"Scoring That Perfect Monologue"
(Crafting & Performing the Perfect Monologue, Part 1 of 3)
Now there are several aspects to an actors training, not all of which have a lot to do with acting. What? Say that again? Yes, I did say that and it's true. Sure, a big part of it has to do with learning the craft of acting, no doubt, but there's also the business of acting. Some of that has to do with agents, contracts, understanding how things work at HBO/Showtime or navigating the Labyrinth of Broadway. However, before you get to those lofty places, you need to master the skillset of "getting the job" and what those things entail. You need to become adept at the Go-See, the Callback, the Cold Reading and most importantly, you must master the Art of the Monologue.
Periodically I'll meet young actors who don't have any experience with monologues, don't have any in their back pocket and are even under the impression they don't need them to pursue professional work. To these young actors I say, "Nothing could be further from the truth." For the fact is that monologues are an essential part of any actor's portfolio, because they are expected of you by many, if not most, of the people in a position to hire you. Agents are especially keen on monologues, because it gives them a lot of information about an actor in only a couple of minutes. They see how you read, how you come across, how you handle dialogue, your casting, how you take direction and how you conduct yourself under pressure. Now this is only an agent's take on the subject and monologues do a lot more, depending on who else is in the room watching you.
Producers are fond of monologues as well, sometimes directors too, that often depends on what they're looking for and sometimes they don't even know themselves. I've sat in on hundreds of casting sessions and the word "No" gets said very quickly when actors walk into the room. Not because producers are trying to be negative or mean, but it's relatively easy to tell when when an actor isn't right for something. Finding the right someone is always much harder, it really can be like looking for a needle in a haystack. But when an actor walks in and hits them with a great monologue, well, you may not get the part but you'll be remembered for other stuff. Trust me, that happens a lot and there's always other projects (and parts) down the road.
So regardless of what you've heard, monologues are not a thing of the past and they're an important part of the casting equation. Now sure, they often ask you to read from sides and that's a separate skill but no one expects amazing things from a Cold Read. They do expect bigger things from prepared work though and you don't want to disappoint them in that regard. Whether you're dealing with agents, producers, directors or casting folks you want to take advantage of every opportunity to impress! Even if you're a gifted cold reader, the odds of landing the job on that alone aren't promising. A polished monologue that shows off your range, humor and emotional depth is a far better option all around. Better still, good monologues can be used in a variety of casting situations, with a variety of desk-and- telephone types.
There's no two ways about it, having some perfect monologues in your back pocket is the way to go but how exactly do you get them that way? Well, before you get it perfect, you have to get it right and that means "right for you". This means finding material that looks like you and sounds like you. How does that work? Well, you need to figure out your casting and this requires a little honesty and a little research. Talk to your acting teacher, talk to anyone you know in the business, ask them what they see? Get out your device and record yourself reading a few different pieces, what do you really sound like? It's important that you get a real sense of how you look and read, so you can choose materiel that's appropriate for you.
Once you've got material that's a good fit, you have to decide what the material is about. Who are you talking to and what are you really trying to say? You also need to know what sets the monologue up in scene and the play. Remember, monologues are unusual, characters don't do them all the time and people tend not to speak that way in real life. Monologues happen when the normal lines of communication have broken down between characters and one of them needs to express themselves in a big way. If your character has a monologue, then by definition, they're in some form of crisis and that's how you have to approach it.
Now all of this is text and character analysis, which is the meat and potatoes of Stella Adler's method but that's only one piece of the monologue puzzle. You also have to learn how to score a monologue, which means you need to break the speech down into smaller pieces, what Stanislavsky called "beats". As human beings, we're never just one emotional color, we're never just angry or just sad, we're a fluid mix of many colors and the same is true of monologues. They all have a series of moments and transitions that you have to identify for yourself and than mark with an action, a pause or a look. All great playwrights are also poets and it's your job to find the music in their language, this is part of the scoring process.
