Self-Revelatory Performance (Part 1)


Note: This is a supplementary article to Sheila's chapter in the book Interactive and Improvisational Drama: Varieties of Applied Theatre & Performance, edited by Adam Blatner, M. D.

The method and term “self-revelatory performance” was coined by Dr. Renee Emunah, director of the Drama Therapy Department at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS), in San Francisco, California. She writes in her book Acting for Real (1994: 225) that in the self- revelatory scene or performance, “The issue must be current so that there is an immediacy to this transformation; this immediacy is theatrically compelling and at times riveting. The creation of the scene itself and the transition contained within it imply a kind of transcendence, which the audience witnesses and applauds.” Furthermore, the scene can be “...a step ahead of the client/actor’s real life—that is, the transcendence might not have been experienced yet in reality, but the creation and performance of the scene bring the person in closer contact with the actualization of this transcendence in real life.” In other words, part of the purpose of the self-revelatory performance is that it is not just a telling of one’s story or life struggles, it is also about transformation. It is not just a monologue to get it off your chest. The goal of the self-rev is the expression and transcendence of the issue, and the transcendence might even be in the future, but it is alluded to in the performance.

Once the creative process is evoked, it can be as if a sleeping dragon has been awakened.

Writing Catalysts

Journaling is an important way to awaken the creative process and at the same time provide containment for the self-rev process. It is helpful to have an actual journal that will be used for the entire process.  I use a lined yellow pad of paper. Many prefer a spiral notebook. There are several journaling processes I use. “Freewriting”is the term Natalie Goldberg used in 1986 to describe a free association type of writing. Group members are taught to write daily “notes to oneself,” dreams, letters written by one part of oneself or role to another, noting themes, finding similarities to myths, lists, thoughts about the self-rev, drawings from particular roles, mind maps, etc.

Deciding What to Include

Often in a ten-week group students are just being introduced to this form and spend the whole time trying out different improvisational techniques and exploring material. At some point in the process they may decide that they want to present material on a certain subject for the performance on the last night for an invited audience.

Many of the self-rev performances in my class are improvisational, using monologue and other theatrical techniques. Sometimes when it is helpful to have some distance between the actor and the subject or between the audience and the subject, masks or symbols or storytelling are helpful techniques. I may direct a student to choose or create a mask that represents a person or element that they need on stage. One student, who had been struggling for years to complete her master’s degree, was able to realize through the freewriting exercises that she was afraid to graduate because she would be surpassing her mother. I directed her to choose a mask to represent her mother. She chose a mask of a person in pain. I directed her to improvise a scene in which she held and talked to the mask, explaining her challenge to be the first person in this Hispanic family to get her master’s degree. She talked to the mask (her mother) and spoke about how hard she had worked and that she was not going to let her mother’s pain get in her way of finally graduating.

Sometimes the storyteller can provide guidance for the audience and distance from the feelings for the actor. One student I directed used the role of storyteller to take the audience back to her childhood home and provide structure and a through line for several stories she told about her mentally ill mother.

Sometimes it is a metaphor that is needed, a symbol. In this way, the actor can tell a fictional story that directly relates to their issues that is able to get a point across in a different way. What is deeply revealed by working deeply with self-rev stories is that what is incredibly similar about everyone’s stories is that each of us is incredibly unique. 

Dealing with Intrapsychic Roles

One part of this work deals with parts of the self, such as the “inner judge,” the “inner director,” or that part of the self that is in some ways the opposite of what one considers oneself to be—the “shadow” complex. 

On dealing with inner voices: Sometimes it's important to just let all the thoughts and feelings out and other times it's important to give voice to a specific place. There needs to be someone in charge, some part of the person that is aware of the larger process. I often hold this for people whom I direct. At some point this part is able to engage and have discussions with me. I can ask this part through interview or improvisation, "What is the through line of this self-rev?"

Aesthetic Distance

As a teacher and director, I ask my students to look in their work for what has heart, what Renee Emunah calls "aesthetic distance"—a center point between being emotionally connected to the content of the story yet at the same time having enough distance to allow the person to tell the story, hold the content, and not be too overwhelming or bore the audience with too many details that aren't important, or a process that isn't "finished." Another way is to say: Look for what has heart. Where is the student/actress most engaged, most vulnerable, most sharing something that touches the sacredness of being human (the human condition)?


There are themes that I may present to the group to explore. Often, group members bring in themes that have emerged from homework or dreams during the week.

Here are some possible themes to explore through improvisation or solo scenework:

·       The part of you that wants to be seen and the part that doesn’t want to be seen
·       How does your inner judge run your life? Whose voice is that really?  
·       Nicknames—yours and family members


Varying the Distance from the Audience and Talking to the Audience
Traditional theater has an assumed “fourth wall” that divides the actor on stage and the audience. In self-revelatory performance, there is no fourth wall, so the person on stage can look directly at audience members and talk to them, ask questions, and even get responses from the audience during a performance.

Theatrical Structures
There are many techniques that can be used for developing the material further.

If a point comes in which the protagonist is facing a choice or having a internal conflict, the group leader could use any of the following techniques:

·       Split stage: going back and forth between two life choices or two parts
·       Person interviewing a shadow character
·       Shadow character talking to the audience
·       Storyline
·       Storyteller telling a series of stories and keeping the audience aware of the sequence
·       Person with auxiliary ego
·       Body part telling the story from its point of view
·       Sequence of stories of the person at different ages
·       Interviews with people who knew the person at different life points (especially if each saw a different part of the person)

Web resource: Deepening Personal Meaning: Using Dramatic Approaches by Adam Blatner, M.D.

The improvisational process of uncovering and recovering and piecing together pieces of memories and sensations through a dramatic process can be therapeutic and can also be traumatic. Care needs to be taken to provide a good container, especially during the performance part of the evening, as well as closure before people go home.

More about “Presence”

I lead the class through a series of exercises that help them breathe and feel a sense of being in their body in front of the group. The goal is to be able to speak to the audience in an authentic, genuine, real way. We practice first in partners, one person moving and the other watching. The quality of authenticity is about being genuine, speaking from the heart, speaking from the gut.

The media of acting, staging, some props, all require a process of rehearsal, re-designing, staging, planning, and revision
—and these elements then function as mirrors that foster more insight and appreciation of elements that might have been previously overlooked or under-estimated. The distillation of all these experiences so that they can be presented within a limited time further anchors their place in the actor’s own mental and spiritual narrative of what life has been and is becoming.