The Power of Monologues

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Introduction

I am a big fan of monologues, mainly for initiation of scenes (and by extension, stories).   But I don’t see enough of them, which is a pity, because monologues can be quite powerful.  Let’s see why I like monologues so much.

Kristof Jakiela from RIOT initiating a story line by means of a monologue (2016).

Disclaimer: Armando’s and “Monologic” formats

When I talk about use of monologues in this post, I am not referring to the use of monologists to kickstart a performance; I am talking about actors using the monologue in their performance. For those not familiar with formats like the Armando, it goes like this:

  • A “guest” – typically not an improviser, and called a monologist – is asked to tell a story, prior to the improvisation, and perhaps cued by an audience suggestion.
  • The story told by the monologists need not be funny or even interesting, and is preferably a true story.
  • The story told in the monolog is the inspiration for the improvisers.

The “Armando” format is credited to Armando Diaz. There are other, similar formats around, like “Monologic”. Google ASSSSCAT and you will get plenty of hits.  Here’s video of a UCB performance.

Anyway, this just to say that that is not what this post is about.

Definition of “Monologue”

For the purpose of this post, a monologue is nothing more than a piece of text, uttered by a solo actor, and not addressing anyone in particular; i.e. the actor (or the actor’s character) is not communicating to other actors (or the characters they play) also on stage. A monologue need not be long, and it certainly need not be funny.

Many Minds vs One Story

First a side note: When we improvise a scene or a story, we are inventing a certain reality on the spot. And unless you are performing solo improv like a Sybil, we will have several actors on stage, all inventing this one reality, all at the same time. Ever player on the scene has probably some basic idea in mind, based upon the audience suggestion(s) you might have gotten.  And in improv, we expect those ideas to get together (or one idea take the upper hand over the others) so we get a clear scene, with clear characters, and something clearly happening and/or the scene being clearly about something. All this without explicit negotiating. In my mind, those are pretty high expectations, as actors cannot read one another’s minds.

As improvisers we are used to this, and we do pull it off. Usually. But I see too many scenes/stories that start off wobbly until all players are on the same page (and have a clear notion as to what the page might be). Admittedly, that is part of the charm of improv, and it is a joy (at least to me) to witness the moment when everyone, almost magically, understands the deal of the scene/story.

Monologues for Exposition

I like to use monologues as a way of exposition. Exposition being just a fancy word to mean the establishing of Who, What, Where. The reason why I like this links directly to the side note in the above section. When exposition is done by means of a monologue, you avoid the negotiation phase between multiple actors.  I am not claiming the negation phase is bad or should be avoided, I am saying that just to spice things us, why not use a monologue from time to time.

Some players like to take time to find their character’s deal. Knowing you will be left alone on scene, knowing you have the time to dig into what your character wants/needs, can be very liberating.

There is a caveat though: if your intention is to start a monologue, and your fellow players don’t know this, what’s to prevent them from jumping on stage and ruining your intention? In order to do this cleanly, you’ll need to set some “rules” amongst yourselves as a group of players. Either you decide to do an opening by means of one or more monologues. Or you agree to some kind of signal that you are initiating by means of a monologue. Such signal might be as simple as “when a player steps on stage, clearly ignoring other players who also might step onto the scene, and clearly addresses the audience rather than a different player, this player is doing a monologue, and we will give her the time & space to elaborate her monologue”.

Of course your performance will not be limited to monologues; at some point the monologue will lead to a scene. You basically have 2 options and you may decide as a group which you like best, or use both:

  1. The monologist actor basically leaves the stage when she feels the monologue is complete, after which a new scene starts. That one might be a monologue too (who knows? – this is all improvised). The scene may have the monologist’s character in is, or perhaps not.
  2. The monologue morphs into a 2-or-more person scene. This can be done in 3 ways:
    1. Either the monologist calls for a second character (or clearly addresses a second character by turning away from the audience and address someone clearly on the scene).
    2. Or a second player steps in and make clear to the monologist that both are in the same scene. This can be done verbally (address them) or physically (touch them, start doing a physical activity with or around the monologist).
    3. Or 2 or more players can simply edit the monologue and transition to a scene which the monologist character is simply not in (yet?).

