Director, Coach, Author - Karen Kohlhaas, Atlantic Theater Company, MonologueAudition.com
Karen Kohlhaas is a theater director, a founding member of New York 's Off-Broadway Atlantic Theater Company, and a senior teacher at the Atlantic Acting School. She will be directing the world premiere of Annie Baker's "Body Awareness" at Atlantic, performances start May 28, 2008. She recently directed actress-comedienne Judy Gold in the Drama Desk Award nominated "25 Questions for a Jewish Mother" by Kate Moira Ryan (written with and for Ms. Gold), which ran Off-Broadway for six months and is now on a national tour.
In addition to teaching at Atlantic, she teaches her own monologue, audition, and directing workshops in New York, and has guest taught in Vancouver and Sydney. She is the author of "THE MONOLOGUE AUDITION: A PRACTICAL GUIDE FOR ACTORS" (foreword by David Mamet), and the director, writer and co-producer of "THE MONOLOGUE AUDITION VIDEO (DVD)" (120 minutes), the only DVD that shows a complete approach to directing, acting, and auditioning with monologues, and includes 30 minutes of bonus interviews with 7 industry professionals who have seen thousands of auditions.
Books, DVDs, articles, and other actor resources including “The Overdone Monologue Survey” are all available at WWW.MONOLOGUEAUDITION.COM
Interviewed by Joanna Parson
Let's start simply. What exactly is a monologue? A monologue is a speech given by one person. A monologue for an audition is most often from a scene in a play, but actors frequently do monologues that are from sources other than plays.
When does an actor need to audition with a monologue? For general theater auditions such as EPA's; sometimes for auditions for specific parts in theater productions, though this is mostly at the non-professional level; for agents, casting directors, training programs, grad schools, summer stock, repertory theater, intern programs, and occasionally films.
Does a monologue have to come from a play? What are other sources for monologues? The audition listing will often specify if the monologues need to be from a play, but sometimes not. If it is a theater audition, the monologues should virtually always be from plays. Other monologue sources include screenplays, fiction/prose (but only if the language sounds like dramatic dialogue when spoken out loud; some fiction writers have a good ear for dialogue and some writers' work when spoken aloud sound bookish and non-active). Sometimes poems work but the same rule should apply as in fiction - it should not sound poem-y. I don't think most songs work as monologues (especially well-known songs).
Other sources include essays, editorials, TV shows (such as Law & Order testimonies - some great stuff, most of their writers are playwrights!); historical letters or speeches, interviews (such as a fascinating person interviewed on Larry King Live) and even talk radio. My current favorite sources to recommend to go off the beaten track are the Onion (humor newspaper and website) and "The Best of Craigslist" (found on any Craigslist site - some often hilarious rants). But the actor should absolutely note the requirements of the audition when choosing material.
What are the different types of monologues an actor might consider working on? If an actor only had time to work on a few monologues, which are the most important ones to prepare? It all depends on what that actor will be auditioning for, and wants to be auditioning for. There is no formula. Some actors don't ever want to do Shakespeare; some ONLY want to do Shakespeare. The best way to know what material to choose is to study the individual audition, and get specific and appropriate to its demands. Many actors only have 1 or 2 pieces they do, and they hate them and it shows.
I find this is because they don't have a clear way of working on monologues, which is why I developed my class, book, and DVD. When an actor does have a fun and effective monologue technique, he or she will work on specific monologues for individual auditions that are well-chosen and personal. They will stand WAY out from the other 95% who just bring in the same old stuff.
I don't buy the "don't have time" issue - that's like a doctor saying she doesn't have time to keep up with the medical developments in her field. It's an actor's job not only to keep his chops in shape, but to be constantly reading, learning and growing so he has more chances of being cast.
Monologues, when an actor is in the stage of her career when she needs them, are the single most accessible, empowering, and practical way to develop and grow and an artist AND have a way to immediately show those skills to people in the audition room. It may sound like a lot of work to develop a large repertoire of monologues, and to be able to work a new one up quickly and specifically for a particular audition, but believe me the actors who do will be more experienced, confident, and cast. What kind of performance will we see in the room when an actor is habitually doing the LEAST he needs to do to get by? You can instantly sense the ones who are putting in the work. They stand head and shoulders above the rest.
