Webpage Supplement to

Chapter 24: Self-Revelatory Performance

Sheila Rubin

Revised, 9/27/06

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 audiences 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 awaken. It is important to have several structures in place:

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 term Natalie Goldberg in 1986 used 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 on the last night for the performance 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 had who had been struggling for years to complete her masters 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 choose 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 masters 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 who 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 boring 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-


Varying the Distance from the audience: Traditional theater has an assumed “fourth wall” which divides the actor on stage and the audience.  In self-revelatory performance, there is no forth 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.

Talking to the audience.
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:

Blatner’s online drama to aid in personal meaning webpage article.
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 breath 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.

Cat Stretch Exercise:

Somatic: p 4/1 stretching on floor... elemental movements from this relaxed state, often bringing back some early motor experiences as an infant such as turning the head, reaching, stretching trying to move across the room. In addition, the receptivity to spontaneity is encouraged by saying things like, "Find a part of you that wants to reach out", or "find a part that wants to push", or "find a contradiction or an opposing movement in your body and explore that." These exercises may lead into movement across the floor or to standing. They can lead into finding a part that wants to express something tonight, a certain age, a certain body part, or a certain role. The student is then invited to explore through movement

inner roles supplementDealing with the Inner Judge: Sometimes it is equally valuable to work with the role of the judge. One story that emerged during this process and an exercise to bring out the inner judge.  One student discovered an outraged inner judge through her pointed finger.

 Deena Metzger, author of Writing For Your Life, writes about the importance of telling the stories of our life: “Stories heal us because we become whole through them. In the process of writing of discovering our story, we restore those parts of ourselves that have been scattered, hidden, suppressed, denied, distorted, forbidden; and we come to understand that stories heal. As in the word remember, we re-member, we bring together parts, we integrate that which has been alienated or separated out, revalue what has been disdained.”  (Metzger, 1992, p. 71)

I also use exercises from contact improvisation, which allow a person to experience weight shifts in the body, how the body reacts to gravity and how to ground and connect with the floor for deeper support.(Explain what that is, contact improvisation.)

Freewriting is a wonderful way to clear the mind and to shift out of “left brain,” linear thinking and into more of a creative, “right brain” frame of mind. I suggest writing for five minutes without stopping, re-reading, or correcting anything, just letting the thoughts flow uncensored onto the page. At the end of five minutes the writer can read over what was written and see if there is a sentence or theme that stands out or is asking to be developed further. A second five minutes of freewriting can be done at that point using that sentence as a start.

For warming up to the general process, participants might be asked to freewrite a list of 30 things to NOT do a self-rev about. Then choose one and do freewriting to explore that subject. Find the voice or the role of the person who does want to explore this subject and bring this into the next exercise.

Another way to use journaling involves repetitive sentence beginnings (Goldberg, 1986). For example, start with the phrase, "I remember," and see what thought comes. Repeat this evocative phrase at the start and come up a number of responses. This acknowledges the complexity of possibilities, countering tendencies to aim for a single “right” answer. This technique, in combination with other processes can assist people in bringing forth images from childhood or other parts of life that have been left aside.

Like sentence beginnings, evocative questions can also stimulate images, memories and sensation (Keen & Valley-Fox, 1989; McAdams, 1993; Metzger, 1992.) For example: "Which room in your childhood home was your favorite?" or "When you were a child, what was a secret you kept?" These may become warm-ups for an enactment, or vice versa: Images that have emerged through a movement process or improvisational storytelling can then be developed further through writing.

Another way to begin improvisation is with a sentence from the freewriting or from a dream or journal. I can coach students to explore the sentence or idea further by creating a physical movement and exploring the movement further. One student encountered a block to her process while freewriting. "I am blocked, I don’t know how to do this.” I asked her to concretize the block on stage and improvise with it. Using a pillow to represent the block, she used physical theater to play with the pillow (block) and kept asking what it was that bothered her so about it. Finally I asked her what her body wanted to do with the block. Without thinking, she dived right into the pillow and improvised coming out the other side, which took her from her resistance to a place where her creativity flowed freely. The container of the group and the support of my gentle directing of the process helped her make this transition. It was a riveting piece of theater as well.

