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.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: The Shows I Didn’t Walk Out On — But Should Have (Part I)

Dave Sikula, full of regrets.

There have been three shows (among the hundred I’ve seen) that I nearly walked out on. There are probably dozens of others that could have made this list, but three were three that drove me close to the brink.

It’s at this point that I mention something I’ve mentioned previously; a show I liked a lot, but probably shouldn’t have: the production of Bertolt Brecht’s “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui” in Berkeley. It was done by the Berliner Ensemble – Brecht’s own company – in what was then its farewell tour (they’ve since reconstituted). The chance to see one of my favorite Brecht plays performed by his own company was irresistible, so we went.
The play, for those who don’t know it, is an allegory about Hitler’s rise to power, seen through the filter of the Chicago mob: Hitler as Al Capone. The play was written in 1941 (when Hitler was still a threat), and according to our friends at Wikipedia (in an entry I have to rewrite because it’s so badly done – the annoying use of “whilst” for “while” leads me to believe it’s a Brit) – and, as always with Wikipedia, consider the source – it was written in Helsinki while Brecht was waiting for his American visa. It wasn’t produced at all until 1958 and not in English until 1961, even though Brecht intended it to be produced in America.

Yeah, it's a wee but obvious, but it's Brecht, after all.

Yeah, it’s a wee but obvious, but it’s Brecht, after all.

The production, while good overall, had its … unique moments, such the opening, which had the actor playing Ui on all fours, acting like a dog (including barking and growling) while the song “The Night Chicago Died” played for about three minutes. That could strain any audience’s patience, but it was a good prologue for what followed; if you could tolerate that, you could tolerate anything else they were going to do.

Some time after intermission, then, it came as a surprise to us when another patron, who’d obviously had enough, rose noisily from his seat, loudly slammed the lobby doors open, and yelled “This is a nightmare!” While I don’t blame the guy for not liking the production – it was not to everyone’s tastes – but I’ll never understand why he stayed until after intermission to express his distress. If you find it that bad, just leave when there’s a break.

Imagine three minutes of this.

Imagine three minutes of this.

But I’ve digressed yet again.

Let me deal with the three plays that came closest to driving me to a similar scene.

First is the 1985 production of Chekhov’s “The Three Sisters” at the Los
Angeles Theatre Center. LATC was a failed early experiment to revive downtown Los Angeles. Even though it’s active in a new incarnation, it was originally an offshoot of LA Actors’ Theatre, a group which was founded by a number of TV and movie actors who wanted to do challenging theatrical fare. (I particularly remember a very good “Waiting for Godot” with Donald Moffat, Dana Elcar, Ralph Waite, and Bruce French.) LAAT worked in a very small space in Hollywood off Santa Monica, but their success there, and the city fathers’ wishes to revitalize downtown, led to them establishing an outpost in downtown LA.

We're waiting, we're waiting ...

We’re waiting, we’re waiting …

A small digression here (really, from me?) Even though it was hard to believe in those days of the mid-80s, downtown LA used to be chock-a-block with people. The movie palace district – the only one in the country, I believe – is a marvel of architecture and gives one a sense of what the movie-going experience used to be like. Nowadays, it’s filled again with restaurants and clubs.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

The lobby of the Theatre Center.

Anyway, LAAT was given a former bank building downtown to turn into a theatre space. In those days, there were three theatres in the complex. I saw a number of shows there, some good (“The Petrified Forest” with Philip Baker Hall in the Bogart role and Rene Auberjonois in the Leslie Howard part; a few things by Spalding Grey) and some, like “The Three Sisters,” were so staggeringly bad as to make one wonder if it was intentional. The director was Stein Winge, a Norwegian who apparently had little command of either English or Chekhov. (I saw an early preview and got a glance at his notes, which were in Norwegian and seemed to be obsessed with the clock in the set’s drawing room.)

t was an interesting cast. Some appropriate actors – Stephen Tobolowsky as Baron Tuzenbach, Cliff DeYoung as Vershinin, Caitlin O’Heaney as Natasha, and Gerald Hiken as Dr. Chebutykin – and some wildly inappropriate actors – Meg Foster as Olga, Ann Hearn as Irina, and (the most bizarre of all) Kim Cattrall as Masha.

Regardless of the casting, a good and sensitive director could have made it all work. But Winge was anything but good or sensitive. Dan Sullivan (the fine then-critic for the LA Times) noted in his review that the evening began with Olga’s “first speech about its being a year since Father died (being) delivered from the floor, she having taken a spill.” It was all downhill from there, with self-indulgent performances and lame attempts at slapstick and physical comedy (that didn’t even qualify as garbage) prevailing. I particularly remember, 30 years later, Cattrall’s reaction to Vershinin leaving. She bawled her head off, sounding like an air-raid siren, and grabbed DeYoung around the neck, then slowly worked her way down his body, ending up clutching one leg as he tried to limp his way off-stage. It went from WTF? to “really?” to funny to embarrassing over the course of what seemed like two minutes. (Doesn’t seem that long? Count it off.)

There was every reason to leave, but it was hypnotic, like a slow-motion car crash. At every occasion where an interpretive choice could be made, they’d make the wrong one, and it was fascinating to wonder and watch just how they’d go wrong next.

It remains of my great evenings of theatre-going, but for all the wrong reasons.

Sullivan notes in his review that it ran 3 and a ½ hours, but I know better than that. As I said, I saw an early preview and, even though I couldn’t bear to go back, I knew one of the actresses (who will go unnamed). I was driving home from Hollywood one Saturday night, and, seeing that it was nearly 11:30, thought I’d stop in and say hello to her; maybe go for a drink. I drove to the theatre, parked, and went to the lobby – only to find out that the show was still performing. Over the course of the run – and this was only about three weeks later – they’d been so over-indulgent that they’d added 20 minutes to the running time. I love Chekhov, but not that much.

