Acting Monologues and More

By Rob Cardazone (c) copyright 2007

Preface
1. Objectives
2. Don’t Deny How You Feel
3. What’s Happening?
4. Ease In



PREFACE

In the summer of 2006, I started teaching a monologue class at the request of a few different actors. Although they were of varying levels, there was one person who had never acted before. It seemed that the best thing for everyone was to begin where I begin, with certain fundamentals. In preparing to teach the class, the first thing I did was write down the questions that I innately ask myself. That list of questions (in the next section) snow-balled into this booklet. These questions grounded me and my students, and gave us a firm place to begin.

If the questions seem to be a lot to tackle all at once, remember that all the information (for everything up to and even including the objective questions), is in the play. Read, read, read! Also, remember that the best way to approach rehearsal is to work on one thing at a time. The late Lloyd Richards always began his feedback after a scene or monologue with: “Okay, what are you working on?” Most everyone in the class would reply with a dozen different things, and he would always follow up with: “Work on one thing at a time.” Please, keep this slogan in mind as you read along.



1. OBJECTIVES

The objective is the core of the characters purpose in a play. Simplified, it is what the character wants. It is my objective, as the writer of this text, to explain this acting tool as economically as possible. The best way for an actor to use this tool is to choose a verb that best fits his objective and use it within this sentence: “I want to…” Example: I want to explain. Perhaps, if my goals are loftier, then I may use the sentence: “I want to enlighten.” Choose different verbs to play with in rehearsal and see what affect each has. With the same goal, “to explain” if say the situation is particularly frustrating, try using the sentence: “I must get him to…” ‘Understand’ may be a good verb to use in this instance. “I must get him to understand.” This ‘must’ alternative will create urgency and intensity. It can be useful in a play when the stakes are high or in a period piece where style is an issue. Finding the best objective is beneficial in preparing to play a role.

The characters objective in the scene or monologue may or may not be the same as his “overall objective” in the play. Sometimes what the character wants changes by the end of the play. He may first want “to teach” and then after experiencing a life changing event, he may suddenly want “to save the world!” Often what the character wants moment to moment, scene to scene (the sub-objectives) add up to his overall objective. If, for example, it is my overall objective in life to succeed: “I want to succeed.” Or “I must succeed,” then I can break my life down into moments or “beats” and assign a sub-objective to each moment of my life. For instance, if we look at the moment of getting up, showering and brushing my teeth, I may assign the sub-objective: “I want to clean,” or “I want to begin.” What ever sub-objective I may choose, that and all of the sub-objectives of the day add up to fulfilling my overall objective: “I must succeed.”

To find appropriate objectives, first break down the play, scene and/or monologue into “beats.” Initially, I described a beat as a moment. In a play a beat is basically a discussion subject. The change between beats is called a transition. When the subject changes or transitions, the objective changes. I suggest trying to stick to one sub-objective and/or beat for as long as you can, until it is completely necessary to transition to the next objective.

In order to help you figure out what your objective may be for each beat and also for the entire play, you may first want to explore the following questions: Who and where you are, where you’re coming from, and where you are in the time-line of the play? The questions below will help you.

Even though there are many questions that follow here, always remember to work on one thing at a time.

The Givens
1) Who are you? Perhaps name, age, and occupation will suffice. Avoid descriptive words, especially anything negative or judgmental sounding.

2) Where are you? Be specific.

Background
1) Where are you coming from experientially? What dramatic event has brought you to this moment?

Dramatic Arch
1) Where is the monologue in the scene? Is it in the beginning, middle or end? Is it a quarter, half, two thirds or three quarters of the way through?

2) Where is the scene in the play? Be specific.

(Knowing where you are in the time-line of play may help you decide how high the stakes are.)

Objective
1) What do you want from (or want to do to) the person you are talking to?
a) I want to…
b) I need to …
c) I must get him to…
(A little trick: What you want could be the opposite of what the person you’re talking to wants. “Drama is conflict.”)

The following are more questions to help you discover and understand your objective:

2) Why are you talking to this person? Of all the characters in the play, and of all the characters that the playwright could have put in the play, why are you talking to this person?

3) At this point, what do you (the character) think may happen at the end of the scene, if all didn’t go well? What may happen at the end of the play, if all didn’t go well?

4) Now, according to the script, what really happens at the end of the scene? What really happens at the end of the play?

5) If you could (to win your objective), how would you change the end of the scene, so that things turn out to your advantage? If you could (to win your objective), how would you change the end of the play?