Writing from the center of the self

The purpose of these writing exercises is to help a person to get below surface thoughts and memories to a deeper voice. Writing directly after a guided visualization or somatic process can help a person to actually write from this deeper “body” place or more intuitive place. I have found that “freewriting,” an improvisational writing technique developed by Natalie Goldberg, can be very helpful with this process. Freewriting itself involves writing every thought that comes to mind for a specific length of time. Usually I direct the class to write for five minutes on any subject, then throw that page away, I then instruct them to write for a second five minutes on any subject. This second writing is then “minedö or looked through for interesting sentences or phrases. I instruct the students to underline two or three lines that catch their attention when they read the writing to themselves. We then do a third freewriting based on one of these phrases, to explore and develop it. This writing can provide content for a scene or theatrical improvisation.

Often I will choose a theme for the group, or work with a theme that came up in each student’s improvisation, i.e. feeling like a victim, or grief, or a secret. I may suggest freewriting about this particular topic. For instance, “I never told youàö Or “If I could change one thingàö The student is invited to write for five to ten minutes beginning every sentence with this phrase. The writing process can evoke deeply held memories and emotion. The writing process provides expression as well as containment for these feelings. I may direct students to pair up with one other student to read their writing, or I may ask them to use what was evoked to begin a theatrical improvisation.

Homework: To keep this process alive between sessions, I suggest that class members keep a journal and set aside specific time during the week to do freewriting and improvisation at home.

Shadow Role Exercise: Examples.

Another exercise is to draw a diagram of all of your roles, i.e. sister, mother, teacher, lover, wife, driver, neighbor, patient, peace activist etc. Then add less obvious or hidden roles that occur to you when you ask yourself, "Who else might be there?" If none spring to mind, I often ask group members to think of the roles that express the opposites of some of their good qualities. There may be a character from a dream or nightmare that could be invited into this process. There may be a character from a book or movie that is completely opposite who the participant considers to be some of his or her best qualities. (I often lead the group through a guided visualization that leads them to identify some of the shadow roles) They can then add some of these roles, i.e. miser, victim, gladiator, potential killer of someone who threatened the safety of her children, etc.

After writing the list, I lead the group to move around the room after completing a physical warm-up. Take the voice in the exercise above and allow yourself to play with how that character might stand and begin to walk around the room. Bring the character into your body and allow him or her to walk around the room. Begin to exaggerate the walk. If this character has long footsteps, exaggerate them and make them really long. If this character swings her arms in an odd way, exaggerate that movement. Keep expanding and exploring the movements.

I then lead the group into pairs to watch/witness each other in role for 1-2 minutes. After each has shared, they can talk for 5 minutes about their experience in the shadow role and about how they were touched watching the other in their shadow role.

Then, in the same pair, I invite A and B to take turns being witnessed again.  This time they can let the shadow character do a 2-minute monologue while their partner listens and watches. They reverse roles and after both had a turn allowing the shadow character to a monologue and be witnessed. Then they check in with each other for 5 minutes.

Then, we come back to the group circle at this time for a group performance of each of the shadow roles. Each person performs 1-2 minutes of their shadow character, building on what they just did with the partner. Each time they perform this it can change and develop as they explore what this character feels and has to say and think.

After receiving feedback from the group, each person is given 10-15 minutes alone to play with this character and begin to create a small piece through a combination of improvisation and freewriting. They are invited to begin to create a piece for this evening’s performance. Some subject ideas might be- What if this character ruled the world?  How did this character come to be? What does this character think of your other roles? How would this character explain the new dent in the car? What if this character took over your life? What are this character’s complaints about your life, children, husband, and traffic? I am available during this time to consult with people who need support in taking their ideas further.

Next, people pair up again and take turns allowing the shadow character to do a verbal or sound and movement monologue in preparation of the performance tonight. Give positive feedback and mirroring to each other.

Then, at the end of the evening performance for the group- I have the group sit in one end of the room as an audience, leaving space for performance in the rest of the room. Each member is given 5 minutes to perform their shadow character for the group and the audience provides witnessing. I ring the bell at 4 minutes to let the performer know that one minute is left. After the performance 2-3 of the witnesses offer feedback- sharing how the performance touched them. Criticism is not given at this point in the process.

- a graduate student who was tired of writing papers played with the part of her that just wanted to be still and silent and refused to move or speak.

- The woman who was the dedicated office worker performs a fantasy of what happens in the office when she doesn’t show up on Monday. Her shadow role, a femme fatale character, has run off to some tropical paradise and is lounging and drinking mai tais. She explains with delight while stretching long tanning arms from her beach side chair how pandemonium is now taking over at the school as each person shouts, “Where is Miss Sousa?, Where is Miss Sousa?”

