Where Have All the Monologues Gone?
Once, all that stood between you and the part you wanted was the right monologue.
Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler
When I was a child actor I loved monologue books. I had a yellow one called Monologues For Young Actors and an orange one called Monologues For Teen Actors. The monologues were arranged by age: seven to ten; eleven to fourteen. Even at twelve, I could tell they were terrible. Only an adult could imagine that a child would want to speak so matter-of-factly, so confessionally, about her feelings. Here’s a real example, for a boy actor:
I guess I must have been about eight. I couldn’t have been much younger. It was the first time my Dad took me to a real Major League ballgame. I guess I must have eaten one too many hot dogs or too many nachos, because I suddenly really had to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure my Dad would let me go by myself, but we were within one run of tying the game and he didn’t want to miss anything. I was thrilled. When you’re eight finding the men’s room by yourself is a real grown-up adventure. Even the word “MEN’S room” was exciting.
They all sounded just like that: peppy and improbable. And who was this kid talking to? The monologue books never said. In any case, theatre bookstores were packed with these sorts of books, books that compiled soliloquies from plays or films; monologues created from long swatches of speech (the other characters’ lines omitted); or monologues penned by the author and collected together with titles like Monologues They Haven’t Heard Yet!
Several months ago, missing the experience of live theatre and being around actors, I put out a call on Facebook. I asked if there were any actors who needed help rehearsing their monologues. I know many actors, and I craved the subtle pleasure of seeing one tell the same story five or six times, each time slightly different. I thought it would be relaxing, and hoped I could be of some help. I imagined giving suggestions whenever I could: Maybe slow it down there…you say you’re excited but you don’t sound so excited.
I remembered a time when I would have loved such help. In Myra Rudin’s acting class, we had to choose two monologues each week from a big black binder filled with speeches photocopied from books and plays. The idea was that we would use them when we auditioned. Actors were expected to have several speeches at the ready: a comedic monologue and a serious one; something from the classical stage and something contemporary. They would choose monologues to show their acting range. A monologue was a self-conscious outfit—designed to show off one’s greatest assets. Can you cry easily? Pick a crying monologue!
The monologue closest to my heart at the time was adapted from Tom Stoppard’s play Enter a Free Man. In it, a teenage girl, whose father is a would-be inventor, is sick of having to live in her father’s fantasy world. His latest invention is a double-gummed envelope—an envelope you can use twice. Instead of throwing it away, you turn it inside-out, lick the other side, and send it back through the mail. With her father standing nearby, the daughter cries out at her mother: Ever since I remember he’s been going up to that damn room. What does he do it for? Why doesn’t he just sit downstairs and stop pretending? Later in the monologue (using words drawn from a passage spoken by another character in the play) she reminds him of what happens when someone gets a letter: she tears open the double-gummed envelope, rendering it garbage. Keep trying—all right?
After months of practicing and memorizing this monologue I realised I had chosen it for personal reasons: the hapless inventor with the big dreams was somewhat like my own father. I loved him deeply, but it dawned on me that I harboured complicated feelings about him—a frustration, even disappointment—of which I had not been fully conscious. Repeating those lines allowed the confused mass of my feelings to take on a comprehensible shape, to become real.
This monologue marked the beginning of my understanding of how art works. I realized our most personal feelings are shared. I was not the only one with some secret skepticism about my dad. I couldn’t be, or how else could Stoppard so perfectly capture my feelings? That he did, and that I could now voice them, made me at once more like myself, and more like this character I was playing. It planted me in a community of humans, all of us special for being alike. “The essence of art,” Schopenhauer wrote, “is that its one case applies to thousands.”
Within hours of putting out the Facebook call, I received a reply; my friend A needed urgent help with running lines for a part in a mid-budget American sitcom.
That night, sitting at my kitchen table, we went over the sides he had received from his agent the day before. (“Sides” are what the industry calls pages collected from a shooting script that the casting director has actors read from. It’s usually two or three scenes put together; the meatiest and most diverse lines: in one, the character might be frantic; in the other, reticent.) I read the parts opposite him. He read the part he was hoping to get.
