Friday, 21 June 2013

The monologue: an actors greatest gift

 by Greg Bepper

The greatest gift for any actor is the monologue. Not only is it their time to shine but it's their most personal connection with the audience. Although, be warned; it comes with great responsibility and danger.
Greg Bepper 'Death of a child' in Under the Bridge

You have the weight of the entire production, at that point, resting on your shoulders; for the audience's focus is entirely and directly on you! 

There is no one to save you if you're struck by the 'stare of a thousand deaths' (forget your lines). You must give the performance of your life (every time) to bare your characters' soul or explain the situation or give the audience an insight into the many lives of those they have just met or about to be introduced. 

Breaking the fourth wall
This invisible wall separates the actor from the audience. The stage from the house. The set from the lens. For the audience, it's their window into different lives, different times. For the actor, it's an extension of their temporary reality. 

'Breaking' the fourth wall during a monologue can be a powerful but sometimes daunting experience for an audience. You have invaded their space, encroached on their comfort zone while they sit their in the safety of the dark or the other side of the television. 
Reach out to the audience and invite them in

Although not all monologues have the actor speak directly to the audience, engage in eye contact, the fourth wall is still breached to reach out to the audience and invite them in.

We also have the dangerous practise of completely smashing this wall. The actor leaves the stage and enters among the audience. I personally love it but invading their safe, dark-filled space suddenly illuminated by full house lights is for the brave hearted. 

When it works, it's magic. It brings a whole new element to the ride you are taking your audience. BUT when it doesn't, it's a disaster. Freezing your audience colder than the icy caps of the alps. 

In the production of my play Blocked which I wrote and directed, the final scene is a monologue that starts on stage transforming the audience into students in a university lecture hall. Half way through the Lecturer jumps off stage and continues his lecture [monologue] walking among the students [the audience] as lecturers do. 

Every performance, no matter how many times we re staged it, the audience would sit rigid, staring straight ahead at the empty stage. Then when the actor went back onto the stage for the close, you could sometimes hear an audible sigh of relief. 

Play the audience
Take them exactly where you want
Because a theatre audience's reactions are so immediate, so instant, so now; you have the power with a monologue to take them exactly where you want. But be warned every audience is different. Do not expect them all to laugh, cry, gasp, on cue just because these were the reactions of the previous audience.

To play an audience, every performance you need to gauge their reactions to other sections of the play as it progresses prior to your monologue. If your monologue opens the play, then I'm afraid you're on your own and will need to gauge as you progress through it. 

You also can not expect delivery of lines that usually evoke the required reactions to work every time. This is due to the fore mentioned difference in audience and believe it or not, your delivery may have been 'off' that performance. It's a very fine balance of 'on your feet' tweaking every performance. 

I recall one of my many monologues in my play Under the Bridge; the 'death of a child' monologue. Every performance I would have the audience anywhere from weeping to sobbing, except for this one night. 

There in the front row, a guy starts laughing. The more I 'played' to bring him down, the more he laughed. This changed the whole mood of the house, not with laughter but a huge vibe of second hand embarrassment. You know, that awkward kind you get in a cringe situation. I had an entire audience full of it. 

Risk factor: 100, but it worked.
It was time for action, so I bit the bullet, prayed to all the gods I knew, made direct eye contact and delivered the rest of the monologue directly at him. Risk factor: 100, but it worked. He stopped, more in shock than anything else. The mood was saved. 

This is the responsibility for all actors with monologues. To get the audience to a level of emotion that is required at that point of the production.  

The interesting point I learned here, the hard way, is to be aware of 'the guy thing' when it's required to make an audience cry. Some guys still won't 'let go' in public and you get an opposite reaction as the cover-up.

Size does matter!  
Audience size that is. There's safety in numbers, especially if your monologue requires laughs. A small audience will quite happily weep quietly to themselves sitting there in the dark. But don't expect to roll them in aisles, laughing out loud because the majority won't. This is due to the 'I don't want to be the only one' syndrome. 

Laughter and large audiences go hand in hand. A safe chain reaction. A numbers game that there will be more than themselves [the audience]  that will find it funny and laugh. Large audiences are also perfect initiators of standing ovations... and Mexican waves.  

Known versus Unknown
If you have the privilege of a monologue in a new work, this is much safer than one in an known work. The audience have never heard it before, so how are they to know if you 'got it wrong'. 

Your Director on the other hand may not be all that happy. But as long as you get to the correct feed line (the line before someone else speaks) the play will continue and hopefully make sense. However, I do not recommend a continued practise of ad libbing your monologue. It may be the last one you ever get.

Laurence Olivier in Hamlet
On the other hand, known monologues such as Hamlets' soliloquy for example or Maggie's monologue in Cat on a hot tin roof are fraught with danger. No ad libbing here. The devotees of known works, who usually sit in the front row, have been known to mouth every word along with you as you pour your heart into every syllable. But, 'slip up' or digress from the original text and you might as well dust off your Barister certificate or taxi license.

Do not despair, remember there will always be someone in the audience that has never seen or read a known work. They will think you were wonderful! 

Don't waste this gift
There you have it; monologues, warts and all. Cherish this gift. Work on it over and over again. It's your time in the spotlight, don't waste it. Writers to not place monologues in their plays to fill up space. They have a purpose. Respect the writers wishes and give it everything you've got.... every time! 

Author: Greg Bepper © 2013
Artistic Director
Greg Bepper's Thunderbolt Theatre & Film Productions



  1. There's nothing more moving than a powerful soliloquy. Here's another powerful one to watch:

    1. You're not wrong... interesting how this Chaplin monologue has had a new lease of life lately online... Opened up to a whole new generation !

  2. I love this and I'm sharing it with my friend Robin!

    1. Thank you Mary-Margaret .. so glad you liked it.

  3. Great stuff. Thanks

    Cheers from Germany