olympians Festival this year, I don’t think I’ve ever been in such an awesome and big festival with so many talented individual, and the fact that these are all new works by local Bay Area playwrights make it even more exciting, so I guess that one is probably the one I’m most excited for.

Carl Lucania: I’m pretty amped for SF Olympians.  I love Greek mythology, love the creativity that goes into the telling and reinventing of these stories. Plus I’ve had the good fortune to be associated with some great pieces that have come out of the festival.

What’s your favorite beer?

Carl Lucania: Big Daddy IPA. Read into that what you will.

Peter Hsieh: Shock Top Belgian White. Actually I like most Belgian Whites.

You may have heard it’s our last show at Cafe Royale. What do you look forward to for the future of Theater Pub? 

Peter Hsieh: Ah, I wish I had seen more shows at the Cafe Royale! I guess I look forward to being more involved and seeing more productions. I’m a big fan of new works and edge works and  re-imagined classics and there is nothing more exciting than seeing your friends and peers do that sort of stuff.

Carl Lucania: My hope for Theater Pub is to continue to keep doing what it does best: to be a cross-breeding ground for amazing local talent and a place I can drink with people who always have something interesting to say.  And for everyone involved to make a kajillion dollars so they can keep at it. Or at least have some great rehab stories to tell.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing five times this month: July 15, 16, 22, 29 and 30, always at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!