Tips for Actors > Monologues - a Dozen Do's and Don'ts

An article by Jeremy Whelan
28 Sep 2008

In a group casting session last weekend I watched 120 monologues in two and a half days.  A good local theatre was auditioning for a Festival of Independent Theatre.  Short original plays by local writers affiliated with the theatre's writer's development program.  I was asked to direct one of them.  The actors were on many levels, quite a few had resume's a mile long and others just a cover letter, some awful mistakes were made by each level, and oddly enough, they were often making the same mistakes. Take this advice to heart, look over the mistakes I point out, and be absolutely sure that you never make any of them.


The monologue is a rare element in the actors life, an occasion when the actor has complete control over his/her destiny.  Your career is completely in your hands for those two minutes. You have time to select it. This is probably the only time in your life when you will get the chance to cast yourself.  The role of your dreams is yours to chose, and you have all the time in the world to find it. You have all the time in the world to put every ounce of training you've ever had, every piece of knowledge you've ever gathered on acting to work for you. You have time to get coaching on it. Time to gather props and costume for it.  Your monologue is the only time in your career when you will ever have all the time in the world to get ready for a performance.


THERE IS ABSOLUTELY, NOW OR EVER, ANY EXCUSE FOR BLOWING IT.



1] PLAY THE ROOM. 

I don't know what happens to actors, they walk into a small theatre, plant themselves three feet from an auditioner and then blow out the auditioner’s ears and mess up their hair by performing as if they were playing the monologue to someone across the Grand Canyon.  Sometimes you do audition in a giant theatre, sometimes in a small theatre, or an even smaller office. Nothing betrays artifice/looks more phony, quicker and lasts so long, than an actor overplaying a room.  I did stop some actors or had them go again after explaining, "Hey, I'm right here, I'm just a few feet from you. I could hear you if you whispered it."  In one case I left the table, walked around and stood in front of the actor and said now, do the monologue.  With me standing in her face, she dropped to the proper conversational level and a credible performance ensued. I went back behind the table and said do it again and this time it was convincing.  That doesn't mean you can't yell when it's time to yell, it just means you yell differently, proportionately to the distance you are from your listener.  On that note, I say I can create anything out of energy, but I can't create energy.  The energetic actor, the one I have to ask to pull it back a little is always more appreciated than the one I have to say, could you give me a little more energy.  In fact I will not ask any actor for more energy, I'll just say, "Thank you for coming." 



The primary reason many stage actors will never work in movies or TV is because they haven't learned the secret of the INTERNALIZATION OF ENERGY. "Pull it back" is not a term I will use unless the actor is really dense, such a phrase is too easily misinterpreted.  I will tell the actor, I really love what you did, and I don't want to lose even the tiniest bit of energy you had while doing it, but I want you to take 30-40-50 (whatever) percent of it and put it inside you, keep it but INTERNALIZE IT.



2] DON'T BE A TALKING HEAD

Many of the actors looked like their feet were really darts and someone had thrown them in an arc onto the stage. Where ever they hit is where they stayed as if they were frozen to the floor. It was impossible for me to believe that all that emotion was going through that person when they never moved an inch.  It was talking heads time and it will kill any monologue

audition. If you're feeling a wide range of emotions, or a very deep connection with an emotion, it should move you at least a little. Let yourself go, follow those urges to move.


Another aspect of this is, some actors did their entire monologue sitting in a chair.  Why would you do that to yourself?  An important part of your charm/value is in how you move.  Since we're talking about ways actors limit themselves, your body is also part of your charm/value. If you have a nice one, show it off.  Don't come in a thong, don't overdue it, but don't hide it.  There are tasteful ways to put your body forward.




3] THE WALL CAN'T HIRE YOU

Surprisingly this happened with experienced and novice actors, many did the whole or 90% of the monologue in profile or a modified 3/4 profile.  After one such presentation, I walked over to the actor and asked her if she thought that that side wall she just gave her monologue to was going to hire her.  I pointed out to the various directors sitting around the room and said no, we are and we're out here.  In a monologue, get your face out there, jeez there's only one actor on stage and you're UPSTAGING  YOURSELF, hello.


