"Make Your Monologue Tridimensional"
(Crafting the Perfect Monologue, Part 2 of 3)
Like we've said before, having a handful of perfect monologues in your back pocket is one of the actor's most essential tools. They are polished, prepared work that's designed to show off both your strengths and your range. They can also be used in a variety of circumstances, with a variety of industry people like agents, casting directors and producers. If your monologues are well chosen and well prepared, they can only enhance your chances of being cast and time devoted to them is well spent.
Beyond formal casting situations, monologues can also come in handy in certain impromptu situations, like finding yourself in an elevator with Martin Scorsese. This actually happened to a friend of mine some years ago and since they were the only two people in the elevator, she did something about it! My friend Judy had heard Marty was casting for a particular film and she just happened to have a monologue that was a good fit. Of course this was something of a gamble, Judy didn't know the guy and sometimes directors are OK with these things and sometimes they're not. Then again, Judy was represented by a small office and she figured this was her only shot at getting near a big director like him and she had nothing to lose.
So Judy said hello, didn't ask permission and did her best monologue for him. They got down to the lobby and she handed him a post card as the door opened, thanking him profusely for his time. MS smiled, took the card and slipped away. Judy never expected to hear from him but oddly enough, his office called her in to read the following week. Now she didn't get cast in that film but Judy must have made an impression, because a year later the office called her back and this time Scorsese did cast her.
This scenario is what I like to call "Actor's Luck" and that isn't just being in the right place at the right time but it's being ready for that to happen. To be that kind of lucky, you need the opportunity but you also need the preparation. Judy was a serious actor, who worked on her career daily and was always looking to improve the odds in her favor. I don't know what piece she did for Scorsese but whatever it was, it really landed 'cause this guy has heard like a million of them.
Now in my last article we talked about how to score a monologue, which is really about finding the transitions and how you mark those moments with tone or action. Now it's very important that nothing you do as an actor is vague, unspecified or left to chance. You can react, you can provoke and you can even improvise but the one thing actors can't do is make weak choices. When doing monologues, the actor must ask themselves a series of questions and they have to be able to answer them all. Who are you speaking to? Where is the conversation taking place? How has this situation evolved? What's at stake for both of you? What do you want to happen next?
Remember, monologues only happen in a play when the normal modes of communication have broken down, so there's always an element of crisis to them all. That doesn't mean that all monologues have to be delivered at a fever pitch but there should always be a sense of urgency to them, even if you're trying very hard to stay in control. The way to make a monologue tridimensional is by including details that make it so rich and specific, that it's intriguing to listen to.
This is something that young actors often have a tough time with, because they're all so concerned with how they look and how they're perceived. And yes, sure, that's part of the casting package but it's actually the less important part. Trust me, the best acting in the world, by the best actors in the world happens mostly when those actors are listening. Not speaking, listening. When an actor comes in and does a monologue for me, what I'm listening for is the other character speaking, the imaginary one. When I can hear that other character speaking, than I know we have an actor of real ability in the room.
How is that possible? How can anyone hear an imaginary person speaking? Well, the answer is simple: Because the imaginary person was real for the actor and the actor could hear them. Remember the golden rule - If it's real for the actor, it'll be real for the audience. How do you do that? You ask all the right questions and you respond with strong, detailed answers. You have to know (or decide) all the given circumstances of the scene you're in. Sometimes they're in the larger text of the script but not always. If the writer leaves this part of your character blank, then it's up to you to fill it in but make sure whatever you put down fits the other pieces of the puzzle.
Here's the trick about great acting and listening. The best actors learn how to listen with their whole bodies, both to other actors and their own sense memories. They listen with their ears, they listen with their hearts, they listen with their minds and they listen with their eyes. If the actor knows how to do all that, they will hear everything they need to and by extension, so will the audience.
So our Method involves both a close reading of text and character, which will inform our sensory choices as actors. When you ask yourself who your character is speaking to in the monologue, you must also ask "What does that person mean to my character?". Once you've asked and answered all the character analysis questions, then you have find suitable substitutions from your own life to work with. If your person is a dear friend who betrayed you in some way, that you now hate but still feel something for, well, you've got to find the right person for all those complicated feelings. Whatever the answers are, you have to find parallel sensory things and people to work with as substitutions, so you're experiencing real, remembered emotion in your acting work.
If there's more than one person in your monologue scene, then you'll need more than one sensory person and so forth. You must populate the world of your scene with everyone and everything you need to bring it to full, detailed life. Remember, nobody does a monologue in a spotlight, wearing a cape and holding a human skull, that's goddamned Hamlet you're thinking of and a bad Hamlet at that!
Characters say monologues when normal human speech will not help them, when the everyday has failed and they're tangled up inside in ways that make them speak out! But they also say these things in everyday circumstances, because we all experience heightened emotions in the most mundane of places, which is one of the paradoxes of the human experience.
So you must find the ordinary and the extraordinary of the scenes, fuse them together, leave room for pathos and room for humor if you can. Because none of us just feels one emotion at a time, we feel a whole bunch of things all at once, just like dramatic characters.
Equally important is the place where your scene and your monologue happens. You work the place the same way you work the person, asking similar questions. What's this place to my character? Is it a place where good things or bad things happen? When was the last time I was here? Did I want to come back here or was I forced to? By who or what situation? Once you know these answers, you must find a place from your own past that brings those things into play for you, the actor. Also, you must take the time to explore this sensory place for yourself in detail, to see what comes up because things always will. Listen for sounds in the place, listen for voices, for music, for weather and be open to smells.
Lastly, you should give your monologue a title but it shouldn't be anything in the piece itself. It can also be something related to your character's objective in the scene or even the super objective, just not something lifted like a line from the script, that's too easy and it won't work anyway. The title should also be concise and to the point like "Judy takes a big chance with Martin and it really pays off". When you have all of these things present, along with the scoring of the lines, you'll be a long ways towards creating a tridimensional piece of acting and a perfect monologue.