The 2 last options takes some training: you will want to avoid frustrating the monologist by jumping in too soon, before the monologist feels she has established enough. A basic rule I try to follow in my workshops is that as long as you, as a fellow player – have no clear idea about who the monologist character is and what that character drives/want/needs, you are probably better off not jumping in. How far you want to take this depends on your own group dynamics, so rehearse it!

(Over-)Exposition

When you use a monologue to set up a scene/story, the main job is obviously exposition. There is one big caveat here: try and avoid overexposition. For general examples see my post on Exposition, but keep in mind that opinions about too much exposition differ. Here is an example of an in my opinion overexposed monologue:

  • A: Look at me, Haakon king of Denmark. 70 years old and my life is ruined. My eldest son Anthony ran away with Moira, the redheaded Princess of the Scots – my arch enemies. My wife Mathilda left me for that fat Duke Leto, count of the Latvians – my other arch enemies. But I will have my revenge: my armies will first sail to Latvia and crush Leto’s and I will have Mathilda’s head. And then we will sail to Scotland and I will have Moira’ pretty head. My army is larger than the Lavian and the Scots taken together, so I should have no problem defeating them.

Even though I find this example overexposed, there are various things about it that I do like – and that imply techniques I like to encourage:

  • The monologue introduces other characters. I like this aspect so much I’ll have a future post dedicated to that.
  • Also notice that these characters are endowed: Moira is a redhead and Leto is fat. More about this in the next paragraph though.
  • We do know exactly who the character is, and where the story is situated. Bonus points for keeping the setup away from the mundane here & now.

What I dislike about this example is that it is extremely factual and narrative-oriented. We get not only the backstory (son and wife are gone) but also a peek in the story to come. I can live with backstory, but story to come is in my world better left to the actual interplay of all improvisers, rather than told explicitly. Furthermore the endowments are rather thin, character-wise. It’s fun to know that Moira is a redhead and Leto is fat, but that does not really tell us much about how these characters really are, what drives them, what they like and dislike. Ditto for king Haakon: the only thing we know is that his wife & son ran away and he is out for revenge – apart from that we know very little about the character.

I personally thoroughly enjoy exposition of character, but dislike exposition of narrative.

Here is another example (taken from my earlier post on Character Driven Narrative):

  • A: Ah, finally, the Red Star Line. After all the hardships of the past months, the horrible travels, over 2000 verst, and now here in Antwerp, the last stage before America. Oh, sure I will miss the fields of Budyonnovsk, Uncle Misha, and I wonder if New York will have a decent bowl of Borscht on offer. But I will not miss the hatred, the persecution of our folk and those who killed my beloved Ishmael. Ay, I look forward to the end of this journey, and to a new life across the great Atlantic.

I personally like this one better – though it may be cringe-worthy to some of you (that’s OK BTW – we can agree to disagree). Again we have backstory, but no future story. And we know what is important to the character: she wants a new life, she misses bits of her old live, she lost a loved one, perhaps her husband. She is angry or bitter about that loss and about the persecution of her kin. She is hopeful to escape all that in America.

Bottom line: I like to see exposition of the character, not the narrative.

Use of Monologues Post-Exposition

Monologues are not only fun for exposition. There is nothing that stops you from monologuing in the middle of the story. Here is a short-form handle that I like very much, and that can equally be used in long form improv: Asides.

The basic idea is that in the middle of a scene, a character “steps out” of the reality of that scene and comments how she really feels about what is going on. Since what we are hearing is like the character’s inner voice, the other characters in the scene do no know what the main character is thinking. Again, this is something that needs some rehearsing, as the scene itself basically freezes: the other characters in the scene probably stay where they are until the main character steps back into the scene. As above, when using this technique, my preference is for information that is about the character, not about the narrative.

