20 Secrets for a Perfect Monologue or TIPS ON THE MONSTER MONOLOGUE
by Ruth Kulerman
This week, my penultimate with ActorTips, we examine for the first time the bugaboo of all of us: the Monster Monologue in all its facets, from selecting and performing to some tips on keeping your sanity during this the most difficult of all our jobs. And then, just for fun (yes, fun), as we near the end of our journey this past year, we try to answer two questions that cannot be answered. Indeed, fools rush in, etc.
I’d rather swallow fire, swim the Hellespont, climb the Himalayas, skinny dip in Krakatoa, perform Pinter in Sanskrit — you get the idea — than perform a monologue. Whoever conceived of doing monologues for an audition also invented sadism. But they are part of an actor’s life. So how can we survive gracefully, even successfully, or exit with at least a touch of self-respect?
I landed my first New York professional job in a two-woman comedy that had over 20 reviewers, including those from every major Manhattan paper. That opening night was kid stuff compared to every time I have had to do a monologue for an audition. The only good thing about monologues is that you rarely have to do them if you are up for a role in a professional theatre or a paying film, since there you mostly audition with sides. But when you do have to pull out the monologue–well, frankly, I detest them. Does anyone really believe you reveal the extent of your ability addressing blank space somewhere slightly above the heads of the “referees’? No, I am not afraid of monologues. I merely loathe them.
Some of my monologues are from plays I have performed. Some monologues are so obscure I could improv or bluff from first word to last and they’d never know the difference. (PS. Bluffing is an essential skill, if your mind blanks out.) Some of my monologues are Southern (my first accent), some Irish (my first accent), some English (my first accent), some hick, some urban, some urbane, some comic, some farcical. (Picture an elderly lady stretched out sideways across two hard chairs in lieu of a chaise lounge doing a bit from “The Way of the World,” a Restoration Comedy.) Another monologue sees the Duchess cursing her son, Richard III. One monologue embarrasses Juliet. In one I am a murdered Pope, another, a homicidal aunt. Etc., etc. Which is to say, every kind of monologue yet conceived I have personally mud-wrestled. Hence….
Have a variety of monologues always polished and ready to fly any moment. Many times actors will impress the audition committee and they will want to hear another piece. (Just to be sure your superb work wasn’t a fluke? A one-time mini-miracle? Or they didn’t start listening until you bowed your head, said “Thank you” and started to leave.) Therefore, have six or seven ready at your instant call. Be sure to run over all of them the night before so they will all be there in your head waiting, waiting to spring loose with delightful energy. (Reminder: Energy does not equal noise.)
LOTS OF TIPS ON MONOLOGUES:
1. CHOOSE AN AGE APPROPRIATE MONOLOGUE.
Now I could do Juliet’s monologues deliciously but they’d call Bellevue or the loony bin, since if Juliet had a grandma it’d be me. Just because you can play 35 doesn’t mean you should choose Lady M’s letter scene–if you are 17 years old. The saddest audition I ever saw was an exquisite innocent angelic awkward 12 year old singing a sexy, come-on suggestive bump and grind number. I wanted to cry–but only after choking her parents and beheading her coach! Completely inappropriate, in every area. Age appropriate is a must for monologues. You can sometimes gender bend but almost never add or subtract too many years.
2. MAKE IT SHORT.
Cut, paste, chop if necessary. They truly can tell if you can act in about 10 seconds. Do not indulge in anything over a minute and a half. I recently chopped and hacked and pieced and pasted Constance (‘King John”) for a student so that her monologue would be more interesting, more dramatic, SHORTER than Shakespeare wrote it. The actress was horrified, bewildered. “Can you do that?” she quivered. Yes.
Nothing is sacred. You can add words, reverse line orders — drop in excerpts from other scenes. Merely state you are doing “an adaptation.” One of my most successful monologues inserts a short (maybe six measures) old British folk song in the middle and end of Mistress Quickly’s Death of Falstaff monologue (Henry V). Shakespeare wrote dozens of lyrics to be sung in his plays. He just didn’t happen to write this particular one. My feeling is that he would applaud the insertion — especially since it works!