- One of the twin brothers allows his shadow character to finally let out all the frustration he has been carrying all these years. He speaks of memories of being abandoned as a toddler because his mother had to change his brother’s diaper. He went on about always being the weaker one, the one who was considered not smart because his brother was just a pinch smarter than he at school.

- The woman who was a waitress allowed her shadow character to come out and explored through improvisation what it would be like to abandon her dining customers and to break into song while taking their order.  Instead of bringing food, she danced and entertained the confused and delighted dining guests.  

- The graduate student explored the part of her that just wanted to stop moving, thinking, speaking. By giving this part voice, or non voice as the case was, she allowed this shadow role to explain how frustrated she was to have to express and be smart all the time while this part just wanted to sit in a tree fort and be alone or play with other kids.

- Kathy Campbell speaks about her experience about the emergence of one of her shadow roles during one of the early class sessions. “The session began when Sheila directed us to do freewriting. From the writing emerged a fear like a monstrous egg that I might share a predisposition for an illness that had recently struck a close family member.  Then Sheila shifted the group from writing into movement work. We first moved across the room to get grounded. Sheila said, “Imagine that there are magnets on your feet and they are attached to another set of magnets under the ground. Then we were invited to see if anything from our writing wanted to move. And there it was- the monster, in full horror, who wanted in the end, to be comforted. As I took on the role of the frightened monster, the class responded by nurturing him- rubbing his back, holding him, offering words of comfort. Perhaps it was this nurturing that allowed him to surface again weeks later, morphed into a new form, one that combined the power to create from vision and to connect me with the life force of the natural world around me. A spirit that began with revulsion and fear shifted to become one of the most important healing pieces in my show."

Longer Self-Revelatory Performance Process

Another more advanced type of class for those who might wish to repeat the process or
who have more background in drama leads to the performance of a longer piece, perhaps
30- 50 minutes. Sometimes self-rev involves ritual, and I often think of the longer self-rev processes similar to the ritual of birth as a person goes through the gestation process of working with their material and then the long birthing process. people even develop a mixture of self-rev and ritual, involving other participants and taking even more time on
Through the medium of theater, voice, movement, improvisation and performance.

Theater or Therapy?

Self-Revelatory Performance is a place where theater and drama therapy meet. It is a process in which a person or group engages personal material through theatrical processes over a period of several weeks or months, which culminates in a performance that is witnessed by an audience. The process itself is evocative, and transformative, and the audience is invited for a performance on the last night of the class. While the process can be very therapeutic, I am clear with class members that this is not meant as therapy and when something is evoked in the creative process or the workshop and deeper work is needed, They will need to do that work with a therapist and not in the class.

Evoking Creativity

 This process can initially result in increased dreaming, recall of childhood and adult
memories, and increased need for creative self-expression. Sometimes something deeply
personal begins to emerge and call for expression and healing. Sometimes a particular
story comes to be witnessed and let go of. Sometimes it is a particular event or issue,
sometimes it is something much more subtle and unnamed. This unnamed/unknown
something needs a process within which to emerge. What will open the door of the
creative process? It is different for each person so I offer theatrical and writing exercises
that reach people who have different pathways to their creative source.

References on “Personal Mythology”:

Keen, Sam; & Valley-Fox, Anne (1989). Your mythic journey: Finding the meaning of your life through writing and storytelling. Los Angeles: Tarcher. (This is an update of Keen's 1973 book, Telling your story, from New York: St. Martin’s Press.)

Krippner, S. (Summer, 1990). Personal mythology: an introduction to the concept. The Humanistic Psychologist, 18(2), 137-142. (The entire issue is devoted to articles on this subject.)

Metzger, D. (1992). Writing for your life: a guide and companion to the inner worlds. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.

About the Author

Sheila Rubin has been directing full-length (40 minutes to an hour) self-revelatory performances since 1996 and has taught self-rev workshops in a variety of formats since 1996. At this point she teaches the ten week self-revelatory performance workshop four times a year in my studio in Berkeley, CA. The full-length performances were often for students completing the CIIS psychology and drama therapy program and members of the community wanting to do this personal growth process. I have also adapted this self-rev. process to work with patients in psychiatric hospitals, depressed seniors, and therapists attending a conference. I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist as well as a Registered Drama Therapist and a Board Certified Trainer of drama therapy.