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Monologue as Performance

Around 1978, having arrived in New York three years earlier, I met the late actor David Warrilow, a charter member of the Mabou Mines theatre company. He possessed the most perfect speaking voice, so I asked him for some actorly advice on how to improve mine. David urged me to get hold of a tape recorder, record my speaking voice and then listen carefully to the result. It would be obvious what I needed to work on.

I bought a cheap plastic cassette recorder and recorded some off-the-cuff ramblings. I wasn’t working on any particular text or play, so I improvised as I spoke. For instance, I’d “do” a southern-style voice. I didn’t try for any specific dialect, I was just screwing around. I’d launch into a Sam Shepard-esque monologue about fast cars and guns and liquor without thinking too much about what I was saying. The words flowed. (Years later I realized I was channeling Shepard’s play Killer’s Head, which I had seen at the American Place Theater performed by Richard Gere in 1975. Gere at the time had a reputation as a high-octane performer. Take a look at his work in the 1977 film Looking for Mister Goodbar.)

Later, when I listened to the tape it occurred to me that I had been improvising a little monologue. I hadn’t consciously planned to create a character but “someone” living inside of me had spoken up and now I had a recording of that character.

I made more tapes. As these improvs mounted up, I decided to catalog the “people who live inside me.” I sorted them out and came up with twelve distinct male archetypes, ranging from a threatening street punk (“Nice Shoes”) to a backwoods deer hunter (“Rodeo”) to a little boy playing (“Superman!”). All of these characters were the product of free-form vocal improv. I wasn’t looking “out there” for characters; I was looking “inside.”

a actor on stage
Photos from 100 Monologues, which features one hundred monologues originally performed as part of Eric Bogosian’s six Off-Broadway shows. Michael Chernus on set for "Bottleman." Photo by Monique Carboni.

This gallery of characters, this set of monologues, became a piece titled, Men Inside. I performed it first in 1980 at Franklin Furnace, a small loft space in Tribeca. A small crowd (fifty?) showed up and dug it. After a couple of years of performing Men Inside in every venue I could find (lofts, clubs), a scout for Joseph Papp invited me to the Public Theater to meet him. Joe asked me if I would perform some of this material for him in his office. A few months later, Men Inside premiered at the Public Theater. Over the next twenty years I went on to write and perform six full-length solo shows (one more at the Public, another at American Place Theater, and three commercial runs Off-Broadway). In all, I created some hundred monologues for these shows. (You can go to 100monologues.com to see some very accomplished actors taking a crack at them.)

The whole conceit was to treat the solo as a one-person play comprised of snapshots, a gallery, so to speak. Every show would have a theme. Any monologue that didn’t fit was discarded. Sometimes the theme wasn’t obvious as I began a new show. To paraphrase Wallace Shawn: “I find out what I want to write about by writing it.”

* * *

Theatre is character, everything else is window-dressing. It’s not the terrific story that makes Shakespeare great, not the action-sequences, not the scenic elements—it’s the characters. It’s not atmosphere that makes the Greek tragedies timeless; it’s the characters. And the same is true with Molìere, Goethe, Ibsen, Chekhov, Tennessee Williams. (The exceptions might be Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter where tone and formal innovation are prominent. Maybe.)

What makes a character tick is fascinating because we are all characters in the way we see ourselves and in the way we see others. “Character” is our way of conceptualizing who we are in reality; “character” is essentially accepted shorthand for “person.” Character is what we create every time we interact with another. In his book, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, Irving Goffman tells us that we learn how to act to be the people we are. “Acting” in day-to-day life is more than behaving, it is imitating, it is constructing. When I am with other people, I am consciously or unconsciously imitating the behavior of other people I’ve known before. And to take it one step further, because I live in a world of mass media, that would include all sorts of people who are not “real” but who I “know” from movies or TV.

A doctor models his behavior after other doctors (by presenting himself as kind? empahetic?). An auto mechanic behaves like an auto mechanic (surly? tough?) because he’s seen how an auto mechanic should act and speak. In fact, if you visited the doctor and he behaved like an auto mechanic, his behavior might seem odd. We are always telling each other who we are (and what “tribe” we belong to) through our behavior, (which is mainly speech and posture). Not only do we model our speech according to the role we are playing in society, we are always fine-tuning this act, especially in dynamic social settings, like when we are on a date or when we are doing business. This understanding of how one should behave is not innate, we learn it.

I think about all this when I’m preparing a role. Take for example the soldier Woyzeck in Georg Büchner’s play. Personally, I have no “sense memory” of being a soldier. I’ve never fought in a war. I’ve never trained. I do have a memory of being in fist fights or being hurt or being scared. And, of course, when I act, I access those feelings. But I also have a memory of the soldiers and how soldiers comport themselves from the dozens of war movies and TV shows I’ve watched. I have many memories of actors playing soldiers. I’m recalling a memory of an actor playing a soldier. As far as my subconscious is concerned, real soldiers and actor-soldiers are kind of equal. And it’s not just civilian-actors who feel this way. Soldiers on active duty today have seen those same movies and TV shows, and from them learned many things about how to behave as a soldier. It’s like an enormous cultural feedback loop.