As it turned out, LAAT soon went bust (even though, as I mentioned, someone else has since taken over the building), mainly because the neighborhood was so dicey. There was one night when, after the shows let out, the audiences had to be held in the lobby because some kind of gang war had broken out in the nearby streets.

Either that, or they were theatre-lovers who’d just had enough.

Coming next time: The World’s Worst King Lear.

It’s A Suggestion, Not A Review: Chekhov’s Gun (or, “In Praise of Simplicity”)

Dave Sikula keeps it simple.

So, not to toot my own horn (because Jeebus knows that writing a blog post implies no personal aggrandizement), but I’m currently working on a translation of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya.”

I find the process of translation and adaptation fascinating. In a sense, I’m writing the play along with Chekhov. As I work my way through the (surprisingly short) text, I get to see what he’s putting in and what he’s leaving out. I look at the choices he made and have to puzzle out why this character says this or that character does that. On top of that, I have feel I have to find a balance between what a Russian doctor wrote at the end of the 19th Century and how an American audience will receive that information in the 21st.

My process has changed over the years. I did my first translation (from “Три сестры” to “The Three Sisters”) after a good friend of mine went through a particularly bad breakup. The play has always been her favorite and I thought I’d do a translation to try to cheer her up. (She’s a very good director in Los Angeles, and I had hopes she’d direct it – she still hasn’t.) I went to the library (remember libraries?) and got a HUGE Russian-English dictionary, and started going through it, word by word.

It took me six weeks to get through the whole play. At first, I could manage half a page a night, but by the end, I was up to about two pages. (My current pace is about four or five.) I start with a literal translation. Taking “Елена Андреевна «одного часа, говорит, не желаю жить здесь… уедем да уедем… Поживем, говорит, в Харькове, оглядимся и тогда за вещами пришлем…» Налегке уезжают. Значит, Марина Тимофеевна, не судьба им жить тут. Не судьба… Фатальное предопределение” to “Yelena Andreyevna ‘one hour, speaks, I do not wish to live here . . . We shall leave yes we shall leave… We shall live, speaks, in Kharkov, we shall look round and then behind things we shall send. . .’ Rough leave. Means, Marina Timofyevna, not destiny it to live here. Not destiny… Fatal predetermination.” After wrestling with it, I turn it into “Yelena Andreyevna says ‘I can’t stand one more hour here.’ She says ‘I don’t want to live here . . . we have to leave, and we have to leave now’ . . . She says ‘We’ll live in Kharkov for a while. We’ll look around, and then send for our things’ . . . They’re leaving everything behind. Marina Timofyevna, it just wasn’t their destiny to live here; just not their destiny . . . It was predestined by Fate.” At this point it’s still not perfect, but after I finish Act Four, I’ll go back and clean it up, using the lessons I’ve learned from going through the whole play (realizing patterns, turns of phrase, and character traits, among other thing) to go back and make everything clean, clear, and consistent.

One of the things we know about Chekhov is that he and Stanislavskii argued over his plays. (When I was in Moscow, I visited Chekhov’s grave, and was delighted to find that he and Stanislavskii are buried virtually head-to-head, so they can continue to argue through eternity.) Chekhov insisted that his plays were comedies. Personally, I find them all very funny – at least, until the end when things go to hell. Stanislavskii drove Chekhov crazy by treating them as heavy dramas, casting a pall over them that exists to this day. I’ve seen probably dozens of productions of Chekhov, and they invariably steer right into the ditch of gloominess and self-indulgence. I’m not saying they’re broad farces (though Chekhov wrote plenty of those), but it seems like every time a translator or a director gets to a point in the script where it’s intended to be funny, they assume “Oh, it’s Chekhov; he couldn’t have meant that. What’s the darkest and most depressing way I can approach this?” That’s another challenge; making sure the humor and comedy are obvious enough to be apparent to even the dimmest director. Because of this assumption (that the plays are downers), directors and actors tend to indulge themselves and take the maximum time to wallow in emotion. This was another thing that drove Chekhov crazy; he insisted that his acts should take 12 minutes each to play. In spite of my feelings that the plays should have a brisk pace, I was surprised to see that this one has extraordinarily short acts. I’m well into Act Four and am only on page 38; I have to keep checking to make sure I haven’t left anything out.

That’s what I mean about simplicity. Chekhov could have given us much, much more, especially in terms of “events” happening. People sometimes complain that “nothing happens” in these plays, and while there aren’t any “plots” per se, and characters don’t really evolve for the most part (which is part of his point), they undergo massive emotion upheavals (which are frequently conveyed comedically). He figures out what he wants to do with his plays (which – like his stories – are usually intended to motivate people to change their stupidly mundane lives) and presents only the information he needs to get that point across.

I finished Act Three last night, which features one of the two guns in the canon. A lot of people talk about “Chekhov’s gun,” without really knowing either what it refers to (or even who Chekhov is; hint: he’s not the guy from “Star Trek” – whose name isn’t even spelled the same). The principle, to quote the man himself, is “One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”

Simplicity is something I’ve come to embrace over the years. I started out loving big physical productions with lots of sets, costumes, wagons, and projections, but I know they come with equally big price tags. I still love them where appropriate, but as often as not, they’re not necessary. They’re big, bloated dinosaurs that are less about supporting a story and more about showing patrons how well (and how much of) their money has been spent. Big and florid may be flashy, but I’m finding it doesn’t do as well as cutting through to the heart of the story. When think back on the shows I’ve seen, it’s almost never the flashy effects I recall; it’s the moments of human interaction. Whatever gets in the way of that is extraneous and should be lost. No one will ever notice.