Wednesday, March 29, 2017

What to do when emotions rise during performance: Three tips

Hilda Dokubo
courtesy wikimedia
A few weeks ago I wrote about storytelling and telling tenderness. A risk of letting tenderness inform our stories and performances is that emotions may rise up unexpectedly when we tell. I’m not talking about when our audiences express emotions when we tell something meaningful, but the times when we are telling and find ourselves experiencing an upwelling of feeling.

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.
These tips work for me. You may find other ways to balance the necessary honesty and vulnerability with professionalism. I’d love to know what works for you!

(c)2017 Laura S. Packer Creative Commons License


  1. Elizabeth Ellis advises taking a deep breath, then repeating the last sentence you spoke. People will think you are doing this to emphasize that sentence, which, after all, is probably an important sentence since you reacted to it.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. I've read and reread it several times today as I prepare to go help students prepare stories for an evening of stories for mental health awareness. This is such good advice.


True Stories, Honest Lies by Laura S. Packer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at
Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at
Related Posts with Thumbnails