Monologues: Selection to Performance

By Emma Wright

Actors are often required to perform monologues, particularly when auditioning. A well-written monologue imparts information regarding a character or a plot in an active way, and may present a character’s point of view, reveal their true intentions, or give them a moment to work through and process significant thoughts and feelings. Monologues performed well are likely to leave a long-lasting impression on an audience.

For example, the first thing that comes to mind when someone says Hamlet is likely the opening line of one of the play’s many speeches: “To be or not to be, that is the question”. Shakespeare is filled with excellent monologues and soliloquies, as are the works of many classic and contemporary playwrights. Note the difference between a soliloquy and a monologue is that a soliloquy is a speech one gives to oneself, thoughts spoken aloud, discovered and spoken in real time, as opposed to being directed at another person. The “To be or not to be” speech, for example, is a soliloquy, whereas Marc Antony’s “Friends, Romans and countrymen, lend me your ears” speech in Julius Caesar is a monologue.

There are also many fine and memorable monologue moments in film and television. Writer/director/auteur Tarantino is a big user of monologues, and if someone mentions the Joker it’s likely you’ll think of Heath Ledger’s “Wanna know how I got these scars?” speech in The Dark Night. Then there’s Liam Neeson’s “I will find you” speech in Taken, Anthony Hopkins in his jailcell in Silence of the Lambs, Meryl Streep’s “cerulean” rant in The Devil Wears Prada, Charlize Theron dreaming of being in the movies in Monster, and Viola Davis’ Oscar-nominated monologue delivery in Doubt. In television, Jesse and Walter have powerful monologues in Breaking Bad (“I am the one who knocks” anyone?), as do numerous characters in Game of Thrones, mocumentary’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, Orange is the New Black, Westworld, Girls, American Horror Story, and more.

Name a project, it likely contains a monologue, so it makes sense that actors have a good handle of performing them. It’s also worthwhile to have a few up your sleeve for auditioning, as monologues – especially in theatre – often form part of the audition process.

Approaching the Monologue

A monologue differs from ‘dialogue’ in that it is an unbroken, uninterrupted block of text a character speaks. Monologues throw actors as suddenly they feel a need to ‘perform’, directing their focus inwards and onto themselves, forgetting that a monologue should still be directed to or at someone – whether that be another character in the play, a group of characters, or even the audience behind the fourth wall. 

Reflect on the times in your life you have ‘monologued’. What was the lead up to these moments? How did you relate your ‘monologue’ to the person you were speaking to? Were the stakes high? Do you remember how your vocal and physical rhythms were affected? Was your focus split or directed? What did your ‘monologue’ aim to achieve? There are no wrong answers, but we don’t often monologue in life, so these unique moments are worth investigating.

Essentially, you should approach a monologue as you would any other section of text and do all your usual detective work. Beats, actions, objectives, subtext, and so on are still significant and in play, but pay special attention to clarifying who you are speaking to, why the character speaks uninterrupted for as long as they do, think about pace and rhythm, and find at least one gear shift.

Monologue Selection

When it comes to selecting a monologue for an audition, there are a few key considerations. Firstly, choose a monologue that excites you, but try to look beyond the tried and tested – they’re popular for a reason, but you don’t want to be presenting the same piece as every second auditionee or something your panel is overly familiar with and therefore has high or specific expectations of. You also want to ensure your monologue contains the abovementioned gear shift or beat change, and choose something which presents you at your best and is active with high stakes.

You want your piece to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and for it to give you the opportunity to really work towards affecting the person/people you’re speaking to, and something to which you can attach strong, playable actions. Monologues rely on an actor’s ability to have a lively inner life, to have spontaneous thoughts and then voice them in real time, so make sure you work on your inner monologue, and think about where the thoughts you speak aloud are coming from and when (and why) they change.

Make sure you read the full text you’ve extracted the monologue from, this is essential. You should aim to tailor your monologue choice to the project you’re auditioning for – when auditioning for a comedy choose something comedic, if you’re auditioning for an Irish play look at pieces from other Irish plays. Generally it’s advised that auditionees don’t choose a monologue from the text they are auditioning for, but finding something close in theme, tone, and character is going to make it easier for the production team to see you in the role.

Pay attention to the instructions and guidelines in the audition brief. For example if a two minute monologue is requested, don’t go in with a five minute one. Research the creative team if possible to get a sense of their taste and identify any common threads in their body of work. Keep track of who you are presenting what monologue to, and try to avoid auditioning with the same monologue for the same people more than once. And if you’ve been doing the one piece for years (we all do it), consider changing it up from time to time to breathe some freshness into your repertoire.

If you’re asked to present two monologues, make sure they’re contrasting and show off your range. In my experience as an actor auditioning and being on audition panels, it’s worth noting that having a backup monologue up your sleeve can be very useful. Occasionally the director wants to see something different, and being able to give them this option shows you’re prepared, passionate, and professional.

Performing Your Monologue

When presenting your monologue, you will likely be asked if you’d like a “warm body”, to place and use someone in the space to direct your performance to. This is always advisable, unless your monologue is directed to a crowd in which case having a single person may not be of much help. Some panels will be happy for you to address them and use them as an eyeline, others will ask you not to. Don’t be afraid of making eye contact, but if it’s going to throw you, try instead picking a point just above their heads. If you don’t want to or aren’t able to have someone in the space with you, it can be just as effective to place a chair in the space, or pick a point on the wall to use and reference.

Remember that your feet aren’t glued to the floor. The terms ‘monologue’ and ‘speech’ make some actors feel rigid and as if they’re required to stand still, which is not the case. Don’t be a talking head. Whether you’re onstage or on camera, follow your urges to move within the frame and find ways to bring a physicality to the monologue, even if its raising a hand to push some hair out of your face. These small moments bring humanity to your performance.

Take your time. The ball is entirely in your court. You choose when you speak your first word, so don’t open your mouth till you’re ready. There’s no need to rush or any pressure to jump straight into the piece as soon as you step onto the mark. This is your time, so own and embrace it. Take a breath, relax, soften your knees, set your focus, immerse yourself in the character and given circumstances, and only when you’re ready, start to speak. Sometimes if I’m feeling like I need an extra second to get myself into the right headspace, I’ll take a moment to tie up my hair (not so helpful for those with short hair, sorry!), as this gives me an opportunity to subtly centre myself without feeling like I’m frozen on the spot or keeping the panel waiting.

Finally, be open to direction. It’s likely that once you’ve delivered your prepared version of your piece, the audition panel is going to want to offer some direction and watch how you take it onboard and adapt. Don’t forget that this is not a case of you being told what you’ve done is wrong. It’s an opportunity to push the piece further or stretch it in a new direction, showing your flexibility, and perhaps give light to a few new colours in your paint box. Be ready and open to play.

So monologues. Don’t be afraid of them. Approach them as you would any other text, making sure you know who you’re talking to, what you want, and where the piece twists and turns. Choose something that you love, that sparks your creative fire, and make it easy for the panel to imagine you in the role they’re casting while presenting something fresh and unlikely to have been performed five times already that day. Be confident in your preparation, seize your moment, take your time, and have fun.

Hint: don’t know where to start in your monologue searching? We recommend checking out ATYP’s annual Intersection series (purchase the 2020 edition here: https://www.currency.com.au/books/drama/intersection-beat/) and of course Australian Plays (https://australianplays.org/), whose website allows you to search for monologues for the appropriate duration/age/gender/category (including theatre for young people). 

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