There are plenty of challenges a solo monologue presents, and each one will have its individual nuances and requirements. This is compounded by the fact there is no other actor to look to for support, inspiration, energy and help when things get off track.
It can also be an incredibly liberating and empowering experience. With nowhere to hide you are forced to come right to the front of yourself as a performer. You have ownership of interpretation and control over exactly where you want to go moment to moment in performance, exploring different possibilities and, if you challenge yourself, being surprised by the outcomes
Here are a few things to consider when performing a solo monologue:
1) Know who you are speaking to.
If you are speaking to a character who is not being played onstage by another actor, have a definite sense of where they are located but resist planting yourself and staring at eye level about two meters in front of you into the face of an imaginary person. This will only undermine your ability to create the imagined reality of the piece for yourself and for the audience. There is a huge range of things people do when talking to each other and eyeballing for a length of time is rarely one.
Rather than being concerned about the physical absence of the character you are talking to, focus instead on your relationship to this person. Be absolutely clear how you feel about them and why you are speaking to them. What do you need from the other person? What are you trying to do to them? This will give you something detailed and specific to do and to react to moment to moment – no matter where you happen to be looking. Experiment with speaking to the audience as if they were the other character.
Speaking directly to the audience can be confronting, but it can also liberate you from having to construct and maintain an imagined reality all by yourself. You can view the audience as a character or just as themselves: a group of people who have come to listen to what you have to say.
In his monologue play Thom Pain (based on nothing) writer Will Eno lists the Dramatis Personae as Thom Pain and Audience. This illustrates the change that occurs when the character acknowledges the audiences’ presence and talks directly to them. The audience becomes part of the story, another character, and must now be treated as such.
You can apply the same principles to the audience as you would another character – but you cannot rehearse their response! I had the pleasure of performing Thom Pain and it required a vast number of adjustments every night to what the audience brought as the other character. Being able to ride their responses and respond authentically in the moment to what was happening between us was key to making the piece work.
Soliloquy is talking to yourself when you are alone onstage without directly addressing the audience. It often reveals the characters thoughts and feelings or is a way for a character to work through an idea or a problem for themselves. Hamlet is the clearest example of this, having numerous moments alone on stage where he sorts through his thoughts, weighs up his options and tries to spur himself into action. The risk with addressing a monologue to yourself is that it can become reflective and passive. To ensure it is active use actions to activate the text but address them to yourself: ‘I scold myself’, ‘I console myself’, ‘I berate myself’.
2) Being Present
Performing alone requires you to be present in a very particular way. Often on stage actors are either striving forward, pushing for what they think the performance should be, or they are falling back into themselves in an attempt to be authentic. However real or truthful you are internally and no matter how much energy you give out it will make no difference to the quality of your work if it takes you away from being present in the room. This is especially important to remember in solo performance as you do not have another actor to connect with, anchoring you in the reality of what is going on in the moment between you. Don’t get lost in yourself or what you are trying to do. Always be alert to what is happening right now in this room between you and the audience.
Patsy Rodenberg explains this beautifully here when she speaks about the three circles of attention:
Often in monologue an actor is required to tell a story in a more literal way. It could be something from the past, a memory or something that happened to someone else. Do not fall into the trap of just ‘telling a story’ or recounting an event, lapsing into the past or into a memory. Always focus on why this is being said in the present. Why are you telling this story in this moment to someone else, to the audience or to yourself? What do you need to do to them now and how are you using this story to do it.
In scene four of The Glass Menagerie Tom comes home drunk at 5 in the morning and has a monologue to his sister Laura where he describes where he has been and what he has been doing. Rather than ‘telling the story’ of his evening (passive and in the past) he is actually trying to evade her questions, escape the truth of his night out and distract her with an onslaught of detail (active and in the present). Always look for why the story is being told and play that rather than simply the story itself.
4) Serve the Text
Understand the writers’ intention. Get the words right and let us hear them. Observe the punctuation. Don’t impose anything on it that it does not need. Observe the stage directions: if they are good they will ignite your imagination rather than close it down – know the difference.
Don’t demonstrate the text: if you are saying it don’t do it. The actors’ job is to bring inner life and new layers of meaning to the writing, so don’t ‘act it out’ for us – reveal to us what it means to you.
5) It is not a solo.
Although you may be the only person onstage you are not working alone. The light and the shadow, the sound and the silence, the design and the theatre itself, the audience and the text. These things will give you excellent material to respond to, allowing you to be affected and changed. Giving attention to them will keep you in the present moment.
6) It is not a monologue.
In life no one begins speaking knowing that they will speak uninterrupted for one, ten, or thirty minutes. Approach your piece as a scene where the other person / the audience doesn’t get a chance to reply, or doesn’t choose to speak. Pause for a response from the other character, from the audience or for yourself to consider what you have said. Cut off the other person. Prevent them from responding. Wonder what they are going to say. Be affected and changed by what they do or do not say and do. Find the need to speak the next line.
7) Put it outside yourself.
Do not disappear inside yourself when performing alone. There is no one else to draw you out and no one else for the audience to connect to, so you are effectively giving them permission to shut off. Always place what it is you want, your intention, outside yourself. Put it on the other person, the audience, an imagined person, place or object. Make it real, immediate and doable.
8) Don’t forget the basics.
As always these fundamentals will help you out of trouble:
- Create clear, simple objectives and tasks for yourself so that you are always active and moving forward.
- Use transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that can be done to someone or something, ‘I accuse you’, ‘I tease you’, ‘I caress the book’, ‘I study the ceiling’. Avoid all forms of the verb ‘to be’ such as ‘being elated’ or ‘being angry’.
- Avoid generalizations and states of being. “I am sad”, “The character is very depressed”, “I am full of rage”. None of these are things you can actually do. They are unspecific and will not help you to be active on stage.
Hopefully these few pointers will be helpful to come back to – especially when things seem complicated.
Do not fall back to ways of doing it that you have set in stone – the more rigid you are the more likely to break under duress.
The structure with some give – that retains its shape but can bend to accommodate any weather will be the one that stays standing in the end. Enjoy your opportunity to have such a personal relationship to an audience.
Once you step on stage all you have to do is be present with us in the world of the play and find the need to speak.