For example, when I tell stories about Kevin I sometimes find myself on the brink of tears. How should I manage this? Should I not tell stories about him? Should I only tell these stories once I have thoroughly processed the emotions I feel when I talk about his life and death?
There are some who believe we can only tell stories that we have thoroughly processed. Others believe storytelling is inevitably a kind of therapy so it’s okay to tell truly raw pieces. I think both of these are extremes: If we wait to tell a given story until we have thoroughly processed the emotions attaches we may never tell certain important stories, but if we use storytelling performance as a substitute for therapy we violate the trust of the audience by forcing them to worry about the teller and their own experience of the story is sabotaged.
I know, beyond a doubt, that part of a being professional means I craft narrative that leaves room for the audience to have their own experience of the story; they have my permission to not really think about me if my story sends them into their own narrative. This is part of the story triangle, which I have written about extensively here. I also know, beyond a doubt, that storytelling like any other art has therapeutic applications for the artist and that some experiences will always be raw. If we talk about them there is a risk that our own emotions will well up.
So how do I balance this? How do I tell stories that are emotionally alive for me without violating the audience’s trust? What do I do when I slip and feel more than I intended?
- I try to head the problem off by practicing. If I know a story is likely to evoke a response I don’t want to reveal in my performance, I can make it predictable and so build a pause into the performance. There is a point in a particular Crazy Jane story where, every single time, my throat gets tight. Since I know it’s coming I now have a natural pause there, so I have a moment to swallow before I continue. Practicing also helps me develop some insulation from the emotion, so I am less likely to have an unexpected response than if I’d not practiced.
- If I do have a strong, unexpected response, I can often counter it by imagining the next part of the story as a series of PowerPoint slides. Nothing sucks the emotion out of a moment more than PowerPoint. If I can pause for a beat, see the bullet points of the next scene as a slide, I can usually regain control over my wandering emotions pretty quickly and easily. You may need a different metaphor from PowerPoint, this is the one that works for me.
- Lastly, if I do need a moment, if I get teary or need to take a breath, I remind myself that storytelling audiences are generally very understanding. I may pause, take a breath, smile and thank them, then continue. I find audiences appreciate honesty and vulnerability enough that, as long as I don’t run off the stage sobbing, they understand and will give me a little latitude. I should add, I have never needed to stop entirely. I’ve always practiced enough that I was able to continue with a deep breath or two. Professionalism matters.
(c)2017 Laura S. Packer