What is a Monologue?
From your very first acting class to the clip they play at the Oscars of your Big Dramatic Scene, monologues are with you throughout your acting journey. They are what we use to learn the basics of acting, practice and hone our skills and—perhaps most importantly—audition for work. However, have you ever actually stopped to ask yourself “What is a monologue?” Probably not, right? It’s clear enough: lots of talking from you, no talking from anybody else, remember your lines, don’t mumble. Case closed! But monologues deserve more attention than that. Like any other brick-and-mortar fundamental of acting, it’s worth asking yourself what they’re actually used for, how they fit together and how you can set yourself apart when performing one.
Updated 8th December, 2022.
Stemming from the Greek words “monos” (alone) and “logos” (speech), a monologue is the term used to describe a speech by a single character in a dramatic context: a play, film, tv show, video game, etc. A monologue can be spoken to another person, alone or to the audience as a soliloquy; it can drive the action of the scene forward or present a narrative from earlier in the character’s life. Most actors encounter monologues as audition pieces, as they grant directors an opportunity to see an actor create a character and world without the need for a larger dramatic context.
Types of Monologue
Monologues have various functions in dramatic texts. They can be deployed by an author to drive the story forward, deliver exposition or give insight as to a character’s motivations or backstory. As most monologues are delivered to another character, they exhibit a great opportunity for the speaking character to challenge or reverse their power or status in a scene.
When you encounter a monologue—within a larger text, or presented on its own—the first and most important consideration you have to make is what kind of monologue it is. This will give you some idea as to why it exists, and therefore how best to approach it as an actor.
A ‘linking’ monologue, first made popular in Classical Roman drama, would connect two separate scenes to denote a passing of time or action that may otherwise prove difficult (or tedious) on stage. Years, generations, wars, transformations would be explained to audiences directly. Linking monologues are less common in contemporary dramatic texts: stage works tend to try and keep the action ‘on’ the stage in front o the audience—whereas film can cut to or represent that action without any interruption to the story. However, Kenneth Branagh’s 1989 film Henry V has an excellent examples of linking monologues throughout:
In an active monologue, an actor pursues a clear narrative objective: they have a goal in mind and employ different actions to pursue it. Another common term for this is dramatic monologue, as the words are being spoken to another person rather than being internalised. As there is no set length for a monologue, it can be argued that active monologues can be found within most dialogue scenes; however, it is likely that at least one beat change has to occur within the monologue for it to be considered one. Take a look at this incredible example from Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures:
In a narrative monologue, a character tells a story to other characters (and also, by extension, the audience). It’s usually delivered in past tense, and allows the audience (and also by extension, the other characters) a glimpse into the speaker’s past and/or inner psyche. There are few greater examples we can link to than Cap’n Quint in Jaws:
An interior monologue has a character ‘externalising’ their inner thoughts and emotions. This is often presented in contrast to dramatic monologue—although there are situations in which an interior monologue can be delivered to another character, as opposed to an audience who would actually be listening to a soliloquy. As an example, we’ve included one of the great underrated monologues in modern cinema from the opening of Michael Clayton.
Remember that a monologue may sit comfortably across a few of these classifications. Note that while the Michael Clayton speech is an interior monologue, it’s also an active monologue in which one character implores another to think of them as sane. Furthermore, the linking monologue in Henry V is a soliloquy and yet still seeks to drive the story forward in an active fashion.
What’s the Difference Between a Monologue and a Soliloquy?
Good question. In short, a soliloquy is performed directly to the audience—similar to an aside, but typically longer than a throwaway comment. A monologue can be performed to an audience, but is also be for the benefit of another character in a play. Therefore: all soliloquies are monologues, but not all monologues are soliloquys.
In both instances of monologues and soliloquies, one must always consider who the character is speaking to and why. Take this fairly famous example from theatre. You may have heard of it:
In this famous speech from Hamlet, the young Prince of
Indecision Denmark contemplates suicide, death and the great beyond. He speaks to nobody onstage, and so the audience is his assumed, well, audience. Only problem is, that’s not completely true. Just as Hamlet is speaking to us, he’s also speaking to himself. Convincing himself. If he weren’t, there’d be no dramatic tension in the scene—no obstacle to overcome, no objective to strive for and no actions to play.
