20 Secrets for a Perfect Monologue by Ruth Kulerman
This week, we examine 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.
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.
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