Of course, my emotions on stage are grounded in what feel like real emotions to me. To that degree I am somewhat a “method” actor. But theater is contrivance. Acting is contrivance. The point isn’t to replicate “real” life onstage (which would be tedious) but, as Picasso said, “create a lie that tells the truth.” And truth is what everybody agrees truth is. Truth is consensus.

Each of us has a little theater in our respective heads. In order to ponder our lives (which we are continually doing), we must replicate the world and all the people important to us in our minds. And the way we imagine ourselves and other people is a key to the way we act in our daily lives. We make representations of people mentally and play out imaginary scenes with these imaginary people. From these little conceptual “plays” in our heads, we strategize. We are very sure we can predict how someone (say, our mother or father) will behave, and we act accordingly. The interesting thing is that the mother in my head has just as much to do with the real person as she does with the way I think about her. People are conceptual.

The goal of the theatre artist is to take this imaginary “mother” and bring her to life on stage in such a way that the audience sees a person they can identify as true. If an audience doesn’t recognize what they see, if your scripted “mother” isn’t consistent with their mental image of “mother,” then the play probably won’t work. As they watch the action, they subconsciously compare the behavior (the acting, the plot) to the way they imagine these things, as opposed to the way they “really” are, which of course is unknowable. To quote Samuel Johnson (via Harold Bloom in Shakespeare: Invention of the Human): “Imitations produce pain or pleasure not because they are mistaken for realities but because they bring realities to mind.”

Effective art agitates the certainty about what you think you know is the truth. Art turns things upside-down and inside-out.

a woman on set
Jennifer Tilly on set for "Wood." Photo by Monique Carboni.

People don’t remember what happened in life, they remember what they think happened. People don’t see things, they see what they think they see. And they don’t know people, they know what they think they know. To tangle with all that thinking, well, that’s what art is all about. Effective art agitates the certainty about what you think you know is the truth. Art turns things upside-down and inside-out.


So enough theory. Here’s how I forge a monologue. I begin with a tape recorder and an empty room. I work in a space where I’m completely isolated and no one can overhear me. And I make sure there’s enough room to bounce around. Because when I’m alone, I can let go and let my imagination loose without self-consciousness. I can improvise freely. For me, self-consciousness ruins my creative impulse. (I would totally fail as a member of Second City.) I become the character and let him do his thing. I turn on the tape recorder, I note the date and the piece I’m working on. Then I start.

Once I get a chunk of improv down, I review the tape and try to find good parts, parts I like the sound of. I transcribe these. I keep collections of these transcriptions and revisit them later. Then I select pieces from the transcription that I find particularly interesting, sample them, and commit them to memory. I use these segments as a launch pad for another improv. Then I start the process all over again. The final edited piece of monologue is maybe three minutes long, after hours of improvs.

Good things happen when I do it this way. First of all, when I’m improvising out loud I’m looser with language than when I write. There isn’t as much editorializing going on. Secondly, the arc of the story of the finished monologue (and every monologue has a beginning, middle, and an end) is not as predictable. This is the way people talk. They wander, they get interrupted, their thinking gets sidetracked, they listen to the other person and react. I use elements of this spontaneous style to build my monologue.

I move from the original to the final version through transcription, memorization, repeated rehearsals, discussions with my director Jo Bonney, live “workshop” performances, and performances as part of the run, as well as touring. Every time I perform the piece, I look to see if its logic, tone, humor, and rhythm are what I want them to be. Coincidentally, the more consistent and clear the piece becomes, the easier it is to memorize and perform.        

The trick with these improvs is not to aim for any particular quality. I’m not striving for funny or sentimental or “dramatic.” I just want to become the character and get into the character’s point of view and see what happens from there. The most important goal is to play and cut loose, to let the character speak for himself.

Another way “in” is to find a physical aspect of the character and work with that. The way a junkie lights a cigarette for instance, nodding into the flame as he puffs. That can get me started. The way a young badass holds a beer bottle. The way an old man might shuffle across a room (“The Meeting”). At one point in Danny Hoch’s great solo piece Jails, Hospitals & Hip-Hop, he sweeps a floor with a push broom. We see the anger with every swipe.

Finally and most powerfully is the vocal stance. Not outward mimicry, because mimicry is hollow, but letting the vocal posture shape the improv from within. Try reciting the Gettysburg Address in a Minnie Mouse voice and you’ll get the idea. The medium is the message. Taking a piece of the character, a way of speaking or a posture, or a vocal intonation sets me on my path. From this launchpad, the world of the character can be discovered and a story line can develop.

Performance is ever present in our lives. Every time someone gets in front of an audience, they are performing: a teacher addressing a class, a preacher preaching, a trainer running a gym class, or a deranged person on the street. I collect these natural situations for performance and use them to kickstart an improv. (I was influenced here by the late great Brother Theodore, whose whack comedic rants were in the guise of a sermon.) Public figures perform (Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders); a public speech is an easy way to work with themes.

