You wake up next to a tedious samovar.
Why paper is a trap.
I had to learn a monologue this month. It’s been a while.
Monologues, learned on their own rather than as part of a show, live in the world of auditions and competitions. Sometimes they float around unmoored from their homes in the form of passages to be analysed in English lessons. They breeze through classrooms and land softly on A4 sheets from which 12 year olds play Pokémon with their favourite ages of man.
Lean and slipper’d pantaloon, I choose you.
I was asked to learn one for a class. I was taking a course on performance capture, the technology animators use to translate an actor’s movements into computer code. Once you’ve got that you can stick a character onto the code - an orc, a footballer, Mark Carney - and the actor’s movements become that character’s.
I missed the point and forgot that the context in which I was supposed to choose my speech was video games. Instead of a juicy bit of FPS vampire killing, or telling soldiers in my command unit to surround the base and take out the snipers, or a point and click examination of the personal trauma of quantitative easing, I chose Uncle Vanya.
As I swanned around my room with Chekhov’s text adventure, I realised that in the time since I last had to learn a new monologue on its own, my approach to text has changed. I liked the result so hopefully for the better.
So here’s a case study: what I used to do and what I do now.
NB Although I’m writing about the monologue as a specific, I guess it applies to all text.
Ten years ago, I took a very text-first approach. After figuring out the context and making sure I knew what every word actually meant, I would have taken the speech apart, literally rewriting it in small chunks, a new division each time the thought changes. With those divisions, I’d have spent a lot of time looking for appropriate actions and written them in, really thinking about getting it right and maybe looking up synonyms so that I didn’t keep writing the world’s most depressing action: ‘tell’.
It’s an awful lot of desk work.
After all that I finally might have physicalized: I’d have got up and seen if the rhythms of the words had any bearing on the way I walked and spoke. But, like, quietly. Because I had flatmates.
And then, I’d have committed it to memory as best, and quietly, as I could, worrying most of all about getting specific words and sentences wrong. So most of my time was spent worrying about the language, with a bit given over to everything else.
Look, it’s not the worst approach. It’s inefficient but the basic idea is there. Our job is to take a massive wodge of text and break it down into understandable elements so that we can replicate them in a way that looks like talking. There are loads of ways of doing that including spending all your prep fretting about where the commas go. In UK actor training, text analysis is a massive part of the culture and it’s easy to think that if we don’t spend all our time on it, we haven’t done our homework. I think part of that is that being so disciplined helps get into the mindset of breaking down the wodge. Eventually looking for ways to do it becomes second nature. But outside of the classroom, attachment to the specific discipline is not always practical.
I think there are two main issues: a) time and b) focus.
I mean my time.
In the Platonic ideal of an actor’s day, we all get up and warm up and spend eight hours playing with text and character and get an early night and never eat milk or drink cheese and so on. This assumes a life that doesn’t mostly involve looking for work or making money in survival jobs and in which we are all clockwork robots who don’t like dairy.
I really like dairy.
Let’s say I have an hour in a day to devote to learning a monologue for a performance capture class. Maybe a morning. If I devote part of that to rewriting and actioning lines, it certainly feels like I’m doing good work. There’s a bit of the after-school homework to it, a bit of the office, a bit of the tax form.
But it’s quicksand.
It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of accomplishment by putting pen to paper. That’s because it is an accomplishment. Don’t beat yourself up.
But there are other ways to fill the time. Writing it all down can certainly be part of the process, sometimes a very necessary one. However, if our time is limited we have to work efficiently.
I think of the brain in very literal terms. For some people it is helpful to visualise it metaphorically: a railway station, a book, the road to Mordor… But I like to think about it in terms of synapses, neurons and chemicals. Some of those synaptic paths are well established. I have made habits. If X then Y. If I put on my shoes, then I will tie my shoelaces. If my shoelaces are frayed, then I will mutter that I need new ones. If I’m wearing velcro, I have traveled back into my younger self and it’s 1992 oh no help.
Let’s say that I am working on the words and sentences of a monologue. The synaptic path I am following is breaking them down analytically and looking for the perfect action for each one. This stems from the discipline around text I built years ago. I am slipping into easy grooves that tell me to focus on the sentences in front of me because that’s the immediate danger that needs dealing with.
