Why You Should Have 20 Monologues
BY KAREN KOHLHAAS
I’ve been teaching monologue workshops for many years now, and I’ve had the opportunity to work with a few thousand actors. One question I get frequently—even via my website, from actors I’ve never met—is, “Can you suggest a monologue that is right for me?”
Why I never choose material for actors
While I’m happy to give my opinion on a monologue an actor is considering for my class, I never choose or assign material, for anyone, for a few reasons. One, the actors would then be limited to my taste and my favorites and I would inevitably repeat myself. I’d be stuck seeing the same monologues over and over! Two, and most importantly, looking to someone else to choose material for them puts actors in a passive position—which they are in too often in this business! I think it’s important and empowering for actors to take charge of their artistic choices wherever they can.
Why do actors find it so hard to choose monologues?
Many, or perhaps even most, actors who are in the position of having to audition with monologues for graduate schools, agents, casting directors, summer stock, EPA’s and companies hate doing monologues to begin with. They don’t have a fun and reliable way to rehearse them, and so they look to do as few monologues as possible. This puts enormous pressure on the monologues they do choose. If they are successful in choosing a couple of pieces that they can stand to do, and rehearse to the point where they can perform them, they stop there. They use the same monologue or two for every single audition they go on. Asking one or two pieces to do everything for you is unfair to the writing and unfair to you as an actor. The monologues will likely become general and stale after a while.
The only way to turn it around
The reasons for choosing material need to be completely turned around, and this is why I suggest working toward a goal of having 20 monologues. This takes enormous pressure off of each monologue, and frees you to make specific choices for each audition. Working up 20 monologues gives you ways to work within your casting range and to expand that range.
First, you must find or figure out a way of rehearsing monologues that makes sense and is enjoyable for you. You need a way that you can use your acting instincts to play off the moment so that everything you do is fresh and doesn’t look preplanned. You need simple, consistent staging that shows you are comfortable moving in front of an audience, and that clearly tells your story. If you are auditioning with a monologue on camera, you also need choices that keep you physically alive, but on a much smaller scale.
I love monologues and I never get tired of seeing them no matter how many classes I teach or auditions I see. Monologues are an opportunity to create an entire world and tell a wonderful story using only yourself. When an actor has chosen material he is excited about, and has rehearsed so that he is telling the story clearly and truthfully, I am caught up in the piece and having the best experience an audience member can have: time has stopped and all I care about is the story.
Why should you work on so many monologues?
Because they are so short, monologues are an ideal vehicle to work out, explore, and improve. Scene work is essential, and actors should do thorough scene work as part of their training, but unlike a scene, you can take your successful monologues right into the audition room.
Monologues are your best opportunity to grow as a performer.
While you are starting out auditioning or while you’re between roles, monologues give you unlimited opportunities to grow and explore any kind of writing or character. You can work on the writing you love, immediately. If Edward Albee is your favorite playwright, you can perform his writing today—you don’t have to wait to get cast in one of his plays.
Monologues can expand your type range.
One student of mine with very pretty, classic looks was tired of being sent out on boring, girl-next-door kinds of auditions. She rehearsed a “tough girl” monologue from a great play, and performed it for her agent. He was delighted to see this new side of her, and started to submit her for more interesting, meaty roles.
You can do monologues to venture out of your comfort zone.
Some of the most exciting choices I have seen in class are from an assignment to do a ‘challenge’ monologue. This is a monologue that requires that you do something you are a bit afraid of in order to make it work. Actors in my class have sung, done very difficult language, tackled frightening subject matter, done characters that are very unlike them—the choice is individual for each actor. Invariably the results from a challenging monologue are more exciting to do and to watch than a safe one.
