THERE IS, INDEED, a Method to My Monologue Madness.
I’ll share some insights into my thought processes as I write a monologue,
and maybe we can get a dialogue going. (That ends up with you writing a monologue.)
First, the more personal the monologue is to you, the more power you can summon in your delivery.
Why? Because power and personality are two things that define a monologue. A good monologue (i.e., a monologue that captures and holds the attention of your listeners) is all about character, all about crystallizing for just a vital few moments the essence of a character and expressing that essence in a novel, exciting, memorable manner.
A good monologue is an effective monologue, effective in compelling your audience to listen to you and only you, to be caught up and confined totally in the Moment of You. And yet at the same time to be transported beyond you to other people, other places, other times. Maybe even transported somewhere deep inside themselves ... a place they might seldom venture, or thought they’d forgotten, or wondered if they’d ever reach.
A good monologue collection covers a wide range of situations, emotions and people.
Read all the pieces through, find which feel good to you, which feel right for your experience or the character you want to inhabit and express. Feel free to incorporate movement when it enhances your character realization. Set-up directions are sometimes provided to enhance your understanding of the situation and event sequence, and you’ll likely do these in mime, unless you really do have a basketball or cell phone or soft drink bottle handy.
But to develop better acting technique, you should strive to do the monologue without props. It’s a skill that will come in handy when you’re at an audition and handed a fresh side that says: “walking on a tight rope above Grand Canyon carrying a stuffed platinum mongoose.”
Think out of the box and inside your imagination.
The key to unlocking the character in a monologue? Language. Each one of us on this planet uses language in a distinctive way that imprints our uniqueness as thinking, sentient beings. The language we choose to relate to the world — and to ourselves — reveals much about who we think we are and who we think we can be. When combined with appropriate gesture and intonation, words allow the character in a monologue to emerge and take shape before your very eyes.
Constructing the Monologue – Purpose. For the writer, get yourself straight at the start as to your purpose in creating the monologue. I see them as exercises for performers to develop character, emotional range, tone, even physical skills or business. I don’t see them as documentary or sociological pieces, though they often give insights into real people and real issues. I see them as pieces of Imagination that will use Reality as a base, not a standard for content. Never let Reality trump Imagination.
That means plenty of conflict or questioning, mental or physical unease that provokes thought and introspection. Sometimes the conflict is extreme and takes in extreme characters and situations: any monologue collection worth its salt is going to have wide range of pieces exhibiting darkness, despair, silliness, sentimentality — that’s drama!
I often go beyond the traditional character-piece and expand the boundaries of a conventional monologue.
I have monologues that are word plays and tongue twisters, monologues that involve mime, creativity, different presentational styles ... why not? Actors need to hone their versatility, and so do writers.
When I design a monologue collection I mentally incorporate this “mission statement”:
I will present monologues that offer a variety of characters and type.
I will present monologues that are honest in their exploration of emotions and characters.
I will present monologues that speak to and leave an impact on the audience.
I will present monologues that aid actors in exploring and developing their craft.
I will present monologues that offer opportunity for actors to grow and learn as actors and human beings.
Language and Thought Levels. In the beginning of theatre was, is and always will be THE WORD.
What a character says in the monologue is the basis for what they do, which tells us who they are – even if they don’t know who they are or are trying to hide who they are. The language tells.
I don’t worry all that much about language limits and what precise vocabulary a “typical” character of whatever age, ethnicity, gender or social type might have.
Unless I’m purposely writing a less intelligent or humorless character, I’m going to tend to err on the side of smartness and sophistication, because I think that comes off better in an audition context, which is the basic goal, helping the actor make a strong impression. In other words, I’ll take a chance and write “up” instead of “down”.
“Reality”. If you’ve ever done improvisational theatre or skits, you know the Cardinal Rule is that you never “real the game”. No matter what outlandish situation or action or statement you are given to respond to, you never correct it or analyze it or dispute it — you go with it and build forward.
If I imagine a 12-year-old burglar, then the exercise is for the performer to likewise imagine this character and bring the character to life. There’s no need to get into the reality of whether such a character exists; the performer doesn’t need that information.
Is there a real-life Cheshire Cat? An Obi Wan Kenobi? An Ebeneezer Scrooge? An Atticus Finch? An Othello or Iago or Desdemona?
Nope. And none of that matters for the task at hand, which is to have the monologue present a character the audience will believe, even if only for literally a minute. They can ask questions later about whether a 12-year-old would be a burglar, fine ... but when they hear the monologue itself, that level of “realing” doesn’t (or shouldn’t) occur.
Even if it were true that no such thing as a pre-teen burglar ever existed, as a creative writer, you have the license to create that character. You just have to make it believable that for the short burst of time that character is onstage, he is what he says he is, whether he’s a pre-teen burglar or a five-foot-tall cat named Grizabella howling out a song about Memory.
For the record, as a kid I did know a 12-year-old burglar. And last week I read in our local paper about the capture of a 10-year-old fully “professional” thief who was robbing all kinds of houses and cars on a regular basis. That’s real enough for me.
But again, we’re not creating a sociological document here. We’re creating characters, fictitious though often based on enough reality to let the actor “step off” into the character. You can’t let real Reality trample the Reality you’re creating onstage. Use that real human situation to infuse your dramatic situation.
But enough talk about reality. I’m not sure that level of reality even plays much of a role at the audition. If an actor can make you believe he/she is Braveheart, even though we know that historical figure died 700 years ago, then actor and writer have done their work well.
“Great Art is 1% Inspiration, 99% Perspiration.”
No, it’s not. That would be vile. I’d say the ratio is more like 15% inspiration, 25% personal experience, 35% craft, 20% discipline and depending upon your physiology, maybe 3-5% sweating tops.
The specific subjects for my monologues come from my own experiences (including experiences of people I’ve known) and topics I glean from the news media. I’ve been a good listener and a curious person about pretty much everything.
I see the newspaper article on internet bullying among pre-teens.
I create a fictional character whose monologue deals with this situation.
Then I choose the tone: comic or non-comic?
Then the viewpoint: will the character be sympathetic or not?
Then I write the monologue.
In this case I included suggestion for physical action as an extra element to enhance the monologue and give the actor a little more chance to hone their skill in this area. (see Heard It through the Webvine in 111 One-Minute Middle School Monologues)
Who’s hearing these, anyway? This is a factor you should consider when creating monologues. Obviously, some of these will be used as actual audition pieces for actual show casting. Others will be used in competitions or as auditions for placement in school theatre programs. Some will get used in creative writing classes/workshops.
The auditors will most likely be adults who have heard LOTS of monologues. They’ll be concerned with the actor’s presentation abilities and not too concerned about demographic details or writerly finesse.
If your monologue is structured so that it gives the actor the chance to make a memorable impression on their auditor as an actor, then you’ve done our job.
Yes, our job.
Because, in the end, Theatre is a contact sport.
# # #
THE CRAFT OF WRITING &
Some Thoughts by Monologue Master L.E. McCullough
© 2008 L.E. McCullough
Photo: Richard Finkelstein