What are the most common mistakes actors make in choosing monologues? I asked similar questions to 10 industry pros who have seen thousands of monologues during the "Overdone Monologue Survey" that is on my site (I answered it too). So this is not just my opinion. The biggest mistake is doing a monologue out of the actor's age range. Followed closely by material that tries to accomplish too much/show too many facets of the actor, and material inappropriate for a particular audition (such as gratuitously gross, or too sexually and/or violently graphic with no payoff/justification), and also overdone material.
In your DVD, you discuss the difference between choosing a monologue one might perform for an agent or casting director, versus a monologue that one might choose in order to audition for a theatrical season or a multiple of roles. Can you explain that difference? The agent or casting director, on first meeting, needs to see "who you are," a role quite close to the actor that is not a stretch to imagine him playing. I call this a "Hello, this is me" monologue. In (very) brief, a "Hello this is me" should not be: classical/period, far from the actor's personality, inappropriate (gross/graphic), cynical, complaining, depressing, angry or neurotic (pet peeve: no more monologues by women about how some guy treated them horribly!).
A "Hello this is me" should/could have: closeness to a specific, readily seeable aspect of the actor's personality; humor, fascination, wonder, passion, insight. I'm not saying NEVER get angry or negative in these monologues, but pieces that are largely negative or angry are not good "Hello this is me." The rule of thumb is, would you be comfortable hearing this monologue given by someone you've just been introduced to at a party. And to remember that industry auditions are business situations - not a great time to talk about explicit sexual exploits or body fluids or functions (there are an amazing amount of these monologues out there).
Agents and CDs also need to see that the actor has a sense of where he could fit in the general mainstreams of casting. I'm not saying it's fair, it's not - but look at TV and you'll see it. Theater and independent film have more leeway, but not much. On the other hand, the theater audition for a repertory company - or even the "company" a graduate school is "casting," DOES want to see range - "Oh, we could cast you as both Lady MacBeth and as Masha." If the actor can pull both off, it's a successful audition. Sometimes an actor tries to bring in a range that is too wide, and one of the two won't work. Both roles need to be within the buyable playing range of the actor (and he/she should get multiple opinions about this if unsure).
Talk about your "storyboarding" concept, where actors choose actions to go along with different parts of a monologue. I actually call them "Descriptions" instead of "actions."
"Action" is an acting term. Descriptions are directing terms, and 1/3 of the monologue technique I teach is Directing Technique. An actor chooses 8 to 10 "chunks" in a monologue and writes a description for each. A description is a very visual adverb+verb combination that describes what the director wants the audience to SEE in each chunk. We make sure the descriptions are vivid, physical and most importantly that they have variety - so that the monologue won't stay on one note (the most common pitfall of monologue performance).
What about physical movement in a monologue? Should actors use blocking or choreography in monologue auditions? I firmly believe that movement should be chosen. There could be several moves, if that supports the story, or just one or two. The most important thing is to choose - instead of leave it up to chance, as many actors do. Then they either freeze, or move unspecifically. Virtually all stage productions have set blocking in performance. An audition is the same. When an actor doesn't set movement, she's rehearsing in front of them instead of performing. She needs staging she can rely on when the pressure is on. No cast would feel okay performing in front of critics without set blocking!
Should an actor perform a monologue from a play they've done in a full production? Do they need to approach it differently than they did before? They can, if they can truly look at it as a stand-alone story, out of the context of the production. They should make sure they have a clear beginning, middle, climax and end, and be able to perform the piece fully without the buildup into the monologue they got from doing the entire role. They should also not try to stuff the whole role into that monologue - let it be the short 2 minute story that it is.
