“Creating an Original Monologue”
(Crafting the Perfect Monologue, Part 3 of 3)
In this series we’ve talked about how to score a monologue, finding material that fits you and ways to make your work tridimensional. The last couple things I want to touch on are working with original material in a monologue, as well as some practical tips in the audition room. We should also remind ourselves that monologues come into different shapes and sizes, as in short, medium and longer. In terms of basic math, what that means is 30 seconds, 60 seconds and 90 seconds. For certain academic auditions you may be asked for something a bit longer but in the professional world a minute and a half is plenty.
It’s also important that you have a title for each monologue, as well as a stated objective for the scene that the monologue comes from. Like the song goes, “You can’t get what you want, till you know what you want”, and this is doubly true for the actor. Perhaps most important is the source of your material, because people in the casting business have heard just about everything and many, many times. The last thing you want to do is bring in some tired old stuff that they’ve heard 666 times, it won’t matter if you’re absolutely brilliant, if they’re sick of the material you won’t get the job. Period.
This brings us to one of my favorite and largely unsung subjects – the crafting of original monologues, based on non-scripted material. Now anyone that’s been in class with us, knows how to do this, since one of our core exercises is called “The Bones Up” and teaches actors exactly how to go about it. I can’t give you all the details in a short article but I can touch on the process in the basic way, so you get the gist of it. As to the actual source material, well this can be pulled from any number of places, as all good writing involves conflict and well drawn characters. Unfortunately a lot of novels deal with giant handfuls of introspection, otherwise know as “what the character’s thinking” and this doesn’t lend itself to spoken dialogue so well.
However this doesn’t cover all literary material, you just have to know where to look in the virtual library. Short stories by playwrights tend to be excellent source material for actors, like the work of Anton Chekov or Tennessee Williams. More recent literary material often lends itself to the cinematic, since writers know production companies are always on the lookout for characters and long running storylines. Savvy writers looking to cash in on film or series adaptations, shape their work in a cinematic way that makes their work more attractive to HBO and ShowTime. The “Sookie Stackhouse Books” by Charlaine Harris were clearly written that way and were fluid adaptations into the hit series True Blood.
When you’re on the prowl for new monologue material, look for characters with dramatic conflicts, sharply drawn edges and lots to say out loud. Those characteristics will make your adaptation job that much easier and effective. In our classroom exercise, I usually recommend students using a book called Working by Studs Terkel, which is a chunky collection of interviews with working class Americans. The range of occupations is enormous, all of their stories are told in the first person, in gritty detail and are great material for building monologues.
The actors do a character analysis, using our Ultimate Character Builder as a guide and what information is available to them in the interview. If things are missing, they have to fill in details based on the givens or their own imaginations. One of my old students crafted a really nice monologue out of an interview with a bus driver. There are several reasons why it was so good to me and apparently a number of casting people liked it too. (1) It’s a character we are all familiar with and at the same time know little about (2) There’s a whole lot of specific business that the actor could incorporate in terms of driving a bus (3) The actor made some sound recordings with his phone of real bus activity, that he used in the exercise, as well as his auditions, which brought a fun element to it.
So all he needed was a chair and his cell phone, that he put on the floor and turned on the audio of the bus ride. From there, he recreated the specific details of driving the bus, dealing with traffic, riders and the like. After a bit of that, he just leaned over and started talking to one of his riders, the way some bus drivers naturally do. It was a very specific setup that got the viewer involved, that organically evolved into the monologue. Perfect. Now did it break the 90 second rule? Yeah, kind of but when something is really unique and really well done, they’ll let you get away with that. Again, what made this one work so well is the actor took the time to really get the world of the bus driver down in detail. He spent time riding buses, making notes putting those details into the work.
As to adapting the interview into a functioning monologue, you want to cut anything that isn’t active in speech or observation. Nothing in the passive voice and try to keep it in the present tense whenever possible. It’s OK to slip into the past to give background to a story but keep it active. Also, super important, always look to identify any problems your character might encounter within the action of the story/monologue. Remember, dramatic characters are all about conflict, it’s never business-as-usual with them. In the interview, the driver talks about how the MTA hired spotters to spy on the drivers and report them for breaking rules. Our actor used that by thinking he had a spotter on his bus and working that into his driving business, keeping his paranoia part of the action.
In the work of Viola Spolin and improv, problems are a key component both in identification and the attempted solution of them. Every monologue you do should contain an identified problem that you can attempt to solve as you’re in the scene. This keeps your work active and personally alive. The audience won’t know exactly what’s going with you but they’ll know something is going on and that’s enough to keep them engaged. It’s also another way to make your monologue tridimensional, by giving it another layer.
Listen, anytime you bring fresh material into a casting session your stock goes up, just make sure it’s polished and ready. With material like Studs Terkel, you have to pay attention to the details of the stories and update them as needed, especially the language. Terkel published his book in 1972, so some things have changed a bit since then, even if basic human nature has not. In the bus driver interview all of the customers paid their fares with coins, which nobody does anymore, so that’s an obvious fix. The language of the piece is a little trickier to edit but the general rule with that is “keep it current”.
Beyond that, basic audition etiquette should always be observed by actors in professional settings. Always be on time, always be prepared and always have more than one thing to show them, should they ask for it. Be professional in your appearance, always! Don’t make the auditor part of your monologue, don’t look them in the eye or address it to them personally. Pitch it in their direction, so they can see your eyes working but play the monologue to the person in your scene. Casting folks work very hard, so go in, slate and then tell them what you’re doing for them, keep it simple. If they want any info from you, they’ll ask after you’re done and always thank them for bringing you in.
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