So how exactly does this scoring work? Well, you need to identify the first moment in the speech and then mark the script every time something changes, or something shifts from the previous moment. These shifts can indicate an event, a decision or a discovery. Not all these shifts have to be earth-shattering, they can be relatively subtle but remember the basic emotional condition you're playing is crisis, so keep them in that context. To illustrate this process, I'm going to include a monologue from our new monologue Ebook, number the beats and then give a brief explanation of the shifts within. The monologue is from a play called Defying the Undertaker, Vivi is an elderly woman who's been declared incompetent and committed to a state nursing home. She and two of her friends keep trying to escape but are too feeble to get away, which Vivi laments. Desperate, Vivi is on the verge of a more radical plan to escape the nursing home, once and for all.
(1) I should have killed myself while I had the chance. I should have
seen the way things were going and done something about it while
I still had options. (2) So stupid. (3)Minute I head the words “competency
hearing” I should have dug out Daddy’s old pistol and BAM! Just blown
my head off and gotten it all over with. (4) But nooo, I had to listen to the
lawyer and all his crap about due process! Where has that gotten me? (5)
Hell, what I really should have done was load up that old pistol and taken
a few of those bastards with me, that would have been the move! (6) Could
have gotten that red-faced hillbilly judge, couldn’t have missed him, be
like hitting a BARN! (7) Could have taken out that PROSECUTOR in his shiny
cheap suit. (8) And that idiot BALIFF, with his egg-encrusted mustache, he’d
have been no loss to society! Christ, I could have gotten all the key players (9)
and still had one bullet left for myself. (10) I’d have made the front page of the l
local paper, would have had my picture printed up one last time, (11) one of the
nice ones when my face was firm and my tits were bouncy. (12) Then I could
have gone out with a bang, stole some headlines and left a big goopy mess
for some fool to clean up. Let ‘em see who had the last laugh then. What I
should have done. (13) Now look at me, stuck in this shit hole, goddamned
pathetic is what it is. (14) You got a stick of gum?
So (1) is where Vivi has the realization that she could have escaped right at the start and her biggest mistake was being calm and listening to reason. If she acted on impulse, the way she has most of her life, she would be dead now and probably better off. (2) Looking around the room, her contempt for everyone here is overwhelming. (3) Another flash of hindsight here, it should have been obvious this was going to happen, Vivi wants to slap her own head like the back of a ketchup bottle in frustration. (4) Again, every time she gives into common sense and being reasonable, it's always a mistake. When will she learn? (5) This is about action and not deep contemplation. She had the gun in her purse, all she had to do was put some bullets in, point it and start shooting. (6) This guy would have been the first to go and imagine the surprise on his face when it happened? (7) Smug little shit would have tried to duck but I'm a good shot, he wouldn't get away. See the movement and pulling the trigger. (8) This guy was a waste of skin and I'd be doing the world a favor. Really, I could have cleared the room (9) Yes, I could have made a perfect getaway. (10) I would have had the last laugh too, grabbing that headline and all those hillbillies reading it. (11) Yes, would have gone out looking sexy and hot and not the pathetic old mess I am now. (12) And the mess would have been glorious gore everywhere, exactly what these stupid people deserve, they would have been talking about it for weeks. (13) Back to depressing reality, Vivi realizes her options are very limited and she's going to need some help to pull this off. (14) Looking at another inmate chewing gum, Vivi decides to get the ball rolling on her next escape plan, starting now!
All right, so these are very brief notes in terms of transitions but you can clearly see how Vivi's thought process develops, along with the ins and outs of her emotions. Sometimes she's in the present, sometimes she's in the past, but her overall focus is still on the subject of escaping her situation. In her memory and fantasies, Vivi remains loyal to her objective, so the challenge is to find the crafty elements in her personality, avoiding the trap of playing her as a "crazy". As in all scene work, you'll want to give your monologue an actual title in terms of your character's stated goal and a formal objective. We'll discuss those in more detail in the next article but for now, take what you've learned today and apply it to whatever monologues you've got in hand. Better yet, keep it mind when you're looking for new material and your own Perfect Monologue.
Want to know more about the complexity of human memory? Read this!