4] SHARE/ATTACK MENTALITY

Another thing that was totally incomprehensible to me, many actors took a position so far upstage it was hard to see what they were doing. Especially as the lights were set for working and they fell off as you went upstage. You may only have a minute and a half or two minutes but you own that time. CHALLENGE THEM - Take an aggressive position in physical relation to those auditioning you.  Get as far downstage as you can without being in their laps. Give them as close to a Film Close Up of you as you can without breaking the fourth wall. Let them see, close up, all the fabulous feeling running through your character. Don't overwork the close up but don't miss the chance to take it.



5] THE AUDITIONER IS NOT YOUR SCENE PARTNER

Don't use the auditioner as your scene partner.  You trap them into acting with you and that means that their attention is not where it's supposed to be, on you.  Most people who audition actors, were or are actors!  Suck them into a scene with you and they, by default, go into an acting mode. You don't want them thinking about their performance, you want them thinking about YOUR PERFORMANCE.



I was at a table in the front with a few other directors, and many of the actors chose to use me. I felt like a life raft quite often, a place for their panic to land. 


Don't use the auditioner unless you are specifically asked to do so.  Having someone to use certainly does help, so create them.  Usually in a monologue you are talking to someone who would be there in a performance.  In a monologue situation you have to really see that person. You must see how what you are saying is affecting them. You have to know exactly how tall they are, what color their eyes are, what their hair looks like. You have to make them real!  You must also know where they are in relation to you.  Sometimes I think actors are talking to Speedy Gonzales the way that person seems to move. One second they are down left, then wham, their center right, now they are on the ceiling, now laying on the floor, no their sitting, no their standing. Be consistent with this invisible scene partner of yours.  Don't let them steal the scene from you.



TIP: You can't use the auditioner but you can get so close that you can really affect them strongly.  It's like in a camera close up, you want to be as close to looking in the lens as possible without ever looking directly into the lens. So look at their ear or their forehead or even their cheekbone very close to the eye, but never use them, never break the fourth wall.


6] NERVOUS PEOPLE MAKE PEOPLE NERVOUS

I said this at the top of this article, but it can use this extra investigation. At lunch I commented on the nervousness of many of the actors.


One of the other directors said that that was normal. Within a narrow range I'll buy it, but I really believe that it shouldn't be so, NOT WHEN IT's YOUR MONOLOGUE. Not when you've had plenty of time to work on it, polish your characterization and be 1000% sure of the lines.  At that point, only an actor can get nervous. The Character can't be nervous unless they are nervous within the context of the scene. If the character is not nervous and the actor's nervousness is showing, the actor is breaking the cardinal rule of acting and that is, STAY IN CHARACTER.



If this is YOUR PIECE, you should approach the audition with Power, Purpose, and Confidence. The only reason an actor should be nervous approaching an audition with a prepared monologue is unprofessionalism. Either you haven't worked on it the way any self respecting actor would have, or you're hung over, or other wise physically unfit to perform.


7] RESPECT YOUR INSTRUMENT

At times I would look out into the lobby and see a stack of actors sitting around, chatting, reading over scripts, staring into space etc. I have a real thing about actors warming up. Now many might have taken care of that before showing up at the theatre, but in the two and a half days of auditioning, I only saw one actor stretching and getting her instrument in shape prior to the audition. I did cast that actor.



Even if you do a good physical and vocal warm up before you come to the theatre, if your audition isn't on time, and when are they, you might be waiting for some time.  Try to find an inconspicuous place where you can get loose again. If you can't find a place, stretch etc. right there, even if the lobby or green room or wherever your being held is full of people. Those other people are actors, they are not going to think it odd. The only thing they should really feel is quilt for not doing it themselves.