The 20 monologue challenge
As a challenge to a class of our second-year NYU students at the Atlantic Acting School, I told them that if any of them could come to me by the end of the year and do 20 monologues in a row, I would buy them dinner. No one took me up on it! The following year, a 2nd year student named Karen Benelli asked if the offer was still on; I said sure. At the end of that semester, she performed 20 monologues in a row for me. It was such an exciting experience to see her do this. She gave me a list of her choices and proceeded to perform them without stopping; she just did a simple, smooth transition between each one. What was even more exciting was seeing her choices of material. She covered the bases of classical/contemporary, comedy/drama monologues that were from plays. She did monologues from movies, comedy essays, and poetry. She did several pieces with accents; one piece even had 3 different accents! I got such a wonderful sense of what kinds of writing appealed to her, and of many possible ways she could be cast. Since then, 6 more actors have done the challenge: Kate Kirby, Katherine Alt Keener, David Beukema, Adepero Oduye, Jill Wurzburg, and Gwendolyn Kelso, and each of their performances has been uniquely thrilling to watch.
Karen Benelli’s letter
A year after she performed her 20 monologues, Karen Benelli wrote me a letter saying the experience of rehearsing and performing 20 monologues was the most valuable experience she’d had as an undergraduate acting student. Here are some excerpts. She said the benefits were:
- First, the obvious—I have 20 prepared monologues under my belt. While I admit that right now I no longer remember them well enough to do in seamless succession, I still have them in a folder—typed, blocked, and analyzed—and I could easily whip one into shape in an evening.
- Doing the exercise helps you realize which monologues are your strongest. About five stood out as being effortless and comfortable; another five felt awkward and pushed; the other ten fell somewhere in the middle.
- Breaking down, blocking, and analyzing a monologue gets a great deal easier after so much practice.
- Finding 20 different pieces forces you to be resourceful and look for monologues in unexpected places (slam poetry, Anne Frank’s diary, one-man shows…no excuses for wimping out and buying a monologue book!!).
- Doing a large span of material at once allows you to notice any (unintentional) physical habits (e.g., was it an uncomfortability with that gesture or monologue that made me speed up and lock my knees, or am I doing it across the board?)
- And, after doing 20 monologues in a row, walking into an audition and doing one or two is unfathomably easy!
I chose 20 because it’s a nice, large, round number and sounds impressive. Less important than the actual number is the point I hope I’ve made: stop limiting yourself to 1 or 2 monologues, because your acting and auditions will only improve! Imagine how you would walk into the audition room if you knew you could do 10, 15, or 20!
What kind of repertoire should you build?
Actors auditioning for theater should definitely have many choices from plays they are passionate about, because the writing is generally stronger, and it is important to show yourself playing the kinds of roles you think you can be cast in. But having a large number like 20 as a goal allows you to look in some very interesting places for your next choices. For example, a student in my classes last fall wanted to find true life material related to a documentary project she was working on. As an experiment, I searched “factory worker interview” in Google. I picked one of the results, which was an interview with a working mother in Mexico, about the poor working conditions at the factory where she was employed. I pieced together her responses. The monologue naturally built to a climax because she was speaking about issues that were vitally affecting her life. I ended up with a very compelling 2-minute monologue. The whole process took me less than a half and hour.
Other fascinating choices I’ve seen adapted into monologues include:
- A famous groupie from the 60’s describing what it was like to sleep with David Bowie
- A hilarious interview with Mel Brooks
- An actual recording of a Wall Street trader yelling on the phone at traders in London
- A pithy response from columnist Dan Savage
- One of the first female astronauts relating her first experience in space
You can look for monologues on talk radio, in books of letters, documentaries, impassioned speeches from history; statements by explorers, scientists, famous artists talking about their work…the choices are endless. Use common sense: make sure you end up with a clear beginning, middle, climax and end. Use simple editing and you can piece together a unique, compelling story that you know they haven’t seen before.
Finally, having 20 monologues prepared means you have the best possible comeback to, “We’ve seen that so many times before, do you have anything else?” Or, “We don’t think that monologue is right for you.” Instead of letting these comments throw you or put you on the spot, you can easily and confidently say “I have nineteen more – here’s a list. What would you like to see?”