When should an actor sit in a chair during a monologue? Is that a no-no? Chairs tend to suck the energy down. Many actors do monologues in chairs to avoid the discomfort of moving in front of others. If it's a theater audition you must show them what it is like to see you move on stage, even if it's just a bit. If there is a true need or desire to do the piece in a chair, I think actors should first stage a monologue standing (unless the piece is in a wheelchair, a car, or otherwise seated), and then put it in a chair, while keeping the dynamics of the original blocking. Once the piece is staged standing, it will be more energetic when put into a chair, and then the actor can do it both ways.
The times to do a seated monologue are 1) when the piece demands it 2) when asked to in the audition 3) for an on-camera audition 4) for an audition in an extremely small space.
You say that the secret to acting monologues is listening. How can an actor listen, when he or she is the only one talking? There is a very simple adjustment that makes it possible to "listen" in a monologue just as we do in life. Anyone reading this article has already had a few conversations in their head today - conversations in which the other person was not physically present (that person could have been thousands of miles away in fact). But in the reader's head that person was responding and participating in the conversation. We harness that natural skill that we all already have, and that makes monologues become alive, two-way conversations. You can really see and feel the difference between a one-way monologue performance and a two-way monologue performance.
Do you recommend using props when performing a monologue audition? (A phone, a bottle, a handkerchief?) Use only when necessary and make them as simple as possible to produce, deal with, and get rid of.
How do you recommend actors practice their monologue auditions? Are there any specific techniques that actors should use? (Practicing in front of a mirror, watching themselves on video?) Personal opinion: never practice in front of a mirror; you'll just be watching yourself, which is acting death. Always, always practice the acting of a monologue with a partner watching. (You can address it directly to a partner sometimes to see what it's like to get a live response, but ultimately practice more often looking just over the partner's head so you get more of an audition room experience (most auditors absolutely do not want to be acted to).
No one ever hired an actor to act in a room by himself! Rehearse in the environment that you will be performing in. Only use video if you can handle watching and hearing yourself. In my experience some actors can, and some can't - just like some movie actors always watch their dailies and some never do. One very good use of video is to have someone film you from the side, so that you can see how you are using your alignment (this can be watched with sound off). This is often a huge awakening for many actors about how much they are thrusting their heads and upper bodies forward, which weakens the performance and strains the voice.
You believe that actors also need to be aware of how they walk into an audition room. How can actors work on walking into a room and presenting themselves effectively before the monologue even begins? The short answer is to be "Big and Slow and Positive" when entering and exiting the room. A full third of the technique I teach is Audition Technique. There are many tiny but important moments that surround the actual acting in an audition. An actor can give off a positive, warm, confident and professional impression in these moments, she can neutralize them, or she can actually say negative things about herself in these moments.
Most actors neutralize them, and only a small percentage, in my experience, really master the art of positive self-presentation. It's been proven that body language is more powerful communication than verbal communication, so all words need to be backed up with behavior. An actor can learn and practice a positive intention toward her auditors when entering, interacting and exiting the room. This intention can be made habitual - think of the great hosts you know - and it can and should be completely separate from how nervous she is, or how she feels the audition went.
Amanda Charlton from the Williamstown Theatre Festival says in your DVD, "About 10 percent of the actors we see look like they're having fun performance—and those are the ones we take." What can actors do to up their own fun quotient when performing monologues? That percentage is true - people who watch auditions will actually say it's 10% or less - across the board. 90% or more are treating the audition as something unpleasant they must "grin and bear" or "get through" to get to the "real acting." So who wants to hire someone who looks like they just want to get through it?
The 10% (or less) are the ones who have truly learned to enjoy performing - anywhere, anytime. How to get there with monologue auditions? All of the above: have a practical and reliable rehearsal process; work on many monologues to increase your chops, range and confidence level; read all the time to find fantastic material that you love (and don't ask others to find it for you); learn to stage yourself effectively; develop strong audition technique; and learn to treat auditions as a fun adventure, and the next steps to your dreams. Is that last part hokey? Maybe, but it's completely possible.
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With a fire in her belly from knowing that her work with artists is creating results and being appreciated, Roz has created new classes instead of taking the month of July off. She's also celebrating her birthday with a gift to actors...a celebration of the thing they learned first in this business. The monologue. Just for fun. Stay tuned.