Some young actors dread working on monologues. Perhaps it’s because they have trouble speaking to someone who isn’t there or maybe they have no idea how to find one that’s unique enough to fit their personality and is interesting to perform. Well, help is on the way!
Every scene you play as an actor, no matter how old you are, will require a deep understanding from you. You need to understand who the character is, what the context of the scene and larger story is, and countless other aspects of the scene that will make your work on and with it shine.
In our opinion, there are five steps you need to take to truly understand a scene. To help walk you through and illustrate them, let’s use the following scene scenario as a setup for the five steps that will help you work on your character and the scene: You are a 17-year-old whose mom has just returned from three months at a drug rehab facility. You’ve been living with your dad while she was getting help and even though she’s back home and clean, she is still struggling and not the fully-recovered mom you hoped to find.
Step 1: Determine the given circumstances.
The given circumstances are what you know from the text based on what the writer has told you with his or her words. Your mom has been in rehab detoxing from drugs. You have been living with your dad while she was away. Now that she is home, you’re getting used to what life is like with a recovering, struggling parent.
Step 2: Find your deep wish.
Also known as your objective, this is what your character needs to happen. In the above scene, your deep wish is to have your mother be the role model you always wanted and be a loving, protective, participating parent. You have been without this your whole life and have suffered greatly.
Step 3: Identify the opponent or obstacle.
Internal or external, this is something that gets in the way of you getting what you want. In life, we don’t always have an obstacle but in acting, there must be one to create the struggle. If it’s too easy to get what you want without a fight, there’s nothing interesting happening. The obstacle in this scene could be that your mom is in too much pain and not willing to get well right now.
Step 4: Personalize.
Now that you have your identified your deep need and discovered what’s in the way of achieving it, you’ll need to personalize the situation to make it true for you. Begin this process by looking at the character’s situation and asking what might be going on in your life that could lead to a similar problem or challenge to overcome. What you choose to work with can be imaginary/fictional, but the meaning must hold true.
Step 5: Now do.
This the most vital part. Acting is doing. What are you going to do to get what you want? Perhaps you beg and plead with your mom to stop using drugs. Maybe you start parenting your mom in a role reversal to get your—and her—needs met. It’s in this doing, this action, that you become a compelling actor.
Casting directors want real kids. The problem is that many young actors are over-coached. Parents, read on for some tips to help you help your child get the casting director’s attention and win the audition!
1. Be Truthful. Too often, kids rehearse with their parents or coaches over and over again learning to emphasize words and emote. They are taught to show, not do. Going over dialogue until they are blue in the face will get them nowhere. It isn’t about the words; it is about being themselves and listening. A child’s biggest asset is simply to be who they are and not try to imitate someone else. When I see youngsters who practice in front of the mirror, it makes me crazy! Do you practice in front of the mirror when you are going to have a conversation with someone? Even in the interview or slate (when an actor says their name for the camera before an audition), over-coaching can be obvious. I once auditioned a young actor who came in the room and when I said “Hello,” she responded, “Hello, ladies and gentlemen,” as if she was a speaker addressing a full house. Parents, allow your children to be natural and real. It may be the most helpful thing you can do for them.
2. Listen. This basic concept may sound simple, but it is not always easy. Kids are often so concerned about memorizing lines that they spend their time thinking of the next words to say rather than actually listening to the reader or other actor. Memorization is certainly important, especially if the actor is going on tape, but not nearly as important as a truthful audition. If there is not enough time to learn the lines, encourage your child to use the script as a reference, glancing when necessary, but always listening attentively to the person they are reading with.
3. Take Direction. Good listening also plays a big part in being able to take direction. The over-coached child may have learned the scene well in one way but may be incapable of changing it. Listening to the director or casting director and being able to make adjustments is a sure-fire way to make a good impression. If something is not clear, it is perfectly acceptable to ask questions. In fact, this may be a way to score points. I can assure you that captivating, smart, and curious actors will most always get the callback!
So, how can you as a parent be the most helpful to your child without over-coaching? Explain what is going on in the scene and define any words your child may not understand. If you are a professionally trained actor or coach and your child will listen to you, great! If not, it is really best to leave the job to a skilled acting coach who knows how to get your child to be natural without looking coached. Master your craft, empower yourself, and enjoy the journey.
I love getting calls from students asking for a great monologue or scene for their upcoming audition or acting reel. It keeps me in business. But it’s important young actors learn where to find and how to choose their own material since doing so gives you the opportunity to find a unique piece that fits your personality and talents.
