An Award-Winning UK Theatre Director on How to Break Down a Monologue

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Photo Source: Pexels. Photo – Gabriel Barreto

It’s a tough time for actors right now, but The Slate – Backstage’s live series of classes, seminars, and digital exercises – will help turn time on your hands to your advantage.

For those of you learning monologues to keep fresh or doing self-tapes, Matt Harrison’s masterclass on making the most of a speech will be an invaluable resource. An award-winning director with experience as an actor, Matt went into detail on a monologue from the character of Diane in the play Consensual by Evan Placey. The advice will be useful for anyone looking to build an engaging performance and interesting, strong choices, whatever you’re performing. The whole class is available to watch on YouTube but here’s the lowdown on Matt’s method and his best tips:

Picking the right speech.
“What’s really important is that your monologue has real drive. Often, something will read well on the page but when you get it on its feet, it can feel a bit like ‘storytime’ – especially a speech from a one-person play where the arc is across the entire piece rather than over a scene. This monologue from Consensual has drive – from what one character is trying to do to another character.”

 Looking for what the writer has given you. 
“The writer is giving you clues in the piece. Split the speech into what we learn for definite, and what questions we have. There’ll often be more questions than facts, and no fact or question is too obvious or too small. Facts give us our building blocks for characters. Questions give us a start on the emotional state of the character and the world around them. A fact as small as ‘she walked here’ sets a useful inner rhythm for us. Use the text first of all, piece together the clues. When we have questions, the first place to find answers is in the text. Read the whole play if you have it; if not, read around what you have and look for clues. If those answers aren’t in there, then that’s where we begin to use our imagination and make some decisions.”

Why punctuation matters.
“I never thought I would be one of those directors who’s like: ‘Oh, it’s all about the punctuation,’ but I’ve got deep into it. That’s because punctuation lets us know about the pattern of a character’s thoughts. A full stop is the end of a thought, a comma is a break or a pause in a thought, and a question mark might be the end of a thought or a direct desire for a response. Using those, we can start to see the character’s rhythm. 

Punctuation also controls breath, which in turn controls emotion. If we have an idea of when a character lets themselves breathe we can see where they are emotionally. A quick exercise I like to do is walk or physicalise the punctuation in order to internalise their rhythm and see if you can make any discoveries about where this character is at emotionally. You can change the direction to mark a new thought after a full stop. For a question mark, stamp your feet. For a comma, you can click your fingers, take a momentary pause then choose to continue. In this speech, we have lots of ellipses [...]. I think the writer is suggesting an incomplete thought or a choice not to continue speaking, so perhaps play with suspension, raising yourself up and dropping down.”

The core questions to ask of a speech.
“For me, there are always three core questions about a speech. One, what has happened just before this moment? This gives us our character’s reason to speak. Look for clues in the text and if you don’t find anything, make some decisions. Two, who are they speaking to? This gives us a sense of the stakes – what does the character have to lose with this person, and what do they have to gain? Three, what does my character want from the person they’re speaking to? You might hear this called an ‘objective.’ These three questions let us know what gear we need to be in when approaching a speech, but they also ensure that our delivery is direct and active – that it’s landing on the other character.”

Why it pays to be specific about your objective.
“Try to be as specific as possible about an objective. It doesn’t have to be solid – make a choice and if it doesn’t work change it and check back in with our process. But keeping your objective clear will help you make strong choices. As long as you’re clear with an objective, you can bring in new tactics to achieve it. Think about the widest range of tactics you can employ in order to achieve your objectives. You can even push against what the speech instinctively wants you to do, try something new with it.” 

Exercises to refresh your performance.
“If you’re doing a speech and finding yourself stuck in a rhythm, I like to use a tennis ball and throw and catch to myself as I speak. Then make those throws bigger, start to challenge yourself and it will help break up the rhythm of your speech. Often, by putting your focus on something away from the speech, you can free up your emotion and connection. 

Another thing to try is to perform it while pushing against a wall. Really push as hard as you can. Repetition can be really useful for this, so if there’s a line that feels really difficult or knotty for the character then repeat it until you feel you’ve got it and are ready to move on. With physical effort, you can unlock some of the emotion of the piece. 

One final exercise is to think about the specificity of each line. Write the thought behind a line on a sticky note and then, as you speak it, land the sticky note either on yourself, the person you’re speaking to, or somewhere in the space to represent the world around us. Once you’ve decided where you want to land the thought, think about how it’s landing. Is it a slam or are you gently placing it? Do that for each of your individual thoughts to make sure they are working and remaining active, that each thought is doing something particular. 

Lastly, a general note is to keep your foot on the gas. As actors, we can want to really ‘feel’ sometimes – we can let ourselves sit in the idea before we say the words. But learn how to trust yourself as a performer and drive through. The work will show itself.”


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