I still remember being given my first monologue as a teen actor to perform for a professional showreel my agent could use for marketing. I felt huge amounts of pressure, staring at the page and already feeling nervous about performing it for the camera. There was a sense of having to “get it right,” not miss a single line, and deliver it authentically. Sadly, this experience is one I went through for decades until I discovered the five-minute monologue exercise. If I had been given the exercise I share with you here, my approach to learning and performing the piece would have been a much more joyous experience.
Monologues have the potential to be huge confidence builders, character exploration pieces, and ways to further your skills as an actor. There are a few key issues, however, that seem to stop actors from having monologues to practice regularly or attempt to add them to their repertoire at all. I get it. They can be daunting, long and occasionally difficult to connect with, so permit me to unpack these issues for a moment and then present you with an exercise to help resolve this common problem.
Today, actors seem to have little faith in their memorization. In my classes, what actors commonly say is “I’m going to mess this up” moments before they start performing or even reading the page. This is already a poor mindset to step into a scene with. Sure, often it’s an attempt to appear humble, but I do believe even small comments of negative self-talk can create fine razor cuts on the inside of your confidence and slowly bleed into crippling self-doubt.
In a pre-Google world when humans had to recall large amounts of information, the art of storytelling was the glue to store this information so it survived. Therefore, deep within our ancestral DNA, we have an incredible ability to recollect stories and recite this information at will. Trusting that you can do it is a wonderful first step. Do you remember a funny story that a friend told you recently at a cafe? I bet that you could tell me that story, down to the smallest details and without any trouble at all. Hence your innate memorization skills are perfectly fine.
Commonly, actors feel disconnected or stumped by the material. That’s often because their focus is off and they don’t pay attention to the details of the story that exists on the page. Actors love to read a script with a voice in their head that is performing the lines how they “should be said.” We ruminate over the lines with a microscope trying to get everything “right.” This will only serve you to focus on the delivery of the lines rather than the imagery fueling your imagination. Taking the example above, what would you do if you were asked to recall the story your cafe friend shared with you and palm it off as your own without any issue at all, with just as much conviction and ownership as if you had experienced the event? It’s all about paying attention to the details and then retelling the story in your own words. Is that not what acting is at its heart? Making other people’s stories your own?
This exercise will help restore faith in your memory and develop the skill of ownership. Grab a monologue you have yet to learn and set up your self-taping camera or perform this exercise in front of fellow actors. It’s a fun exercise to do in a group. Set a timer for five minutes and start to read. When you go over the text, pay attention to the details of the story. Try to see it with as much color and richness as you can. To turn off your “performing the lines” voice, imagine that your friend in the cafe is telling you this story. It can even be an individual you would like to be recounting the events to you, like a favorite actor. This will help you absorb the information in the third person, rather than a nervous actor that knows they are about to perform the piece.
When you approach the text this way, your brain will take in a large amount of the information. It may just astound you. When the five minutes are up, put the monologue away and hit record on the camera or begin sharing the monologue to the group. I promise you, not only will you recall at least 80–90 percent of the monologue, but it will come to you naturally and comfortably as you perform the piece. Just as easily as sharing your friend’s story from the cafe. There’s a sense of effortless recollection and much more joy in your work.
This exercise was shared with me by a wonderful teacher and it’s now a staple of my weekly classes and self-practice. It has completely changed my own approach to all of my scenes, not just monologues. I’ve seen beautiful, moving, hilarious and vivid performances in my classes just from this exercise alone. I kindly invite you to try it. It will completely change the way you approach monologues and may have exciting ripple effects throughout your work as an actor.