Thursday, October 12, 2023

Composing the Emotional Flow of a Performance or Reading

What Is Emotional Flow? 

For a play, opera, or literary reading, the emotional flow is the pathway of moods that the audience experiences as they take in the performance. 

Audiences begin with a natural reluctance to connect with a show or reading, something we skeptical humans bring to any live event. Emotional connection with the performers can change that.

Zack Rogow giving a poetry reading.

When there is humor on stage or in a reading, the attendees laugh, relax, and let go of that natural reticence. On the other hand, when there is pathos in a performance, the audience also connects, but in a very different way. Identifying with the pain of a character or a reader can be a very personal, internal moment. 

What is tricky for the writer of a play, an opera libretto, or a literary reading, is to know how best to thread together the various emotions that a performance stimulates in an audience. Not all combinations work, as I’ve discovered the hard way.

Start Heavy, Go Light—This Doesn’t Usually Work

Earlier in my literary career, I used to do poetry readings that combined stories of sharp tragedy with boisterous comedy. The tragedy sometimes involved the loss of a parent—very heavy content. My first instinct was to put the tragedy first, and then lighten things up with silliness. I followed my tragic, confessional writings with jokey poems, partly to reassure the audience that I was alright, even after exposing a personal trauma. My punchline humor was also a sort of bravado, a way of sidestepping the depths of emotion I’d just uncovered. I don’t think this emotional flow worked. The humor undercut the pathos and left the audience scratching their heads, wondering if they should be laughing or sympathizing with my pain.

I didn’t discover how badly I was threading the emotions in my poetry readings until I saw a student of mine imitate the heavy-to-light dynamic in his own reading. When I saw how flat and evasive the humor felt after a moment of stabbing pathos, it struck me that I was composing the emotional flow of a performance all wrong. 

Start Light, Go Heavy

It was only by trial and error that I tried the reverse strategy—starting light and ending heavy. I tried this out in a collaboration with actor Lorri Holt. Lorri and I developed together the play Colette Uncensored, about the life of the French writer Colette

Lorri Holt as the writer Colette in Colette Uncensored

The story of Colette’s life naturally lent itself to the light-to-heavy emotional pathway, because Colette’s earlier years were like a French bedroom farce. Later on, when Colette’s family was swept up in the rise of fascism in the 1930s and 40s, her life became deadly serious. Colette’s husband then was Jewish and was arrested by the Gestapo, and her daughter regularly risked her life with her involvement in the resistance to the Nazi occupation of France. When Lorri and I tried putting the humor in the early part of the play, and made the second half much more serious, the audience seemed to go with that current much more naturally. The initial humor gave the audience a chance to connect to the performance. Once the attendees had warmed up to the show, they were wide open to feeling the pathos in the second half. 

Alternate Light and Heavy

After seeing the light-to-heavy path work well in a performance, I assumed that was the only successful way to combine humor and pathos on stage or in a reading. Not long ago, I saw a performance of Gioachino Rossini’s opera buffa, La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder). You can’t find a more outrageous comedy. The emotions run from slapstick to ridiculous. The feelings of the characters are so exaggerated, their crushes are so obviously unrequited, their amorous hopes are so clownish, that the audience is invited only to chuckle. And yet…Rossini and the librettist Giuseppe Maria Foppa insert moments in this opera where a character confesses a hidden passion in the most poignant way. When the zany servant Germano confesses his love in the aria, “Amore dolcemente tu prima accendi il core,” (“How sweetly, love, you first light this heart on fire”), your own heart just melts. 

How does Rossini succeed in placing these moments of extreme romantic passion in a farce? Well, music helps. Strike up the violins, and anything is possible. But I believe that can also be done in a literary work. It ain’t easy, though. I’m still working on it.

Zack’s memoir about his father, the writer Lee Rogow: Hugging My Father’s Ghost

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies

Other posts of interest:

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop

How Not to Become a Literary Dropout

Putting Together a Book Manuscript

Working with a Writing Mentor

How to Deliver Your Message

Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?

Why Write Poetry?

Poetic Forms: Introductionthe Sonnetthe Sestinathe Ghazalthe Tankathe Villanelle

Praise and Lament

How to Be an American Writer

Writers and Collaboration

Types of Closure in Poetry