Observations On Monologues for Theatre and Acting

My first observation about monologues is that they suck! Monologues are a defective tool casting directors and producers use in the audition process that are only partially useful in determining whether actors are capable in their craft. I’ve known actors who were quite skilled in the delivery of monologues, but were only marginally skilled actors, and, vice versa, wonderful actors that were rather inept with delivering a convincing audition monologue.

So the question becomes: why do we use this tool if it’s such an inaccurate measure of actor’s abilities? Well, because there is some significant information that is learned through the monologue that is helpful in casting, and, of course, it isn’t usually the only casting tool that’s used. Nevertheless, it is often the first tool that’s used and a good actor can find herself out of the running early because of her lack of prowess in this unique skill set.

What are the some the things being evaluated in a monologue?

As soon as an actor walks in the room, he is being evaluated on whether he would be believable in the role for which he is being considered. It is very unlikely, (although not impossible), that an actor will be considered, even before opening his mouth, if there is not some proximity of type the actor has to the character. Therefore, the monologue should also be an approximate match of the character he is auditioning for as well. When this doesn’t occur, it raises red flags for the auditor about the judgment of the actor. First auditions are not the time to show your range beyond that of the character. In a general audition, when you don’t know what part you might be auditioning for, it is perhaps even more important for the monologue to be in alignment with your type as a person. Don’t play a person distressed about his third marriage if you’ve just graduated from college.

#2 Intention & Tactics & Listening
The first thing I’m evaluating through the lens of a monologue is whether an actor is playing an intention. Does she want something? Assuming the actor is playing an intention through the monologue, I’m also determining if she is using different tactics to get what she wants.

One skill that is quite difficult to assess through a monologue is whether the actor is a good listener. Listening creates the context for the living moment between actors where good theatre resides. (William Carden talks extensively about this in my most recent article and video.) However, a trick or two can at least let the casting director know that you are aware of this perplexing conundrum. In the monologue, you must be specific about the tactics you are using to achieve your objective and equally specific about how effective those tactics are on the character you are imagining. For instance, if your tactic is to amuse, you need to invent a specific response to that tactic. This is easiest to imagine as a specific physical response to your tactic i.e., perhaps your partner turns away, or leans forward or raises an eyebrow. This imagined response must be registered by you so we know why you then use a different tactic to achieve your objective. Changes of tactics make monologues compelling and specific and are an antidote to the earnest, but boring monologues we frequently see. If I can imagine the response of the other person in a monologue the actor is probably having some success in the audition.

#3 Actor Technique
Of course, basic skill sets like good speech, breath support, vocal range and one’s comfort in his own skin will likely also be assessed, as well as the quality of one’s preparation. Nerves can make you go up, but more often it’s a sign of inexperience or lack of preparation.

Other things to consider:

Use Active Monologues
Frequently monologues that are easy to see in a script, because they are long paragraphs of text by one character, aren’t the ones you want because they are monologues in the past tense. They are often a story of something that happened in the past and create pitfalls for actors who then get caught up in trying to connect to the emotional life of the character, but lose sight of the first thing most casting directors are trying to evaluate. They are often reflective or contemplative and don’t easily translate into active pieces. These monologues should usually be avoided in auditions.

No Stand-up
I often see monologues in general auditions that are funny, but are closer to stand-up than to acting. They are addressed generally to everybody in the room, and, therefore, miss the most basic thing I’m attempting to evaluate – does the actor know how to play an objective or intention through his acting partner?

Using Less Familiar Material
Finally, in large cattle call type auditions, using a piece we’ve just heard 10 times that day isn’t going to help your cause. The monologues less travelled are a big help to you because the casting director’s ear is more alert to the new and is going to be immediately skeptical of the overused. Unfamiliarity is your friend. Casting directors and producers are starving for the unique and original.