Hours later, when A was satisfied, I asked if I might hear his monologues. Choosing a monologue had been an act of self-understanding for me; the first time I could express who I was both directly and symbolically. I was curious about A’s monologues. I wanted him to reveal his soul to me. Did he see himself as a Hamlet? Was he an American boy at a ballgame?
He laughed. Sheila, he said. I don’t have a monologue! No one asks actors to do monologues anymore.
I felt embarrassed; as if I had been asleep for twenty years. The monologue was now an outmoded technology, like the rotary phone.
But what difference does it make if actors don’t present monologues? They were always badly written, anyway. Even the greatest seemed mawkish when delivered on their own, divorced from the action of a play, repurposed to show off an actor’s talent and nothing more.
Imagine a young woman standing before a folding table in a white office. Behind the table sits the film’s casting director and her assistant; perhaps the director and producer are there as well. The woman has her audition make-up on, and she declares, crisply: My monologue is taken from Molière’s The Misanthrope. Then she begins, falsely sweet:
Madam, I have many thanks in return to you, and such advice lays me under great obligation. Far from taking it unkindly, I am only too anxious at once to prove my gratitude by giving you on my part a certain piece of advice, which, wonderful to say, closely concerns your honour; and as I see you prove yourself my friend by informing me of the reports that people spread about me, I wish, in my turn, to follow so pleasing an example by acquainting you with what is said of you.
See? A rotary phone.
My actor friends now spend their days practicing the lines of a cop or waitress—lines they’ll perform for that single audition and never again. Of course it makes more sense, from a casting director’s point of view, for an actor to speak the lines of the character they are auditioning for. The session is taped and viewed later. Even during the audition no one looks at the actor. They watch him or her on the monitor. Still, I felt sorry my friends didn’t have monologues—that there wasn’t a central text at the centre of their beings around which they revolved.
My 1978 copy of Audition—once a bestselling bible for actors, written by Michael Shurtleff, a famed Broadway and Hollywood casting director—devotes two chapters to the preparation of the monologue. He instructs actors, “Do something you like.” That advice corresponds to the book’s thesis: that a casting director wants to know the actors he’s testing out.
As A was about to leave, I remembered those lines in Audition, and asked him how casting directors get a sense of who you are without the monologue. He laughed. They don’t care who you are! The reason they’re shooting in Canada is to keep costs down! All they want to know is that you’re going to show up on time and not be hung over and not make them go over-budget. They just want you to be a professional. It’s better not to stand out.
He described how he anglicized his last name after a casting director humiliated him for its supposed unpronounceability: Your name makes me feel stupid! He also described how, during auditions, he avoids any physical or vocal clues that might reveal him as gay. I put on my smiley-face when I go in, and take it off when I leave. Once I started doing that, I started getting a lot more parts.
An audition, he explained, begins not when you pick up the script, but the moment you walk through the door. If anything has replaced the monologue, it is this: a rote performance of one’s bland interchangeability, one’s inoffensive mein. It’s not that casting directors lack curiosity about the actor. It’s that they’re hustling, too. If they perform well—in tight-budget Canada that means finding actors who don’t cause trouble or add to costs—they get hired again.
I used to wonder why movie stars never said anything controversial in magazines, but after talking to A I realized that those actors weren’t speaking through the interviewer to me, but speaking through the interviewer to Hollywood casting directors, producers, financers. They were putting on the same face A put on, one intended to convey their willingness to play the part of the trustworthy, drama-free professional for as long as was necessary: till shooting was done, through press conferences, and beyond.
Just like my favourite Stoppard monologue, the contemporary working actor’s compliant self-presentation reveals an important facet of his or her soul (file under: Monologues For Twenty-Five-to-Fifty-Year-Olds): the need to get a job.
Related on maisonneuve.org:
—Interview with Sheila Heti
—The Culture Wars
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