I want the character to seem like a living being to the audience. Ninety-nine percent of this is intuition and can’t be taught. Scientific accuracy won’t make a more compelling character on stage. (Although research might make a more grounded actor.) I also want the character to be energetic, to be worth watching. Think of this: imagine performing in front of an audience that doesn’t speak your character’s language. Would your audience, who doesn’t understand a word, still find what’s happening on stage worth watching? Looking for physicallity, in other words. With that in mind, I try to create characters who are very active standing, moving, engaged. I stay away from mime because I find mime (and costumes) distracting for an audience. I want the essence of the character, not the hat. I don’t want the audience judging me on how well I mime driving a car.

Aside: Not coincidentally, focusing on believable behavior, theme, and physicality are all part of the toolbox of any good playwright. Take a play like Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa and take an inventory of all the physical elements of the play (in addition to the dancing). He avoids situations where the characters simply sit around and talk.

Two actors on set
Lisa Joyce on set for "Upgrade." Photo by Monique Carboni.

Once I collect at least a dozen monologues, I start to think about the order of the show. Like a play, the show must have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Each show must have a certain urgency that leads the audience into being interested in what comes next. To this end, each monologue within a show is serving various purposes:

  1. It’s got to be worth watching in and of itself. In other words, if I were to do this piece without the rest of the show is it an interesting piece of theatre? Does it have themes, humor, characterization, and physicality that works, whether or not it fits into the larger context?
  2. Does the piece connect to the overall theme? I don’t care if the theme is obvious or not, or if it’s only meaningful to me, but there has to be a connection. The show might be about power. What does this particular segment say about power? Am I repeating myself, is there another segment that says the same thing?
  3. How does the piece relate to the rhythm of the whole show? It’s important to vary the pace of the show. I’m not going to do a really loud crazed bit and follow it with another just like it. And varying intensity and tempo is not just a matter of ups and downs. The intensity and tempo of a piece tell the audience where we are in the show. Simple bits start the show, complex pieces end the show, making them the hardest to write. “The Highway” in Wake Up and Smell the Coffee, with it’s dark mood and spooky references to the future felt like the right piece to end that show.
  4. Since the monologue’s position in the show is relative to the structure of the show, does it build on what has come before it? It may act as an overture, a pause in the middle, comic relief, a summation, or something else.

Characters are not static; they are more like quantum particle clouds of behavior, attitudes, utterances. Ultimately, a ‘good’ character is the one who possesses the most force. It’s like each character is a small universe and must work according to his own laws of physics.

For me, characters are not static; they are more like quantum particle clouds of behavior, attitudes, utterances. One character merges into the next. Characters are contrivances, synthesized from my mind, my imagination. There is no outside objective reality with which to compare them. Ultimately, a “good” character is the one who possesses the most force. So I will borrow and steal and experiment until I cobble together a character who has the most “truth” in and of himself. It’s like each character is a small universe and must work according to his own laws of physics. I experiment, like Doctor Frankenstein, until I get the character to sit up and live.

As I rewrite and polish, rehearse and perform, I am honing facets of the piece: rhythm, humor, character, pace, verbal imagery, even theme. Once I know I’ll be using a monologue in a piece, I try to take it to another level. The words must be organized in almost a rhythm, the music of the words. The way words run along on top of one another is, for me, part of the pleasure of performing. Finding the right combination takes time and rehearsal.

Live performance, trial and error, gets the humor and pace right. Humor is a matter of taste. What makes me laugh isn’t necessarily going to make you laugh. Laughter is perhaps the hardest element to control. And laughter works differently in a theatre than in other art forms, because you may or may not have people in the audience who “get it” and you need those people to trigger the rest of the audience. There are always those who don’t “get it” and act as a brake. Consensus rules.

Verbal imagery is a matter of moving away from the predictable. I’m making pictures in the audience’s mind with words. The right word or phrase conjures a mental image by being fresh and on the money. Often I find the right image in performance when I’m not thinking too hard about it. This is another aspect that gets tuned up when I’m doing shows at places like Performance Space 122 or The Knitting Factory, where I’m relaxed and able to play around.

I keep polishing with Jo Bonney in rehearsal. We review the basic character I’m playing and ask fundamental questions which the initial improvs may have missed. For instance, “What was this character doing ten minutes ago?” “What is the character wearing, carrying?” “How old is this character, how does that affect his voice, posture?” “Are we outdoors? Is it warm? Cold?” And so on. These are almost standard acting class questions, but they work to jog my imagination, helping me find a new way to approach the material. Finally, there is just a question of right-ness: what feels right and what feels wrong. This happens in rehearsal with the traditional use of blocking and gesture.

In the end, the solo is an outgrowth of the performer’s personal style. It’s almost impossible to avoid this fact. And in that regard, each soloist must find his or her own way, sing his or her own song. I’m not doing Dael Orlandersmith’s shows and she’s not doing mine, no matter how much we love each other’s work. So how is the solo artist going to find their way? Improv, rehearsal, and finally, getting the piece on its feet and in front of an audience. Only an audience can tell you what is really going on.

A man on stage
The author performing at Labyrinth Theater from 100 Monologues. Photo by Monique Carboni.


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