The Joy of Monologues!

I think monologues are making a comeback.

I don’t mean that in the sense that they’ve ever truly gone away. But let’s face it, nowadays we’re much less likely to be asked to perform one for an audition, and we often hear actors who have a mixture of ambivalent and pessimistic feelings about performing stand-alone monologues. Many are happy when the requirement falls away because it can lead to them feeling exposed, under pressure to tell the whole story – ‘it’s all on me!’ That fear and tension may be anchored during the earliest tests in our career when we’re traditionally called upon to deliver monologues, such as drama school applications, meeting new agents, EPA’s and occasionally for specific theatre meetings.

The empty stage - a place that can fill actors with dread

Once a working actor progresses in her career and finds herself less called upon to perform a stand-alone piece, it can feel like a load off her chest. We may perform soliloquies and monologues in plays, but there we are supported by a team and working in context.

But why should we look at things that way? This is how I became inspired to pen this month’s blog. After taking a monologue class with Atlantic Theatre founder Karen Koolhaas in New York this summer, and watching some fantastic ‘Monologue Slams’ in the UK over the past few years, I’ve become turned on to a whole new way of viewing stand-alone monologues, to the extent that I’m excited by ‘doing a turn’ if the opportunity arises, even at super short notice - and I hope to encourage you dear reader to feel the same!

Upping the number of strings to your bow 

Even though I may never be asked to “Please perform two contrasting monologues” again, I realise now more than ever the value of working on them in my own time, and having a large collection of monologues and soliloquies in my armoury.

From an industry standpoint, though directors, filmmakers and theatre producers may not ask you in meetings to read anything other than their production sides, many attest how much they love actors to have alternate material and monologues in their back pocket. Because, “What does this say about you as an actor?”  What indeed..

Here’s where you can open yourself up to a world of empowerment. It’s not simply about getting to the end result of having extra material at your disposal – instead, consider what you’ve gone through to reach that point?

The first thing Karen Koolhaas taught me was how valuable and exciting the prospect of having 20 monologues in your stable would be. That’s right – 20.

In her words:

“Many actors don’t have a fun and reliable way to rehearse them, and so they look to do as few monologues as possible. This puts enormous pressure on the monologues they do choose. If they are successful in choosing a couple of pieces that they can stand to do, and rehearse to the point where they can perform them, they stop there. They use the same monologue or two for every single audition they go on. Asking one or two pieces to do everything for you is unfair to the writing and unfair to you as an actor. The monologues will likely become general and stale after a while.
Because they are so short, monologues are an ideal vehicle to work out, explore, and improve. Scene work is essential, and actors should do thorough scene work as part of their training, but unlike a scene, you can take your successful monologues right into the audition room.”

So let go of the belief that a couple of pieces can answer all of your needs. They simply won’t, and bending them to fit your will or answer to a new audition requirement will only lead to you feeling frustrated and inauthentic. Instead with increased flexibility you can truly consider, what do I feel like performing today? Even if you cut the total number down to 15 or 10, taking the pressure off an individual monologue frees an actor up no end. And believe me, it’s at around Monologue no. 4 that it strikes home and becomes a heck of a lot of fun!

You may still be wondering why you’d possibly need more than a couple of ‘just in case’ monologues, if nowadays we’re barely expected to dust them off and bring them out in meetings? Regardless of whether you end up performing them for the pleasure of casting directors or friends round a dinner table, I’ll put it to you that the exploration of working on them and getting to that significant number of pieces, is invaluable.

'Only Connect' - Taking the time to find your material

In a world where a hand-written letter stands out from a director’s crowded email inbox, taking the time to harness your creative voice through the ongoing process of exploring and working on material unique to you gives you a platform both as an artist and in the business. It becomes part of an overall package – the actor who not only knows dialogue, but has gone through the process of finding work that he thinks represents him best.

"For me, it's the actor who is connected to what they are saying and has something specific and personal to share.” -  Rachel Hoffman, Casting Director at Telsey + Company, on what makes a performing stand out at an EPA

Let’s consider the elements and steps of choosing your new monologues – and how empowering that process is.