3. TELL A STORY.
Yes, you can tell a story or create a whole range of colors in a minute and a half. Just don’t select something that rambles around and goes nowhere. Select a monologue that has more than one color: Remember the first rule of all acting is “Thou shalt not bore thy listener,” regardless of who the listener is — even those sadists behind the audition table who chose to hear monologues instead of sides. Your monologue must be interesting. If it is a chatty, breezy bit of fluff, find a spot for a bit of melancholy or a couple of lines with “edge” to them. Which brings us to…
4. KEEP IT CLEAN.
Do not select something splattered with curses or obscenities, something overly suggestive, outwardly suggestive, or just plain suggestive. One of my teenage male students just brought me a pile of monologue books to go through and select something appropriate for him to use when he auditions for drama school. I have found one monologue in two entire books, so far. The compilers are obsessed with sex and obscenities. “Oh, but,” you say, “so are 17 year old boys! Hence the topics are appropriate.” Maybe. In context of the entire play (which is a trifle too long for an audition!). But avoid obscenities at auditions.
Besides being sex laden, the works chosen in those two monologue collections were just plain boring. I am perfectly aware that one man’s “dull” is another man’s “delightful.” At some point you just have to trust the dramatic tastes of those whose advice you seek.
5. DO NOT CRY.
6. DO NOT LAUGH.
7. DO NOT YELL.
Let your audition committee cry or laugh but not seek under-the-table shelter because you are yelling at them. Being able to cry on cue doth not an actor make. Being able to yell doth not drama make. Don’t out-Herod Herod. That is, avoid something full of noise and bombast and sound and fury. (Reread Hamlet’s advice to The Players.) Think of ear drums. Think of tedium. They want to see if you can act, not bellow.
And if you have to laugh at something you yourself have said in your monologue, well that’s just pathetic. It also suggests you don’t trust either the material or yourself. If people are not laughing during your monologue, laughing yourself is like holding up an audience cue card. Personally I prefer dead pan delivery if at all appropriate in a comic monologue. (A sad reminder: a committee can laugh and laugh and still not cast you.) Do not let the committee’s response to your monologue be a Geiger counter to your chances of being cast.
8. AVOID DULL MONOLOGUES.
There are lists all over the place of worn-out, overused monologues. One way to avoid an overused monologue is to avoid the “monologue books.” I bought batches of them in London and adapted them to America (changing words like “lift” to “elevator,” if necessary.) Amazon has a UK site. Go surfing for a couple of monologue books. Why shop for monologue books at Amazon UK? Because most of their contemporary monologues won’t be known here.
9. CALL IN A COACH.
The safest bet is to take a dozen or so monologues and have a coach who knows her/his “stuff” look them over with you. Look. Not work on them with you (although that might also be helpful.) It takes about 20 seconds for a good coach to know if a piece will work in general and to know if it will work for you in particular.
10. LIKE YOUR CHOICE, IF YOU CAN.
And at the bottom of the list, right where it belongs, do something you like. Actually liking a monologue is not really terribly important. What counts is how well you do it and how interesting and appropriate it is. I am not fond of that Duchess of York cursing Richard III monologue, but it has landed several roles.
MISCELLANEOUS TIPS FOR SURVIVING THE MONOLOGUE MONSTER
1. Do not try out a new monologue at an important audition. You need to see how it works before you try it out auditioning for a major company, for example.
2. And don’t try to learn a monologue in two days, even if you have a fabulous memory. Monologues should be polished and polishing in two days is chancy.
3. Neither a snail nor an eel be. Don’t slog, don’t slither. That is, don’t drag, don’t rush. Have a variety in rhythm. Most actors turn into John Wayne and drag through everything with pauses large enough for a Mac truck to glide through. Or else they hurtle through the thing just as fast as their memorized words and agile tongue will allow. Neither is to be imitated.
Variety in pitch, variety in volume, and variety in rhythm. Those are the keys. They work for all acting, all monologues, all dialogue, all spear carrying, all pantomime — I exaggerate only a bit — but you get the idea.