8] FRESH MATERIAL IS VERY IMPORTANT

Although, some people jump up and down when I say this, unless it's a regional theatre audition, a Shakespeare festival, orotherwise stipulated, don't do any material that is more than five years old.  I say they call them scene books because they have been seen and seen and seen.  When you're auditioning many actors, your mind can wonder, old material, stuff you've seen many times is a big invitation to let the mind drift.  Especially if the first couple of lines aren't delivered with more brilliance and passion than the best of the other 100 actors you've already seen do that speech.  Fresh interesting material really makes an auditioner sit up and listen.  The world changes gears very quickly these days and writing does too.  Think of the music you listened to five years ago.  If you come home and pop in an oldies CD everyday, you might have trouble understanding this point.




9] DON'T SELL YOURSELF OUT!

This relates to the previous point, but works across the board.  Actors seem to think that auditioners have read and memorized every play in the universe and if they get one word wrong, we will know it and subtract points for their failure to be perfect. T'aint so kids. At the auditions, an actor came in and stated that his monologue was from this certain play. He asked if any of us knew it and we all said no. He gets about two thirds through it and he's been doing great. I'm seriously considering him for my play and I'm sure other directors were too. All of a sudden he stops. Says he's lost.


I tell him, take a moment and then pick it up. He does just that. When he's finished, I told him that he blew it. I told him that he knew that none of us knew the play, that if he had stayed in character, he could have said anything and we wouldn't have known it wasn't the script. He would have gotten away with it and probably would have found his way back to the text in short order.



Here's the deal, if in real life you forget what you were going to say to someone, you don't turn into a Mongolian sheep herder, so if you're really in character and you forget what you were going to say, WHY SHOULD YOU TURN INTO AN ACTOR? It happens all the time in performance.  An actor goes up in lines but he's got an audience up his butt so he makes something up and the show goes on.  Apply that idea to auditions,  we're an audience too, give us a professional level show, that is what we're there looking for anyhow! 


IF WE DON'T KNOW THE PLAY WE'LL NEVER KNOW YOU SCREWED UP, AND IF WE DO KNOW THE PLAY YOU'LL GET BIG POINTS  FOR COVERING SO WELL.



10] PRESENT YOURSELF PROFESSIONALLY

I don't care if your going out for a feature film, Broadway show or your college production, acting is a profession and you must act like a professional, what ever level your on. I don't expect every actor trying out for the middle school play to have an 8x10 glossy, a long resume or even a cover letter, but professionalism still applies.  If it is a professional job you looking for,  get a decent Picture and Resume together. Maybe you don't have any experience, no big deal.  Everybody had to start somewhere, but make a real attempt at presenting yourself in aprofessional manner.  Don't hand somebody an oversized hand written resume stuck onto a bad picture with bubble gum or a paperclip. I usually feel that it is safe to go to the bathroom during that audition because I would never hire somebody like that. 



If you're into acting or you hope to ever make money at it, realize, professionalism is the most important part of your career.  For example, I noticed a picture in a pile and said who's that, a few directors there knew the actress and said that she would be great for my piece. I asked when she was coming in and was told that she was supposed to audition the day before and didn't show up, but I could call her as she would really be good. Not, I'm going to chase trouble? At the first sign of unprofessionalism, either the actor is out the door or I am.  Everything I do professionally reflects on me. If an actor blew off an audition and didn't even think to call, I don't want to have anything to do with her. OK, maybe she was in a full body cast from an auto accident, well then I couldn't use her anyhow could I?




11] GET OUT  WITH STYLE AND PROFESSIONALISM.

Actors, please don't get offended but, "Thank you" at the end of an audition really means,  "Get the hell out of here." This is a point to be very aware of, when you finish your piece and the auditioner says thank you, EVEN IF WE LOVED YOU, "THANK YOU" STILL MEANS, "GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE."



