When I was in high school (Franklin Pierce was president, I believe) I got
to hang out with the smart kids once a week because I was on the speech
team. I don't even know if they do this anymore, but back then we had speech
teams and we went to competitions almost every week. The smart kids were on
the debate team. I was competing in what was then called Oral
Interpretation. Each competitor did a 'reading' from a play or book.
Not to brag but I won a lot of trophies in this category. (My high school
kept the trophies which I thought unfair. Those babies are probably stored
in a box in a dingy basement somewhere. If I'd gotten to keep them, they'd
be polished and shiny and sitting on my mantle.)
In any event, I'll tell you my strategy for winning: Most students competing
in "Oral Interp" used popular plays and well known cuttings while I went
searching for the odd. the unusual and the arcane. For instance, while most
were doing Cat On A Hot Tin Roof or Member of the Wedding, I was doing
Prometheus Bound translated from the Greek or Archibald McLiesh's J.B. (See?
you've never heard of these plays have you?)
The point is that neither had the judges. So when I started my performance,
I had them hooked at the title. Curiosity is a great friend of the
The other big secret was that I looked for something that had a lot of
conflict in it. Big, over the top emotions and confrontation. (These Oral
Interp things usually involved playing two characters.)
Today's actor is faced with the challenge of finding a good monologue. I
think my experience in high school can help you form the beginning of a good
plan of operation with regard to finding "the perfect monologue."
First, think outside the box. It seems to me that all these books I see at
Samuel French with titles like 50 Monologues for Actors or Monologues For
Women are used to death. I could be wrong but I'm probably not. In other
words, everyone has heard and seen the monologues from the monologue books
dozens, if not hundreds, of times.
So your first goal is to find something that nobody else is doing.
There are many possible sources for monologues that are off the beaten path.
For instance I recently saw a small piece on the net, ostensibly written by
an 8 year old called "Explaining God." One of my newsletter subscribers has
two young boys who are actors and so I sent this along to her as a possible
monolog. As it turns out she had seen the piece several times in her email
box but had not thought of it as monologue material. She (and her boys)
loved it. I'm sure the casting people will love it too.
So, start searching in places other people are not searching. Here are some
starting points: Court TV. Some of these trials have some fascinating
characters "in extremis." Get out the tape recorder and adapt. Books. One
great thing about novels is that the characters often talk at length and
when they do it's usually something dramatic. Old movies. Again, the writers
of the older films were allowed to go on a bit. Use your recorder to capture
these gems. Interviews. There are many newspaper and magazine stories where
the subject is interviewed and tells a good story. Or even do your own
interviews with people (with the trusty tape recorder). Ask them how they
met their spouse. What childbirth was like. What did they do in the war.
Here's a strategy to use to make an old monologue "fresh." Contemporize. (If
there is such a word.) Take something old and make it new by putting it into
normal speech. As an example use Hamlet's famous "To be or not to be"
speech. It might be, "God what a mess. I just can't stand this anymore.
Maybe I should just kill myself. At least if I was dead I wouldn't have to
deal with these people anymore." Okay, that stinks, but you get the idea.
An often overlooked source of first person writing is the autobiography. If
you're looking for a funny monologue you could do worse than finding the
books written by funny people and digging for gold. Drama and memory pieces
are even more available.
There are three main things each monologue should contain: Story, character,
and emotional impact. In fact, the successful monologue will be just like a
successful movie or play. It will contain a beginning, a middle and an end.
Start thinking like a comedian. A joke contains all the elements of a full
length entertainment. You've got two minutes, so make the best of every
Story. Don't make the mistake of thinking that the viewer has any
information up front. They don't. So your choice has to contain the entire
story. The opening line or two should set up the whole piece. Hook us. Give
us the back story. Tell us who the character is. The next bit should present
the dilemma, the conflict. The end should be a "snapper." The punchline of a
monologue is extremely important. Keep looking until you find a good one.
Character. It's important to realize that the closer the character is to
you, the better the result of your monologue will be. If you're a teen-ager,
the character should be a teen-ager. If you're a bald old man ... well, you
get the idea. The other important point about character is this: You are a
human being. You qualify as a character. Don't forget that.
Emotional Impact. The key to a successful monologue is its ability to evoke
an emotional response in the viewer. This can be sadness, anger, happiness,
memory, laughter, etc. Again, it's terribly important that the piece you
pick has an impact on the viewer. Too many actors look for something that
allows them to act emotional and this is a bad tactic. The emotion of the
player is not the issue. It's how the viewer reacts that counts. Ignore this
at your own risk. Watching you cry or emote is not that interesting. If I
cry while watching you, you win.
Performance. I suggest that you find some good "in one" performances and
study them. Some I would suggest are "Mark Twain Tonight" with Hal Holbrook,
the Whoopi Goldberg play (the one where she was discovered) and Bill Cosby
"By Himself." Richard Pryor has some amazing techniques and he's also worth
studying. In fact, if you want to really get good at doing monologues, you
should make a study of all the "one man shows" that were good enough to end
up on tape or DVD.
Don't forget that the purpose of your monologue is to show your "chops." It
might be a good idea to work on those "chops," so do your homework.
Practice. I cannot stress this enough. It is not sufficient to memorize the
words and think you've accomplished the job. As with any performance you
should rehearse until it becomes second nature. Do yourself a big favor and
try out your choices on other people. Find a friend you trust (not a
'critic') and get feedback. Return the favor by watching your friend's
monologue. Team up and get better results.
Let's review: Choose wisely. Think outside the box. Tell a story. Reveal a
character. Evoke an emotion in the viewer. Have a "closer." Practice and
As with any of the tasks facing an actor, doing this right isn't easy. In
fact, it's pretty hard. But if you want to have a successful monologue
you've got to be willing to do the work. The monologue is one of the few
chances you will get to impress a casting director or agent it's your job
to make sure it's spectacular. Work hard at it.
That's my monologue for today.
Bob Fraser is an actor, writer, producer, director and author of You Must Act! "The Bible of Acting Success."
© Copyright 2004 Bob Fraser. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reproduced or distributed.
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