4. Erase from your vocabulary, “That’s it.” When your monologue is ended, hold, hold, hold, drop your shoulders or make a tiny tiny shift, look the enemy in the eye, bow your head and say, “Thank you.” I cannot tell you how unprofessional it is when you are finished to then tell the committee “That’s it.” The hold hold hold and the bowed head are dramatic and they work!
5. Prepare your movements. Don’t leave them to spontaneity. Yes, address that space just above their head. Do not address the floor or your feet or the windows or ceiling.
HOW TO SURVIVE THE MONOLOGUE SITUATION
Way back last year, when Chad first asked me to write these articles, I dashed off three which, when I look back at them, really cover auditioning pretty well. It requires a whole carton of ego to quote oneself. So instead I gently invite/persuade you to go to the ActorTips archives and take to heart these three articles: “Fabulous Audition, Part 1 (Preparation),” “Fabulous Audition, Part 2 (Presentation),” and “Minefields, Quicksand, and Murphy’s Law of Auditioning,” which covers all the things that can go wrong during an audition.
LAST TIPS ON AUDITIONING AND MONOLOGUES:
1. Whichever monologues you select, over-memorize them. Try them out on anyone you can buttonhole (including Pepper the Diva Cat). We wrote an entire article on over-memorization and insisted that it is the cure to all stage fright. The monologue requires even more than over-memorization. Know it beyond knowing. Know it so the tongue can go on even if your mind just took off for Sirius.
2. Know your gestures and their places in advance (so you don’t go in wagging your head, waving your arms, or up-and-downing your eyebrows).
3. Walk in a prince/princess and walk out a king/queen.
4. And dress nicely. Some misguided manager advises their clients to wear sweat pants and tee shirt. My thumbs go down on that suggestion. This is not about your clothes. It is about you. Do not make your inappropriate clothes the first thing they notice. Do you remember what that first thing they notice should be? (Go check the Archives again!) It is one of the E words.
So those hints hopefully weave a magic rug to fly you through the flack of monologues. Now for the…
PENULTIMATE QUESTION FOR OUR JOURNEY
“I am now trying to figure out what to do and, most importantly, who I am.”
My personal answer to this e-mail writer (remember this is just one person’s opinion, not a tablet brought down by Moses):
Figuring out who you are is a waste of time and will never be answered. You change your ideas, your ethics, your feelings, your behavior from moment to moment to moment. If you insist on pursuing philosophy, read Socrates and Aristotle. (I find them more accessible than Plato.) But do not bother with “Who am I?” If you insist on a variation of that question, try “What does it mean to be human?” or “What qualities would I like to develop and how do I do it?”
I would send everyone to books, to poems, to art, to music, to being alone, to silence, to looking at space, the universe, the moon. Be silent and let the feelings come. Those are more important than “Who am I?”
OUR LAST QUESTION EVER
“How do I discover my unique gifts?”
The question presumes something I am not sure exists in too many people–unique gifts, that is. If you happen to be a rare one and have a unique gift, you don’t have to go searching for it. It will make itself known. Can you conceive of Shakespeare as a kid tearing around Stratford asking himself what unique gifts he had? I cannot imagine any of our great artists from Austin to Zola asking what unique gift they had.
People have asked, “When did you decide to become an actress?” Answer, “With my first breath.” The notion of dipping a toe into the acting pool and seeing if you like it is foreign to me. I suggest that you simply do what your feelings tell you (as far as “gifts” are concerned) and see what happens. Discovery is Self in action. Concentrate on the action, not the discovery. The Self will lead you. Do not lead the Self. Allow.
Assignment: Learn what “allow” means.
Next time, our last, I am going to simply write about the thing that brings me the most joy–acting. Haven’t a clue what will come out. It is called TRUSTING SELF and ALLOWING. Lots better than searching for Self (a thing that isn’t lost) or searching for unique gifts (which will butt you in the head whether you like them or not).
– Ruth Kulerman