As I said, we looked at 120 actors in two and a half days, we don't have time to talk to you right at that moment. I don't care if you're the only actor auditioning, it still means the same thing.  We made our notes, we saw what you did, we know who we liked and we will get back to those people. Don't hang around to get stroked or mumble and drivel your insecurity onto our lapels. Be professional, this is the deal, this is the script, we say thank you, you say thank you, an then, you get the hell out of their with all the dignity you can muster.

 

12]  NOT ENOUGH COLORS.

This is a lot more subtle than the other points I've made, but in the end it is as important as many of them and more so than others. Sometimes an actor will come in and seem to do a great job on a powerful monologue.  The auditioner is momentarily extremely impressed, but as the joke goes with Chinese food, a few moments later you realize something was missing, something vital and important.  It's like when you've just been conned, they were so charming when they were in front of you, but even as the con person is walking away from you, you realize you've just been cheated, you've just been lied to. This almost always boils down to the fact that there wasn't enough VARIETY in the performance.  It had power, passion, with all seeming sincerity and at the moment it moved you, but something was unreal, unhuman.  It becomes clear that the intent was to deceive.  The variety of human speech is infinite and this one was finite, limited, you realize that it had been planned for effect. 



Anyone aware of the work I do with actors is familiar with the phrase,


Emotions Are To Actors What Colors Are To Painters. 


I call this work Emotionology and having written entire books on it so I'm not going to even try to get into that right now.  I will ask you to look hard for that natural VARIETY that is in all human speech and question yourself, is that quality is in your work?  Personally, as we have ignored the all important study of emotions in actor training, I don't see how it can be.  This is the primary reason I personally find 95 percent of todays acting boring and lifeless. The other five percent is contributed by actors with instinctual genius, but there is

no reason why, with proper training and given the right tools, all actors could not reach that level of emotional truth.



I seem to be getting on a soap box right now and this was meant to be a quickie, straight forward presentation of important tips for actors auditioning, so I'll stop.  I will wind up with this thought.  It is a portion of  the Emotionology chapter from my book, New School Acting II - A Practical Manual.  Even out of contest, I think the idea comes through. Do not work from your own emotions, work from the characters emotions. How can you do that if you don't know what they are?  I've taught emotions to actors for too many years, in classrooms all over the country, not to know that you don't know the names and meanings of all the emotions you feel. Some of them are so difficult to pronounce, we can't even say them without working on it.  If actors are going to paint with an abundantly colorful pallet they have to study emotions objectively. Actors have to understand emotions on a universal, abstract level.  Pure emotions, not emotions stained/decorated by the actors life experience with that emotion.  Emotions are much too hyper-personal to be transferred from one person to another, and your character had better be a person.  The characters emotional life must evolve in synthesis with their physical and intellectual life.



The study of emotions is a vital, but completely neglected part of the actors artistic education.  It is simply knowing all the creative options open to you, the parameters of potential.  Building your emotional vocabulary increases your emotional mobility and brings many new colors into your performance. If this study of emotions only contributes one extra color to your performance , it might be the one that will win you the job, think about it.   It's that One run, One goal, One point, One basket, One stroke etc. that wins  EVERY GAME. 


IT'S THAT ONE EXTRA COLOR THAT WINS THE AUDITION & SINCE YOU DON'T KNOW

HOW MANY COLORS THE OTHER ACTORS ARE BRINGING, SHOULDN'T YOU BRING EVERY ONE YOU CAN???




The important difference of "lending" your emotions to your character so they can transform them into their own through the alchemy of art, as opposed to portraying your emotions in the disguise of your character, is what differentiates old school from New School Acting.  This is not just a semantic difference.  It is a fundamental shift in the actors approach to and the audiences reception of a performance.


I got a little carried away there at the end, but I don't think so much as to diminish what this article was meant to achieve, more jobs for hard working intelligent actors and less pain/more fun for auditioners.


There are many ways that the Whelan Recording Technique is used in the preparation of monologues. They are all in my new book, MOSAIC ACTING SYSTEM (WIP 2005)


And You Can ORDER MOSAIC ACTING SYSTEM Right From This Web Page