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Actors: Choosing a Monologue

Auditioning for a professional role? Showcasing skills for agents? Preparing for drama school entry? Guess you’ll be searching for the ‘perfect’ monologue then. Here are a few tips to help you on your quest.

A monologue should be a speech by a single character from within a play or screenplay. Try not to choose a ‘stand-alone’ monologue that’s been written only for auditions and avoid writing your own material: a panel wants to see how you handle the words/ideas/characters of someone else (in other words, how you lift them off the page and make them your own).

You might choose a character speaking their thoughts aloud to themselves, or, engaging in a lengthy speech to another character, or, directly addressing the audience and breaking down the ‘fourth wall’. If a character is in dialogue with someone else, it’s fine to cut the other character out as long as it makes sense for the remaining text to be performed alone.

The character should be close to your age (or in your playing range) and the text should be sufficiently interesting (on its own without the rest of the play/screenplay) to hold the attention of an audience. Most importantly, it must speak to you, resonate with your inner emotions, affect your senses, make you laugh or cry and draw you into a world that you want to hear more about.

Don’t forget that if you’re using the monologue in a professional audition then it must resemble the job in some way, through genre, period, culture, character and/or emotional content, including accent. Otherwise, it’s probably best to avoid monologues that require an accent markedly different to your own. You need to choose material that plays to your strengths and an accent might not necessarily do that. Also, more often than not, a panel will want to hear what you can offer up to the role ‘vocally’ and an accent might muddy their impression.

If you’ve been asked to prepare a couple of monologues then make sure they contrast, either through genre, period, culture, character and/or emotional content. This might include something ‘classical’ and something ‘contemporary’. Controversial content is tricky to avoid in contemporary texts (after all, modern material often seeks to mirror the real world). If you are uncomfortable about using vulgarity then don’t cut offensive words, which are a very real part of character-driven text: choose an alternative piece.

Monologue length varies widely depending on the material: the concise and contained to the weighty and protracted. Don’t be afraid of adapting the length to your needs however, particularly when many auditions stipulate time frames for performance.

Watch out for material that’s been ‘overdone’. Audition panels are bored with seeing the same texts performed over and over again. This is sometimes hard to judge if you’re new to the auditioning process. Ask around.

Some coaches have particular ‘rules’ for choosing a monologue. Let me assure you that there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Trust your inner instincts when making your choice, as long as the piece is appropriate for the context in which it is to be performed. There are coaches who advise avoiding monologues that are: physically still, tell a story about the past or directly address the audience. None of these rules apply (unless stipulated by an audition panel or casting agent): a well-written character-driven story spoken directly to an audience can be riveting.

Other coaches advise actors to avoid monologue books; however, they can be a terrifically useful tool and a great starting point. Better than being overwhelmed by rows of plays in bookshops or libraries. They only work though if you read the full play text from which your monologue has been drawn. Picking a piece from a book and performing it without further reading or research is madness and, ultimately, your character study will be superficial and incomplete. Read the play to understand the journey/trajectory of plot, character, relationship and situation. If possible, try to see the play in performance or get hold of the film to understand how the monologue (and therefore the character) works in context.

Lastly, it’s important to start your search now: don’t wait until you’re called for an audition. Keep a file of appropriate monologues, work on them regularly so they’re fresh and ‘ready-to-go’ and regularly update your file with new material.


Actors: Learning an Accent

So you need to learn a new accent and don't know where to start. You're not alone. Even trained, experienced actors can be nervous about initiating work with unfamiliar sounds. The pressure is piled on to 'get it right' for that audition, opening night, recording session or first day of filming. However, it's important to remember that nobody can just 'do' the perfect accent automatically: it takes time and a process of in-depth analysis/practice. This will help you to understand how the accent works, hear it in your ear and feel it in your mouth. Only then will you be able to adjust it to meet the demands of a character and a text. Here are a few tips to help this process along.

Source Material

The starting point should be with original source material. This means searching for recordings of native speakers, preferably of the same age/gender/period as the character you are working on. If possible, try to find a few examples that are close to your requirements. Never work from recordings of actors performing in an accent that isn't their own (you might end up copying their mistakes).

