Playing the Verbs, Part I

I want your focus for next week to be on physical motion, but since we touched on playing verbs at the end of class – which we will get into in greater depth as we go along – I thought I’d mention something you can think about with regard to your monologues.

As I said, when characters tell stories in a play, they typically do so for one of three reasons:  to educate, to explain, or to entertain.  explainingIf I want you to support the Spay/Neuter program, I need to educate you about animal over-population.  If you are puzzled over my past behavior, or I am planning on doing something in the future that I think you won’t understand, I will tell you a story about my past that I think will explain why I do what I do.  Or I might just want to make you laugh.  Entertaining stories are often used to provide exposition painlessly.

Don’t confuse providing exposition to the audience with explaining to another character, however.  While the playwright is trying to give the audience information about who your character is or some fact that will be important to the plot, the purpose of this third group of stories for your character is to entertain the other character(s) in the play.

So look at your monologues, which are story monologues, in this light, and choose one of these three verbs to govern your choices.  Ask yourself, “Why am I telling the other character in the scene this story?”  And make sure you keep that purpose in mind throughout your performance.  The need to tell that story can only be satisfied by the completion of the story.

While we’re at it, let’s talk about “stakes” a little bit.  In choosing one of these verbs, you’re choosing a reason to tell your story.  Now let’s make it important that you tell it.  It’s not enough for me to want you to support the Spay/Neuter program.  That has to be the social cause that is nearest and dearest to my heart.  If I feel the need to explain myself to you, perhaps it is because the actions that I’m trying to explain are so unacceptable that I am afraid that I will lose your love if I can’t make you understand why I felt I had no choice.  And if I want to entertain you, let it be because I think you need a good laugh and this is the best one I can come up with.

The more essential and urgent you can make telling the story, the better.

A Few Exercises

If you weren’t at tonight’s class (Sept. 10), disregard the following.  It will apply to you after you attend your first class session, but it is nothing you need to do before that.

If you don’t have time to prepare all three things, then prepare them in the order they appear.

1)      Prepare an activity.  Something simple, like peeling carrots.  Playing solitaire.  Shining your shoes.  Practice it at home at least three times.  This may seem silly, but trust me, it makes a difference.  Do not “write” lines to say.  Speech is not forbidden, but also should not be prepared beforehand.  It should be used only if it arises spontaneously (e.g., if you cut yourself with a knife, you might say “Ouch”, among other things.)  Do not create an imaginary scene partner; the activity is solitary.  The “setting” for the activity should be your home.  The “character” is the real you.  And the activity should last for about 2 minutes.  Bring whatever “props” you need to do your activity (carrots, a peeler, a dishtowel, a bowl, a garbage can or paper bag, a cutting board, etc.)  Do NOT mime any of your actions.  Do NOT use a cell phone, IPad, or any other form of technology as one of your props.  And avoid activities requiring fine motor skills.  It is very difficult to thread a needle on stage, no matter how young your eyes are.

2)      Memorize the monologue I gave you in class.  Resist the temptation to memorize “line readings” with it, but instead just memorize the words as words.  Yes, inflections and rhythm can be helpful in memorizing lines, but doing so limits your performance in ways that are very difficult to overcome.  You will know you’ve really memorized the monologue when you can say the words without stopping except to catch your breath.

Feel free to “think” about your character, but ONLY think about it.  Resist the temptation to “prepare” the monologue out loud in any way other than to memorize the lines.  Remember, while your monologue is from an actual play, you don’t know what that play is or anything about your character or the circumstances that surround your monologue, so you can’t make good “choices”, you can only make some intelligent guesses based on limited information which may or may not pan out.  Instead of making choices, simply explore ALL the possibilities.  For instance, what if your monologue is intended to be humorous?  What if it is intended to be dramatic?  What if you play it as if it is incredibly important?  What if you say it as something very off-hand?  What would be different about it, depending on which choices you might make?

Identify the possibilities, just don’t choose from among them.

Don’t feel like you have to do anything OTHER than memorize your lines.  You don’t.  But if you can’t stop yourself from doing more, then why not challenge yourself to find as many different possibilities as you can?

If yours is a longer monologue and you don’t have time to memorize it all, just memorize the portion that you can.  The length, quite honestly, is fairly arbitrary.

3)      Practice telling your “personal memory”, the one you used in class.  You don’t want it to last longer than 1 or 2 minutes.  Edit it to eliminate repetitions or extraneous information.  Stick to the critical points.  Tell it out loud at least six times, to real or imaginary people.  Feel free to “tell” it to family and friends; just don’t let them give you ANY feedback other than to answer the following question with one word:  “Did it feel to you like I was remembering it for the first time?”  Be prepared to tell it in class as if we have never heard you tell it before.  The idea is to make us believe that you never have told it to anyone before.  I don’t care if it is interesting or funny or has a point.  This isn’t a class on improv or playwriting.

As much as you can, put yourself back into the memory.  Take time to just THINK about it, REMEMBER everything you can about it, before you tell it again.  On your first retelling, describe your surroundings in as much detail as you can.  Colors, shapes, density.  Can you remember any sounds that might have been part of it?  The sound of a passing train, the whoosh of the wind through the trees, the high pitch of your brother’s whistle?  Can you remember what the apple felt like in your hand?  Was it a red delicious so big that your 8-year-old hand could barely hold it, or was it a rotten half-grown crab apple that easily fit in your hand?  Was it soft or hard, smooth, wet, slimy?  Could you smell what Mom was cooking?  Can you identify what she was cooking by smell, rather than simply remembering the menu?  And most importantly, can you remember how you FELT about the moment?  Did it make you happy, scared, ashamed, silly, resentful, etc.?

If you find staying silent for 30 seconds while you try to get in touch with these details difficult, I understand.  But all the more reason you should try to sit still and pay attention for at least 15 seconds.  Trust me (sorry, Troy!), that’s where the magic is.

After this first retelling, which can take as long as ten minutes if you like, you’ll have a much better sense of what is important and what can be edited out, and then you can start practicing the short version.

See if you can find at least ONE SENTENCE in your “personal memory” that you can get in touch with this level of detail.  Just ONE moment like this is sufficient to give any monologue real power.