Students auditioning for middle, high school, and university performing arts programs are required to present one or two monologues, mostly from published plays. Some schools allow pieces from movies and books if the student is connected to the material. Finding the right monologue can seem like an impossible task but through my 30 years in the industry working with young actors, I’ve accumulated a considerable library of scenes and monologues. Where do I find it all? Reading plays and screenplays, seeing a lot of theater and movies, and spending hours at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and the Drama Book Shop in NYC.
While you may not have hours to spare poring over great plays and screenplays, here are some tips that can help you discover your own perfect audition material:
Start with the theater.
Many of my students have only read and seen musicals, but don’t spend a lot of time at the theater seeing plays. As an actress and teacher, some of my best training happened in the theater, either sitting in the audience or standing in the wings as an apprentice watching actors work with great material.
You don’t have to live in New York to see great theater. I recently attended a small community theater production of a hilarious play that was brand new to me. I immediately ordered the play and added it to my script library. You can find performances in every community.
Find age-appropriate material.
Look for scenes that contain conflict and well-developed, relatable characters. Whether it’s a scene for an acting class, a demo reel or a monologue, choosing age-appropriate, yet powerful material can be challenging for younger actors.
Many plays are racy with foul language and strong sexual content. Though they’re entertaining to watch, they may not be suitable for auditions and class work. Find something in the G or PG range for auditions, unless you’re working on a college audition. Even then, use caution with materials that are too raw or sexual so your performance isn’t overshadowed by the material.
Start reading plays by playwrights who write for younger audiences.
Two excellent resources are Bakers Plays and Playscripts. Both firms are independent publishers of new plays and musicals and offer plenty of great material for young audiences.
See plays and watch movies.
You can find many films on Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, both old and new. Ask your parents for recommendations for movies they’ve seen with young characters and themes that relate to your life and experiences.
Attend classes and workshops.
Enroll in an ongoing acting class or take some one-day workshops by master teachers where you’ll not only perfect your craft but be exposed to material you might find funny or moving.
Write your own material.
Use your strengths and create content to show yourself off in the best light. Perhaps you can use your musical talents, singing or even dancing in a scene you create. Get together with friends and put some thoughts down on paper. Before you know it, you might have an awesome scene written or even a one-act play. You don’t have to be a great writer, just be honest and tell your truth.
For more advice on where and how to find material from plays geared to young audiences, as well as how to search for suitable content in new plays and productions, I’ll be hosting a panel discussion with playwright Jonathan Marc Sherman (“Women and Wallace”), several theater directors, and a few educators at the Drama Book Shop in New York City on Thursday, Nov, 30 at 6 p.m. The event is free and suitable for tweens, teens, and their parents.
Whether your child or teen is auditioning for a school theater program, a show, or an industry professional, a monologue is a must-have for every young actor. A child actor should always have two different types of monologues in their back pocket. Make sure your young performer loves the monologues! This will increase their chances of giving a great performance since they will be more excited about working on it and therefore will do a better job delivering it.
Here are some dos and don’ts to consider when picking a monologue for your child.
1. Choose good literature. I am not a big fan of generic monologue books. Every now and then I will run across a piece that is well-written and works nicely. However, most of the time, they are trite and obvious. Look for monologues from plays, movies, and even novels which contain conflict and good character work. These will take the actor to a whole new level. Read plays -- one acts as well as full lengths. You can’t go wrong with wonderful playwrights such as Neil Simon, Christopher Durang, Eric Bogosian, and Jonathan Marc Sherman. Great writing will help your young actor look good!
2. Find material your child can relate to. What does your young performer find funny? What moves them emotionally? I recently came across a hilarious play called "Indoor Outdoor" by Kenny Finkle. The pooping cat monologue actually made me laugh out loud! Perhaps a piece about loss might resonate with your child. If he is grappling with adolescence, there are many plays published by Baker’s Plays and Playscripts that might interest him.
3. Choose age-appropriate pieces. At age thirteen, I played Mama Rose in a camp production of "Gypsy." In local theater, at camp, and in school productions, of course we get to play these juicy roles at a young age because there are no adults. But in the professional world, where your child is being cast to play their age, they MUST pick age-appropriate material. Even in class, my students work on scenes playing characters close to their age because it is nearly impossible for them to relate to adult issues.
4. Look for active monologues. Storytelling is boring. Acting means to do. Find pieces where the character is doing something.
5. Keep it short (1-2 minutes). If you are told two minutes, make it ninety seconds. Most of the time, auditors see what they need to in thirty seconds. They may be sitting for hours listening to actors. They will appreciate you keeping the monologue short. Trust me.
6. Read the entire play. This is the only way you will completely understand the character and the story. The more you know, the more fully realized the performance will be.