Tempting as it might be to find a native speaker and record them speaking your lines, it's not the best way of working with a new accent. The speaker will (unconsciously) insert their idiosyncratic character traits into the reading, which will block you from developing your own character with the accent. You need to break it down and then learn from the ground up so that it's flexible enough for adaptation into any type of text/character.

If you do manage to find a native speaker then record them speaking a word list that covers different types of vowel and consonant sounds. Then, ask them to speak (at length) about something personal to them (such as a story from where they grew up). Personal memories often help speakers revert to their original rhythms, particularly if they aren't currently living in their original accent region. Even better, try to record two people from the same region in conversation because speech rhythm is shared in dialogue.

Listen to these recordings a number of times so that your ear becomes familiar with the sounds, rhythms and energies of the native speakers.

Points of Tension and Sound Placement

We all tense certain muscles in the face and mouth when we speak in order to create the particular positions/shapes needed to form the sounds in our accent. This means that speakers from different regions will tense different sets of facial/oral muscles. Sometimes you can even tell where a person is from by the way in which they 'hold' their face when they're silent. These are known as the points of tension in an accent. In turn these tensions affect where the resonant sound comes from. This is commonly referred to as sound placement.

For example: some Yorkshire speakers tighten their lower jaw and pull their lip edges slightly down. Although there is still an open space within the mouth, it feels as though the sound is placed at the back (because there isn't much space at the front - with the tight jaw/lips - for the sound to get out).

Try a few of the native speaker's phrases aloud and be aware of which parts of the face/mouth you are tensing in order to recreate the sound.

Rhythm

Speech rhythm is created by a combination of phrasing, pausing, stressing, pitching, tuning and pacing (you can find information on how this works in my book Modern Voice: Working with Actors on Contemporary Text). Therefore, when focusing on how rhythm works in an accent, you need to listen for regularly recurring patterns of these elements. Having a number of different recordings to hand will ensure that you don't end up researching the individual idiosyncratic patterns of one particular speaker.

Some useful questions might be: Is there a noticeable stress pattern? Do the vowels or consonants hold the most weight? Is there a regularly recurring tune with similar notes across each phrase? If so, what is its shape? For example, Dublin accents tend to use long, almost sung vowels on a tune that starts high, moves across the top of the phrase and ends on a lower note.

For most people, the tune (intonation) is the most obvious pattern. Listen to the source material again and see if you can identify a recurring tune. You can try translating this into words or numbers (e.g. de, de, de, de, de or 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). For musical actors, singing the pattern can be useful: you can hear/feel whether the tune has a major or minor quality. The tune of some accents is decidedly major (Received Pronunciation, General American) while others are decidedly minor (General Australian, Liverpool).

Vowels and Consonants

Stop thinking about spelling and start thinking about individual sounds. English spelling isn't phonetic, often bearing no relation to the sound being made (unlike some other langauges, such as Italian, where the spelling dictates the pronunciation). The International Phonetics Alphabet (IPA) is a useful way of writing down sounds but if you've never learnt phonetics or learnt it at drama school and forgotten the symbols, no matter. Devise your own shorthand for documenting individual sounds, such as 'oo' for the vowel sound in 'blue', or, 'zh' for the medial consonant in 'measure'.

Listen to the source material again and think about the way in which vowels and consonants are created in the mouth. Vowels are formed by the lips and tongue shaping the breath stream. Consonants are formed by the lips and tongue coming into contact with each other or another part of the mouth, obstructing or narrowing the breath stream. Try to work out some of the vowel shapes and consonant positions by speaking words from the source material. Compare your formation of a sound to that of the native speaker. For example: you might make the consonant sound 't' by tapping the tip of your tongue against the upper gum ridge but if you are learning an Indian English accent then you will need to curl the tip of the tongue backwards and tap it off the roof of the mouth.

Write your descriptions down so they can be revisited in future practice sessions.