A more in-depth system includes “tactics.” The character has their overall objective, an objective for each scene (sometimes for each French scene*), and a tactic per beat used to achieve that objective. Tactics can be worded similarly to objectives. For example, if my objective is to seduce, the tactics I use may be first to smile, then to flirt, then to strip. Tactics are what you do in order to obtain your objective.

Finally, keep in mind that too obsessive and rigorous a breakdown of beats and objectives can often be too intellectual, and will inhibit spontaneity. This problem is popularly known as being “too in your head”. There are many other tools to sift through. Finding activities to do on stage is a good tool to use, especially when you’ve gotten too in your head. No one way should become all important. Breaking down a play and finding objectives can be fun like doing a puzzle, but if it stops being fun, stop doing it. By trying other approaches, objectives may suddenly start to come to you.

*A French scene is designated not by the scene numbers that the playwright has assigned to the scene, but by isolating character interactions. Example: if the play starts with two characters speaking to each other that would be the first French scene. If another character were to enter, that would be the second French scene, and then if one of those characters exited, that would be the third French scene, etc.



2. DON'T DENY HOW YOU FEEL

I often hear actors say that they weren’t in the right place when they began their monologue. Meaning, that what they were feeling was inappropriate for the emotional reality of the character. This kind of thinking can make it very difficult to get started and often be the one thing the actor thinks about throughout the piece. Don’t deny what you are feeling. Anything you are feeling is completely appropriate to the situation your character is in.

So appropriate are your feelings that I suggest checking in with yourself before you begin. For example, I may be doing a monologue where the character is anticipating seeing a loved one that they haven’t seen in a very long time. Foolishly, I’ve made a decision that the only way the monologue will work is if I can conjure up a feeling of sheer excitement. So, I warm up the best way I know how. I jump around, smile ear to ear and laugh at myself while doing it. I think about seeing an old friend from my own life so that I can relate to the situation personally. All of this preparation worked in rehearsal, but now that I have to perform in front of people I’ve become nervous and my attempts to create a feeling of excitement and anticipation feel forced. In short, I feel like a fraud and that I’ll just look like a bad actor. Really, what I’m feeling now is scared - scared as hell that this is not going to go well at all. However, let me ask you this: Is it not appropriate to feel anxious about seeing someone you haven’t seen in a long while? Whatever emotion you may be having is absolutely appropriate.

Quickly check in and acknowledge what you’re feeling. Try this a few minutes before starting. It may go something like this: “I’m feeling kind of nervous right now. Okay, I can see why my character may be nervous. He hasn’t seen his friend in twenty years!” You may notice that once you acknowledge you’re emotion it may shift. Check in again. “Letting myself have my emotions is empowering! Wow! Now, I’m feeling excited!” However, nine out of ten actors are riddled with self doubt. (Sorry.) So, check in one more time. “I’m gonna screw up anyway. Damn! Now, I’m nervous again.” If that’s how you’re feeling, then that’s how you’re character is feeling.

Often the main concern that comes up is that if you start your monologue with a different emotion, each time you do it, it will affect the performance, the objective and everything that you had worked on in rehearsal. To dispel this fear I’d like to present the following explanation which was developed with a friend and colleague of mine who is a linguist:

The Givens
1) Who are you?
-I am a temporary office worker.
2) Where are you?
-Every week I’m assigned to a different location, however, each office is so similar they might as well be the same place.

Background
1) Where are you coming from experientially?
-I finally got up the nerve to quit my restaurant job.

Objective
1) What do you want?
-I want to make enough money to supplement my income so that I can pursue my career in the theatre.
-I want solvency.

To recap: My character is a temp, the set is an office, and I want to make money. Also (and this is the linguistics part), the script is basically the same day to day and even week to week. “Good morning. Hot (cold; wet) out there, huh?” “Sir, you have a call from…” “What’s the password for this computer?” “Where (else) can I get lunch?” “Can you sign my pay slip?”
Below are three different “real life” examples of emotions that an actor may feel are inappropriate and perhaps the exact opposite of what he thinks the character is feeling:
1) One day I may get to my job feeling anxious. If I work to obtain my objective, to make money, I will try not to let this anxiety sabotage that. I make myself busy at my job and realize that anxiety can be detrimental if were to lead to irritability, so I breathe though it and remind myself that I’m here to make money and, well, at least I’m not waiting tables.
2) I arrive at work feeling hopeless and even suicidal. Again, not wanting to undermine my objective, I focus on the task at hand. Maybe I have to have a little talk with myself or I call a friend on my lunch break. The feeling dissipates long enough for me to get through to the end day when I can get some more help. And I still make my money.
3) I arrive at work feeling joyous and giddy. Everything seems to make me laugh. I know that need to act professionally, or I run the risk of loosing my position, so I get focused on my work, I settle down and all is goes well.
No matter how I start the day, the outcome is always very much the same. To draw this parallel to acting: The scene, of course, may be affected, but only subtly and/or perhaps only in the beginning. I still need to focus on winning my objective. Also, the subtle changes that occur from performance to performance should be embraced as a merit of live theatre, and not as an inconsistency.