However, I don’t have to follow that path. I can redirect my focus to go down a different one. I have choice, whatever my brain thinks.
I’m not saying that I never read the play or thought about character before. But when it came down to it, I used to spend a lot more time on the actual speech in front of me than building and understanding the world it came from. The only way this would work is if language is perfect and the writer a perfect user of it.
Language is a useful tool. It is a very good tool. It is not a perfect tool. We use it to convey our experience of the world to each other as best we can. Which is… somewhat. Language, especially coupled with non-verbal cues, is incredibly flexible. But there are no perfect sentences. No perfect words, nor paragraphs.
If my goal is to translate the text on the page into words in the brain and body and mouth but I spend most of my time available focusing on getting the words right, I am using that time inefficiently. Too much is missed. I have to have enough faith in myself that with enough thought about and around the text, the words will be there.
So what else can I spend that limited time focusing on if not the frenetic worry of being dead line perfect?
I think Character Work and Given Circumstances about covers it.
(And if you’re super pushed for time, I would choose Given Circumstances because the text will take care of a lot of the character).
In the speech I was working, the thrust of it is my character is trying to get a bottle of morphine from Vanya. He also goes on a little digression to talk about his own frustrations with his life.
In purely text terms, I have the following information.
He wants the bottle.
Why he wants the bottle.
He is unhappy.
Why he is unhappy.
The words he chooses to express all this.
That’s it. If I focus on nothing else, that is the sum total of tools I have at my disposal to find a way into this speech.
So what else could I focus on?
The scene takes place when my character is trying to leave the house. He is replying to Vanya who, as well as having stolen the morphia, has just had his own existential meltdown not long after trying and failing to kill a different house guest for which nobody has pressed charges, and everyone is embarrassed. In a previous scene, my character kissed a woman Vanya is in love with.
All of these elements deserve equal thought (or more?? living dangerously here) to the words on the page. To focus on them, however, requires sacrificing the time I spend on the words. I am choosing what to think about and actively giving up time that could be spent on remembering if halfway through the speech he uses so or therefore.
(NB Rather than try to remember which he uses, a more character-led way is to work out why he uses one and not the other. In this case: perhaps a clue to how formal he’s being).
How you focus on the character and given circumstances is up to you.
In my case, I chose to think about the horses that would take my character away, the meltdown he had just watched, the hypocrisy of ignoring the murder attempt, the length of the journey ahead and how annoying it was that this man was preventing me leaving by stealing my morphine, about the tedium of being in that house, and how stuffy and drab the living room was, the guilt of the kiss and, because he’s a bit full of himself, the irritation at feeling guilty.
Whatever images and ideas you have, flick between them and let them whirl around your brain like it’s a paint mixer, sloshing them all over the walls of your skull. This is a great way to stop that familiar pattern of waiting in the wings to perform and having a last minute panic about your lines.
But what about getting them right? How do we find the faith in ourselves to let go?
People always talk about working out the thoughts behind the lines; the above is one way of doing that. The images you come up with come from the text and so a curious thing happens: the actual sentences eventually slot into place. You read it a few times to get the gist, you do some mental maths to think about why the lines are as they are, and the text starts forming in your head like a wobbly jelly. Instead of worrying about it in a linear fashion where you learn the beginning and struggle with the end, this way you learn the whole thing at once and then worry about firming up the jelly by checking the lines for accuracy and asking yourself more and more specific questions about why it’s phrased as it’s phrased. It’s like you start with an outline of your part and then fill it in with more and more precise shading.
In a short period of time, it’s up to us to choose which details to focus on. We can risk saying the wrong line or we can risk being in the wrong room. I think occasionally stumbling over the exact phrasing is a lesser worry than having an incomplete sense of where we are and what we’ve been doing.
Come back in a decade and I will tell you how my thinking on all this has changed again in order to prepare a passage from Ibsen’s DOOM.
I’m playing Renfield in an audio drama version of Dracula, out next year. Happily, the show is now funded. However, if you’d like to help it reach its stretch goals or see what perks are on offer, have a look at the fundraiser. The last time I was in a production of Dracula, I wore a very nice waistcoat. This one’s AD so you’ll have to imagine my very nice waistcoat.