Practice Sentences

Before trying out your new accent with character and text, spend time practising on sentences that include a variety of sounds in a range of combinations. You can either devise your own or pick out some from the original source recordings. Intensive sentence practice will make the new mouth shapes/positions familiar and comfortable. Revisiting the practice sentences on a regular basis, throughout the rehearsal process, will help you to maintain and sustain the accent.

Character and Text

The next step is to test out your accent on the text. These are the elements that may weaken or 'throw' your accent:

  • The idiosyncratic speech patterns of your character
  • The sharing of rhythms between characters
  • Unfamiliar colloquialisms that are part of the accent region
  • Meaning and emotion

If you attempt to do everything at once then the accent will slip. Treat the text like a technical exercise, learning the shapes and positions for new words (over and over again) and then practising individual words in phrases (over and over again) which will also help you find the rhythmic pattern. In this way, your accent will become an unconscious part of your delivery and you won't be thrown when focusing on character, situation and moment.

Dialect Coaching

If you choose to work with a dialect coach or you are lucky enough to have a dialect coach attached to the production you are working on then you will be taken through this process as standard. The research will have been already done for you and you'll be able to concentrate on recreating the sounds, patterns and their application to character/text. A good coach should also point out the pitfalls non-native speakers may fall into, help you shape the accent for your character and devise strategies for future practice. Always record the session (or ask the coach to record it for you) so that you can revisit the work, if need be, at a later date.


Actors: Warming Up (in a toilet cubicle)

Need to warm up your voice before an audition and there's nowhere private to do it? Frankly your best bet is a mini-workout in a toilet cubicle (or, if you're American, a bathroom stall) just before you go through to the audition room. Yes, it means movement-based voice exercises will be limited (particularly if you're auditioning in England where the cubicles are miniscule, even smaller if you happen to be in a London theatre) but there's still quite a lot you can achieve.

Recently, over the course of a week, I tweeted tips for warming up pre-audition in the toilets/bathroom. The challenge was to present each exercise in 140 characters or less. I'm re-presenting them in this blog, as they were tweeted, because their brevity makes them easier to use in the moment.

There are 12 exercises in total which will help to centre, release and focus your voice in minutes. Try to keep them in order as one exercise leads into another (out-of-order just doesn't warm you up as well).

  • Exercise 1: place feet hip width apart, centre weight, shake out upper body without moving your feet & let your breath go.
  • Exercise 2: stretch one arm to ceiling, place hand on same side rib cage, breathe into that side, release fffff. Repeat other side.
  • Exercise 3: place hands on diaphragm (fleshy bit just under front of rib cage). Gently/silently pant to wake up muscle.
  • Exercise 4: place hands on lower abdomen and breathe in/out through your mouth. Imagine an open tube running from mouth to stomach.
  • Exercise 5: repeat exercise 4 but add in gentle fffff sounds on release. Think in-breath right down that tube to stomach.
  • Exercise 6: loosen up facial & lip muscles by chewing (with mouth open) and sneering (lifting/dropping upper lip muscles).
  • Exercise 7: loosen up lip/tongue muscles by silently mouthing through your audition monologue (exaggerate lip/tongue movement).

Feeling brave? Then add some sound.

  • Exercise 8: blow through your lips (with voiceless vibration) like a horse. Carry it through to the end of your breath stream.
  • Exercise 9: repeat exercise 8 but add sound to the lip vibration (to the end of breath stream). Start on high pitch, end on low.
  • Exercise 10: build your resonance - lips gently together, back of tongue dropped, breathe to centre - and hum. Feel vibration.
  • Exercise 11: repeat exercise 10 but shake out upper body as you hum (just like exercise 1).
  • Exercise 12: breathe to abdomen & speak monologue on a quiet voice (but not breathy, not a whisper). Think sound onto front of face.

So hopefully your voice is a little more focused for the work to come. If you need further clarification on any of these exercises then do contact me directly.

For more detailed exercises and information on warming up your voice, take a look at Chapter 1 in my book Classic Voice: Working with Actors on Vocal Style published by Oberon Books.