1. Pick a monologue with a dialect. Unless the project your child is auditioning for requires one.
2. Perform a monologue from a movie for a theater director.
3. Pick a piece that can’t stand on its own. It must make sense when taken out of context.
4. Do monologues that contain profanity and sexual content that may make the auditor uncomfortable.
5. Choose overdone monologues that you find on the Internet or in monologue books. There is plenty of good, fresh and new material out there.
A question I get asked frequently is: "Should my child memorize lines for their audition?” Here’s a general rule of thumb: For the first audition, the performers should be very familiar with the material, only glancing down at the sides for reference. For the callback and for any taping audition, they MUST have lines memorized. This will ensure the performer is connecting with the reader and not the paper. This is important as it demonstrates to the casting director or director that your child is truly a professional and on top of his or her game in a very competitive industry.
Reading and acting are completely different. Someone may be a great reader but a so-so actor or vice versa. If reading is getting in the way of acting, then memorizing lines may be what your child needs to do in order to have a successful audition. One of the most challenging things for young performers —especially first and second graders - is having a natural read when auditioning. Since these young ones are still relatively new readers, they often get stuck on words and the reading becomes unnatural. If they memorize the lines this can take the task of reading away and they can concentrate on being truthful.
One of the caveats of having lines memorized is that the acting goes out the window if lines are not secured in the brain. The actor will be trying to remember the next line instead of being in the moment and listening to the reader.
There are also scenarios such as this: It is Wednesday afternoon, and your child just got an audition for a television pilot. There are four scenes on nine pages and you were told it must be memorized by Friday. Sound familiar? Don’t panic! Here are some tips to help you keep your sanity while helping your child memorize the lines.
1. Highlight the character’s lines. This will allow your child to quickly locate the appropriate line when glancing down at the paper if it is still needed in the audition.
2. Repeat the lines. Have your child read the lines with someone out loud over and over again. Remind them to memorize the lines only, not the cadence and inflection. They need to discover something new each time they read the lines and say them as if they are spoken for the first time, each time.
3. Break the lines down into smaller pieces. Don’t have your child tackle the entire script all at once. Break the script down into small sections and repeat, repeat, repeat until the lines are ingrained.
4. Work on lines before going to sleep. Studies have shown that studying lines right before bed can have a big impact on recall. Be sure to have your child review them again in the morning to help lock them into memory.
Remember that memorizing lines is only one tool for your child to use in an audition. Remind your child that connecting with the reader is more important than the words they say and if they don’t get the line exactly as written, it is perfectly okay. Making the scene their own with specific choices as well as being able to listen and take direction is what will help them get the attention they need and ultimately land the job.
Last week I shared with you how to improve your child’s chances of making a great impression when choosing a monologue. Are you curious where to find some good material for that next big audition? Read on.
1. The bookstore. If you haven’t visited the Drama Book Shop in New York, you are really missing out. I just spent hours there last week and found all sorts of new and exciting material. Ask one of the staff members what they recommend. In fact, ask all the staff. They each read different plays and are more than happy to share their picks with you. When you have a few hours, bring your coffee cup, pull up a chair, and read, read, read. In addition to monologue books, you will find almost any play ever produced as well as librettos from musicals and even some screenplays. If you live out of town, check your local bookstore or library. They may have a limited supply of plays, but you might be surprised with what they do have.
2. An acting coach. I have seen all too many stock monologues that begin with, “I hate my sister. She always steals my clothes....” Want something a bit more interesting and playable? I have been coaching young actors for more than twenty years. I have a huge library with hundreds of plays and monologues that have worked for my students over the years. It is my job to read plays, see theater, and replenish my library regularly. Acting teachers have a pretty good idea of what is overdone, what to avoid, and what may be the perfect piece.
3. Attend classes and workshops. See it. Steal it! What I love about group acting classes is all of the unique and wonderful material students bring. When I hear a brilliant piece I am so excited to know where the actor found it. Trade secret! They may not tell, but you can ask nicely or search for it on the Internet. I taught a workshop at a local high school recently and was pleasantly surprised to hear a few pieces that were new to me. Guess what I did? I added them to my library.
4. See plays and films. Go to the theater. And I’m not just talking Broadway or Off-Broadway. What about the little local theatre in your town that is doing that play you never heard of? Or the high school that is producing a series of one acts? Watch movies on Netflix or Hulu. Check out reviews of quirky, independent films with interesting characters. You can also read film scripts online from these sites:
5. Write your own. A 13-year-old boy came to see me last month for some coaching. He came prepared with a monologue that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell off my chair. When I asked him where it was from, he said, “I wrote it. It’s a true story.” He happened to not only be a talented young actor but also a gifted writer. Everyone may not share his talent in writing, so make sure you get some feedback from your acting teacher first.
The next time you are in need of a new monologue, make sure it fits like a glove. Using the suggestions in my last article and the resources I have offered you here should give you a great place to begin.