A poor example: Amy is a project manager at an Australian mining company and Burt is her boss. This has already been established prior to what happens next:

  • Burt: You have done a great job last year, and I think it’s time for a new challenge for you. I would like you to lead the integration of the Burraga mine we just purchased. There is a pay raise involved, of course.
  • Amy (stepping out, monologue style). Hah, he doesn’t know I’m going to put in my 2 weeks’ notice next week.
  • Amy (stepping back into the scene): Oh great. Thanks for considering me for the job. I really appreciate this.

My reason for disliking the example is that the information conveyed in the monologue is mere facts, which foretell the future story, but that do not tell us much about the character. Take the same 2 characters and consider the next example:

  • Burt: You have done a great job last year, and I think it’s time for a new challenge for you. I would like you to lead the integration of the Burraga mine we just purchased. There is a pay raise involved, of course.
  • Amy: (stepping out, monologue style): OMG, I’m going to need a pregnancy test. Suppose I’m already pregnant – I can’t spend months away in Burraga. And even if I’m not pregnant yet – John would be so disappointed, he’s been wanting us to start a family for so long. Why didn’t Burt mention this 2 months ago? I would have held off on the family thing. Darn.

Before we continue the example, a few comments. For starters the Amy character has not just added narrative information, but rather character information.  Furthermore, she has established character information about a third character as well: her husband/boyfriend John. We do not know how the story will evolve; Amy probably does not know herself – her comment about holding off on the family thing indicates that if it weren’t for the promise of starting a family, she would love to take on the Burraga project. Will she take the job or not? – both are still possible.

Furthermore, Burt does not know any of this, but the player behind Burt’s character does. He can use the information to raise the stakes and to make Amy’s situation even more difficult. Suppose Amy now steps back into the scene. But instead of her continuing, Burt picks up the pace and snaps Amy out of her monologue:

  • Burt: If would be a substantial raise of course, say 5000$. What do you think?
  • Amy (stepping out again): OMG. With that raise we could be out of debt in less than 4 years.
  • Burt (snapping Amy out of her monologue again) (chuckling) Playing hard to get heh? What the heck I can do 7500$, you deserve it.

And so forth. Again, the comment about debt is not a narrative comment; it does not commit any story lines, it merely tells us what is important to Amy. And it raises the stakes. It creates instant tension and I happen to like that.

Angel/Devil Monologues

Here’s another device you can use to show e.g. the inner struggle of a character, and technically this is not even a monologue: a character is on stage and needs to decide between options. 2 other players peek over the main character’s shoulder (one left and one right), one playing an “angel” and one playing a “devil”, each advocating one side of the option. You are basically playing 2 voices in the main character’s head.

Bu you can take this one step further and play is – Sybil-like – with one character as well: simply play main character, angel and devil all at once.

Objection: Show, Don’t Tell

“Show, don’t tell” is a mantra often used by improv teachers.  A variation is “Play it, don’t say it”.  One might argue that exposition by means of a monologue is telling, rather than showing or playing.  I agree with that (and I by and large agree with the principle altogether), but as I argued before, establishing the character matters more to me than the principle.  (besides, I’m no big fan of strict principles either).  We can agree to disagree of course.  Improv is not hard science.

Practicalities

I am not claiming here that you should only do openings by means of monologues. What I am arguing for more use of monologues, both for exposition, and in the middle of story lines. If your group is open to this, work on making clear when a monologue is being performed. You need to train this, so all players recognize the start of a monologue. Drill the kinds of signals you will use.  Work on the different kinds of transitions you can use to end the monologue.  Train on the monologues themselves, to avoid over-exposition or exposition of story rather than exposition of character.

And lastly, fail happily. It will happen that a fellow player interrupts your monologue before you felt you were ready. It will happen that you step onto the scene feeling like doing a monologue only to find yourself in a group scene. Kill your darlings, accept what happens and build on that.

So spice up your work and have some fun with monologues!

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