In any of the above examples from film that we’ve included, you’ll notice that another character is present. They are the focus of the speaker’s words, and the relationship between these characters is affected by way of the telling/hearing of what’s being said.
However, it’s still important to consider how the words being spoken affect the speaker themselves. Is this the first time they’ve said these things out loud? Admitted them to themselves? How do they feel in this situation: relieved, embarrassed, empowered, ashamed?
Quick Tip: If your monologue is a soliloquy, be sure to check out our guide on performing a soliloquy.
How to Perform a Monologue
Preparing and performing a monologue can seem like a daunting task. There’s a lot to think about, especially when you remember there’s nobody speaking in that moment except for you! For this reason, we’ve included a few tips below to get you on your way:
- Start with script analysis. Just as you would with any other scene, pour through the words on the page for the writer’s intentions. What can you learn about the character and the world they inhabit? What are the solid facts you can pick up, and the questions the writer leaves you to answer? Pay attention to punctuation, word choice and style: these are the ways that writers will often direct you right off the page!
- Nail your objective. Think about what your character wants in the scene. What’s so important that they begin to speak at all? It has to be something so worth fighting for that they don’t end the monologue until they’ve given that goal their everything!
- Plot your beats, plan your actions. Once you work out what your character wants in the monologue, establish the how. Find the gear shifts in energy or tactic as your character progresses through the words: do they start out lecturing and end up begging? Perhaps they threaten before pivoting to flirting? Remember to follow a given action (or tactic) as far as you possibly can—don’t give up simply because you think a different tactic would be more interesting.
- Think about your scene partner/audience. Who are you speaking to? What is your relationship like with them? Are you close, distant? How’s the power dynamic between you: are you their subordinate or do you tower over them? Most importantly, what do you want from them? Your objective should always relate to the person you’re speaking to—even if it’s yourself or the audience!
- Establish your ‘moment before’. Think about what drove you to say these words. Was it a comment from the other person? A distant memory or a recent event? Have you been talking to your scene partner before this or is this the first thing out of your mouth when you walked in the door?
- Be mindful of your body and voice. As you prepare the monologue, don’t forget to check in with what your body is doing: consider starting your rehearsal with articulation and breathing exercises, and some light physical warm ups. It can be all too easy, when it’s just you speaking, to forget that somebody else needs to hear you (especially an audience). The same is true for the way you hold yourself on stage or screen. When so much of monologue prep is about the words themselves, the physicality of your performance risks being forgotten.
- Practice in front of others. Finally, perform your monologue for close friends and colleagues. Get some praise, get some feedback and keep working at it. Performing a monologue out loud helps remind you that it is, after all, a performance intended for an audience: not just you to saying it and feel good saying it.
How do I Choose a Good Monologue?
It’s simple! Ish! Find a monologue that resonates with you. Thematically, stylistically—find a character you love who speaks to a topic you’re passionate about. After all, it’s up to you to ‘sell’ what they’re saying to the audience! If you’re picking a monologue for an audition, a good choice can be half the battle before you even begin. It should showcase your talents without being too flashy, illustrate your range without yo-yoing the audition panel through too many emotions.
Some actors like to have a go-to ‘party piece’ monologue for auditions and the like. Our recommendation is to work on a few, and keep adding to a repertoire that offers you some choice. Be on the lookout for monologues online, in classic plays, in Shakespeare and in the films, television and theatre you consume. Right here on StageMilk, we send a selection of monologues out to our Scene Club members every month. We even offer custom feedback, so you can get a sense of where your monologue prep is at!
While we’re on the subject of all things StageMilk, check out our page of practice monologues for actors: these are distinct as they are written specifically for us as standalone pieces for auditions, not from any existing IP. Take it as a challenge to build an entire character and world from a half-page of dialogue!
Honestly, the best monologue to choose is one that gets you working straight away. Don’t waste your life looking for that perfect piece, jump in and get to work. Now go for it!
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