In finding material there are some obvious factors which an actor wants to address: choose something age appropriate, short (ideally under 2 minutes) and pieces that have a clear arc to them, where the variety frees you up to play. It’s exhausting and boring to both perform and watch a piece that plays all on one note. It must be something that works out of context; monologues are often used to advance the plot of a play but those pieces do nothing to show off our skills as actors because there's nothing for the audience to connect to. (In the same vein, when you’re editing a piece, try not to start with words which put audience in their head and puzzled about what’s going on!)

Above all, find something that you LOVE.

This last point is crucial – and by exploring, reading, watching and reading some more, you’ll find out what you really warm to. Start by mining the classics - I’ll be the first one to put my hand up and admit how many holes I found in my working knowledge of celebrated playwrights and award-winning plays. Once I started to read I was shocked at how much writing I didn’t know properly and how much I’d allow myself to presume about certain plays and playwrights. Years after studying English literature at Cambridge university, I also found myself rereading some of the classics and re-assessing my earlier opinions, which was a wonderful learning curve in itself.

Leaving no stone unturned...

It’s powerful to get a fresh perspective on plays after having more life experience under our belts, and you’ll give yourself permission to truly understand why you love and respect the writing that speak to you. What we’re talking about is INCREDIBLY empowering: finding stories that you relate to and which you’re inspired to share with an audience.
Empowered and flexible: don’t we all desire to work with actors like that?

Stepping beyond the classics you’ll want to explore modern works and fresh writing. This past summer I spent weeks devouring books at the Performing Arts Library at Lincoln Centre and Drama Book Shop New York - high fives to both venerable institutions! The Performing Arts Library also has an amazing array of theatrical videos so anyone can watch renowned productions of plays from all over the world. And Drama Book Shop has to be seen to be believed - I don’t know of any acting teacher who has as much working knowledge about theatre as the folks at DBS, easily referring to scenes and individual quotations from plays by Zach Braff to Beaumont and Fletcher.

If you live or are passing through New York, you're privileged to enjoy this treasure trove of information and support   

So in the process of reading, contemplating and trying out the material on our feet, we truly become our own critics and make up our own minds about what we’d love to work on. All too often our industry encourages an aura of hallowed mystery around how things “should be” - one the smartest thing you can do is make sense of what interests you and never stop asking questions. Your informed opinion, discipline and self-motivation is what will keep your acting career aflame – not what a sitting critic tells you to think.

Karen Koolhaas again: “Monologues are your best opportunity to grow as a performer. While you are starting out auditioning or while you’re between roles, monologues give you unlimited opportunities to grow and explore any kind of writing or character. You can work on the writing you love, immediately. If Edward Albee is your favorite playwright, you can perform his writing today—you don’t have to wait to get cast in one of his plays.”

Creating your own work 

A side note – when I was doing research for this blog and reading various institutional ‘guidelines for monologue auditions’– I was shocked to find how much advice there is dissuading actors from performing their own material. ‘Don’t perform a self-written monologue’ seems to be a major concern out there amongst a certain strata of the performing arts. I beg to differ if this is something you are passionate about and it would be unfortunate for actors to hesitate writing their own material because of this broad and potentially condescending attitude.

Of course, no one wants to be bored to tears in watching a laborious vanity piece, but it goes back to empowering yourself and truly knowing yourself as an actor and artist. And if you start writing, re-working your own material, and sharing it with trusted peers whose opinion you respect, you’ll find yourself on an exhilarating journey that you may want to continue. Drawing on your inspirations and personal story-telling has long been a powerful way of contributing to your industry and determining your career path. There’s no pressure to create your own material – but consider how remarkable it feels to produce something wholly unique which represents your passion and spirit and values. Doing things that help you get out of your comfort zone, expand your range and harnessing and refining your skills…all of this allows us to stand tall and contribute to our industry in an honest and exciting way.