3. WHAT'S HAPPENING?

“What’s happening in this scene?” is a question I frequently ask my actors. I usually ask them this when I notice that they’re becoming bogged down with too many details, everything in the scene is starting to becoming equally important and (once again) the actors have gotten too much in their heads. The response is usually fairly frantic. I was working on the first scene from Eastern Standard by Richard Greenberg, when I asked the question and the actors responded: “My character is in love with him and its unrequited, and I’m completely tortured…” “And my character is in love with someone else and they’re in this restaurant because that’s where he always sees her, and last night he was feeling so hopeless that he considered taking all of the drugs in his medicine cabinet.” Now, that’s a lot to play! I ask again, “But, what’s happening?”

They then scrunch up their faces and launch back in... Depending on the actors I may let them suffer a little more or I might interrupt right away. I suggest that maybe what is happening is a lot simpler than all that. That maybe what is happening is that they’re having lunch. (The characters are, in fact, according to the script, having lunch.) We then make the focus of the next rehearsal having lunch and all the business that goes with that. I make sure that they are really eating and drinking. I also, make sure that they’re not setting patterns around the eating – not choreographing the meal, but just letting it break up their speech patterns how it may. So, many problems are dealt with when approaching the work this way: the actors are no longer in their heads and they relax. The scene becomes less frantic and less heavy, and more varied in pace and tone. They also, seem to be really talking instead of ‘acting’ and no longer muscle their objectives. The confusion about what to work on lifts and they are relieved.
Still, one or both of the actors may not be satisfied. They are concerned about the content of the scene. They’re afraid that they will be boring. Boring is a word often used when actors feel like they’re not doing enough. However, ‘doing enough’ is often overacting. (A little psychology: Try replacing the word boring, with the word subtle.) Remember all of the other elements going on: The costumes, the set, the props, and the blocking are all factors in the telling of the story.

Most importantly, the playwright put a lot of effort into the play. He probably took those efforts as far as he could before bringing on the other collaborators. Many actors think they are solely responsible in making a play work. Stay out of the way of the story. Keep it simple, especially to start. Let go of preconceived ideas, emotional obligations, and notions of character. The cleanest way to start is to focus on the story. Then see how the story affects you. To quote a teacher of mine, “Don’t play the play, let the play play you.” The text, if given time to speak to you, will infect your emotions and inform your characterization. Once again, “Let the play play you.”



4. EASE IN

“You entered as if you were shot out of a canon! I couldn’t understand a dickey bird!” (Cockney rhyming slang for “I couldn’t understand a word.”), said an English director to an actor in a production of “Romeo and Juliet”, that I was in many years ago. The actor indeed, entered very quickly and rattled off his monologue as if pursued by a stampede of wild animals. He felt that his choice, arguably, was completely justified. It was an urgent situation. Time was of the essence. However, if no one could understand what he was saying, including our English director, then there was more to be considered in making such a choice.
When starting a play or when starting a scene or monologue (especially when taken out of context, like in an audition), ease in to it. Let the audience adjust to you, and the sound of your voice, and to what is being established. Also, starting too loud, fast or too high in you vocal range will give you no where to go. Plays and most all scenes are written according to the Aristotelian Dramatic Arch: Rising plot points, the climax, the dénouement, and finally the resolution.

The lowest point in the play is the beginning. Even if the play seems to begin very high, there may be a justifiable way to ease in.
There are few exceptions to this rule. In the play, “The Lieutenant of Inishmore”, advertised as a ‘bloody farce’, the director chose to begin the play quite high. I thought that there would be no where for the actors to go, nevertheless, because of the extreme farcical and ‘shock value’ nature of the play there was indeed room for them to rise. Again, this is a rare exception and it is wise to try and justify a simpler and more grounded opening.