Everything UK Actors Need to Know About Monologues

Photo Source: Chanté Timothy

The monologue is the actor’s staple. We’re well into the 21st century, yet despite showreels and self-taping making it easier than ever to showcase yourself to the world, the prepared monologue remains the key to drama school auditions, industry competitions, and theatre castings. More than just an audition piece, the monologue is one of the most complex moments in any production and a training method for actors of all stripes looking to hone their skills or keep sharp. What usually amounts to 90 seconds in performance is an opportunity to dive into an endless amount of character, text, and voice work.

But choosing, working on, and delivering the perfect monologue isn’t easy. That’s why Backstage has assembled the wisdom of the UK’s leading experts to help you avoid the common pitfalls and learn how to choose wisely, cast yourself, and find the action, tone, authenticity, and timing. Whether you’re preparing for an audition, looking for new skills, or wanting to build a catalogue of speeches, here’s everything you need to know before delivering your next monologue.

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What is a monologue?

A monologue is a piece of drama or a dramatic passage for a single actor to play.

Western drama began with the monologue. A single actor would appear onstage and narrate a story, usually with a chorus, before ancient Greek playwrights began adding second and third characters. From the Greek word monólogos (solitary speech), we get monologue: an unbroken speech by one character. After thousands of years of evolution and the invention of cinema, TV, and the internet, the monologue remains a staple in all dramatic art forms that involve speech.

Monologues mostly serve a dramatic purpose within a larger work, although contemporary monologue plays do exist. Thinking of Shakespeare’s soliloquies (side note: a soliloquy is a type of monologue), these generally let the audience into the character’s internal world and offer characters space to reflect upon action or decisions they must make. The monologue in The Devil Wears Prada advances the story by lowering the status of Anne Hathaway’s character and raises the stakes by turning her boss against her. It shows us how seriously Meryl Streep’s character takes fashion and it highlights her authority. As much as it’s your time to shine, remember: the monologue is really about storytelling.

When will I perform a monologue?

Hopefully in a project you’ve been cast in. But as monologues are also a popular way of gauging the ability, imagination, and confidence of an actor, you’ll likely be asked to prepare some for auditions.

Although audition materials commonly come from the project that’s casting and might include dialogue, the monologue is a tried-and-tested way to see how an actor utilises character, context, and objectives to deliver a vibrant performance.

What should I think about when choosing a monologue?

The key is to carefully consider what the monologue is for.

Edward Hicks, head of Film, TV & Radio at RADA and incoming principal of the Oxford School of Drama, warns that a common mistake is to pick one monologue and make it try and fit different timings or criteria. And if you’re applying to drama school, there are lots of different criteria, from length to period (eg pre-1918), and sometimes right down to specific playwrights or characters. Hicks stresses: “You’ll need different monologues for different places or situations.”

Laura Donnelly, CDG, freelance casting director and head of casting at the National Theatre of Scotland, advises: “Always ask what people need in terms of length or if they’re looking for something specific.” But here’s the rub: although it needs to fit a criterion, it also needs to “showcase range and emotion,” says director and acting coach Dee Cannon. It should serve as a microcosm of your strengths and let you travel some emotional and narrative distance. Lengthwise, Cannon suggests two to three minutes is a good estimate.

Everyone agrees that your choice of monologue should have an arc, or, as Cannon says, “A journey—a beginning, middle, and end.” So, it’s best to steer clear of one-note monologues if you want to hold attention. Donnelly also suggests you choose your subject matter carefully, with each specific audience in mind.

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What style of monologue should I pick?

“Find something that resonates with you as an actor,” advises Hicks.

Style is, of course, a tough one because one person’s perfect fit is another’s baggy trousers, but Hicks says: “Pick something you relate to, or that excites you as opposed to doing something that you think people want. Audition panels want to know your ideas, and it would be counterproductive to pick a monologue based on what you think the panel might want or is the school’s ‘type.’ ”

Monologues that are a mix of straight and comic styles are a good place to start, as they let performers show their nimbleness and range in delivering both humour and emotional gut punches. But if you’re picking more than one, Hicks suggests looking for monologues that have “different energies.” He adds, “That could be a different theme or style, but it’s also different people or a different world.”