Last word on this – I remember taking a monologue class years ago with Neil Rutherford of the Ambassador Theatre Group. Hands down the most touching and funny, heartfelt monologue came from a girl who blew our socks off with a piece describing her encounter with a stranger in a supermarket car park. We all jumped into spontaneous applause (not a frequent occurrence) and were scratching our heads about what great play this could come from, when she confessed she’d only recently penned it herself.  This actress knew what ideas wanted to get across, she knew her character inside out and she penned a small story that riveted us. Equally, I’ve lost count of how many editions of Monologue Slam UK I’ve seen, where the winners are actors who have impressed the judges with their own work.

Extra tips about where to find monologue material:

Because again - why does each piece necessarily need to seem to come from a play? If you’re gunning for 20, or even ten, chances are you’ll be excited (as will your audience) to have a selection in your back pocket which includes some real surprises and zingers – true originality can come from unexpected sources – and knowing that you have these in your arsenal allows you even greater flexibility to play and keep your audience hooked!

Take a look at:
- speeches
- comedy blogs – and indeed any writing by your favourite comedians
- interviews
- newspaper columns
- and one of my personal faves: ‘The Best of Craigslist’

Monologues can come from many sources

It's all about the journey

So to recap: the process of picking your material, then analysing and working on your monologues, is a fulfilling journey in and of itself. However I guarantee that you’ll start looking for the chance to perform them, whether in formal audition settings or for friends and family in the vein of a time-honoured Troubadour. Enjoy every opportunity to stretch your muscles, develop your learning and see what new and unexpected inspiration starts to inform the way you do your monologues.

Every actor has their own technique of working on material and this isn’t the place to dissect the hows and wherefores, but it might be worth noting the intrinsic value of working on monologues, no matter how soon you get the chance to perform one in an industry setting.

For this, I’ll hand over to acting coach Gary Condes:
“Working on monologues is an exercise in theatrical principle, and I use monologues to get people to understand the notion how to always be active – always be acting on stage. Actors can fall down when they’re doing monologues or soliloquies if it becomes just a series of thoughts. It can be easy to get complacent in scene work because your partner and the script will take care of the conflict and journey you’re on. But because a successful monologue has to be active in nature, working on them hits home the necessity to be active no matter what you’re doing. It instills that mindfulness of being active in any context, including scenes and your wider acting work.

Where does all of this lead?
When we’re residing in such an empowered and curious place, we may find the industry will back us up with opportunities to spread our winds and show our work. Brilliant! You may feel more excited than ever to attend an EPA or indeed feel confident knowing you have a handful of extra pieces in any audition situation. Should the casting team turn around and wonder whether you might be right for another part, and ask ‘could you show us something a little different?’ you have all kinds of ways to play. 

Finishing touches

To handle those professional situations (remaining confident and open in new environments) there’s a certain amount of training we can do around things like introducing our monologue with impact, being flexible in the staging of our monologue no matter what the room/stage size, and using well-timed transitions at the start and end of our piece so that we frame it and hold the audience’s attention with confidence and an open heart. Handling these aspects of an audition is equally important as the work itself - it's about showing self-esteem, good framing and great showmanship, all of which translate volumes in a professional environment. When auditioners enjoy the unconscious takeaway, “Oh - it's so easy to have this person the room!” the jigsaw pieces all come together in terms of booking you for the job. Again, I would heartily recommend Ms Koolhaas’ class for insight into these points, which covers many useful and practical tips to empower the actor. My favourite is her advice to closely watch the audition room door handle whilst still in the waiting room, to see how other actors are navigating the door on entrance and exit and therefore what energy they bring in from the first moment. As we all know, entering a room with calm confidence starts the whole meeting off on the right note.

So don’t call it a Comeback - It’s been a call to action this month! I hope this has encouraged you to consider how you’re making use of monologues in your working lives as actors. Please feel free to check out some of the resources below, and I urge you to set up monologue events in your area if there isn’t an official ‘Slam’ around just yet – these are incredibly fun and satisfying, and surely a way to get everyone inspired and on their feet in more ways than one.


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