Donnelly, Cannon, and Hicks agree it’s risky to pick something overdone or famous. Hicks says to be cautious of the well-known pieces because “anyone watching will likely have strong memories of actors doing that monologue and of great performances. If they’ve seen Kenneth Branagh perform it before you, it will be hard to see past that. Having said that, I have seen young actors come in and blow people away with those speeches.”

What type of character should I play in my monologue?

The most straightforward way to find out is to see who’s played the part.

If you’re a characterful and quirky performer, then it’s probably best to steer clear of monologues from hard-boiled characters. Instead, as Donnelly says, “Look for characters you might be cast as.” This isn’t to say actors can’t go against the grain. Hicks is right when he says “There’s a difference of opinion” about this because your casting is, to some extent, “open to interpretation.”

However, he does admit that picking something close to your age and background is “doing yourself a favour and making it easier to relate to the character.” Cannon is firmer: “Typecast yourself and don’t go too far outside of that casting. It’s important to connect to your character.”

It’s worth exposing yourself to a wide range of plays and scripts for this task. The more you read or watch, the broader the selection you can choose from and the more likely you are to find yourself a hidden gem instead of repeating the same audition standards the panel has heard five times that day. As Hicks says, “It’s refreshing and exciting when somebody comes in with a new piece from a play you haven’t seen.” Donnelly reminds us: “Part of auditions is to show you’re well-informed, go to the theatre, and you understand writing and performance and perhaps what your casting is right now.”

Since time is not always on your side, Backstage provides a handy resource called The Monologuer. It’s a search engine featuring over 600 classic and contemporary monologues with synopses and context. Search by age, play, author, genre, or theme and find yourself a selection of pieces suited to you and your needs. But, remember, The Monologuer is only a jumping-off point. You’ll need to read the full text for the level of understanding required to put together an authentic and interesting performance.

Do I really need to read the whole script when preparing a monologue?

Yes. Aside from making sure you’ve picked from a strong and interesting play, Hicks says reading the whole thing is “absolutely vital” in order to grasp the emotional significance of both the words and the situation of the character.

Cannon agrees the only way to develop a confident and informed performance is to view the monologue “in context, to see the journey of your character.”

On that point, Donnelly gives great general audition advice: “If you’ve been given an audition side, whether it’s film, TV, or theatre, always ask for the whole script. It may not always be possible, but it’s the only way to have a full and clear understanding of the character.”

She also warns that not reading the play leaves you open to making poor assumptions about the character, which a casting director will pick up on, especially if they know the play. Cannon points out that it’s common for audition panels to ask about your take on the play, so you’d better know the ending.

How should I learn a monologue?

Learn it forward, backward, and sideways, as nerves can throw even the most experienced actors.

Donnelly points out that really knowing and understanding it is the only way to have “freedom within it” and to “bring it alive.”

To do that, Cannon suggests breaking it down: “Figure out the objective of the piece and then action your monologue into beats, as that should help you find the different colours. I don’t recommend just running lines over and over. Find your objective and connection and try to be truthful.”

Donnelly recommends filming yourself. “You can do it on your phone,” she says. “It shows you what you’re doing right or missing out on, and it’s a great skill to have for self-tapes.”

Hicks echoes the importance of detailed work, as he wants to see the ability of an actor to connect to a character. “I want to be taken into this ‘little world’ created by the actor, so it doesn’t feel like a monologue. It’s as if there are other people in the scene that choose not to speak,” he says.

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Should I ask for help in preparing my monologue?

Not everyone has access to or the resources for an acting coach, but if you do, then it could be worthwhile.

If not, find someone you trust and perform it for them, as it’s useful to have plenty of trial runs ahead of the audition. You don’t have to take on board every piece of feedback, but do check that listeners are engaged and understand what’s going on. Otherwise, it might be time to check back in with your choice of piece.

Hicks says, “The key thing is that this is about your interpretation, not someone else’s. You do get lots of people coming in who have worked on their speeches with a coach, but you don’t want to see the coach’s work overshadow theirs. It’s important to see the actor’s ideas and instincts. They may be raw, but that’s fine. But don’t be frightened to show people your interpretation.”

Sound like a lot of work? It is. But as Donnelly reminds us, you’re proving a great deal when you master a monologue. “I’m looking for actors who have done their research, can make intelligent choices and who’ve brought this character to life,” she says. “Ultimately, that is what you're trying to do.”

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