The following was written by one of our top voice and monologue coaches, Anne.
The hardest thing for a young actor is making the monologue not sound memorized. It is, of course, memorized. That is a requirement for any actor. But the trick is to make it seem not memorized. And that is where the difficulty comes in. How do you make something that is memorized seem to not be memorized? Magic? Possibly. But a more mundane, attainable option is to make sure you are clear about where the beats go.
Beats Aren’t Just Part of Music
Wait! Beats are part of music. Monologues don’t have music. If they did, they would be songs. That is true. But it is also true that all human language has beats. If someone speaks with a lot of long pauses, we read hesitation. If they speak quickly, with words pouring out of their mouth, we read excitement. We are able to read this hesitation or excitement in the speed and timing of human language, just like we do with a song. But since plays and, therefore, monologues have no composer to write the rhythm in for us, it is our job as actors to figure out how to put them in.
Listen to People in Real Life
Pay close attention the next time someone is talking to you. Chances are that they will stop a little bit. They might need time to think of the next thing to say, or might need time to react to what has just been said to them. There might be a moment when they are waiting for someone else to react. Those pauses, when we are referring to monologue preparation, are beats. It is a point in the monologue where you intentionally stop talking. Your character might be taking time to think of something, they might need to remember an event before they can say it. A memory might have knocked them off their feet for a minute, or they are waiting to see if the other character (who may or may not be there) is going to say something. But those pauses are necessary so that we understand what is happening, and understand why the character is reacting the way that they are. We need to read the character the way we read the people that meet every day.
What Are Beats So Important
Why else are the beats so important? Because they are what help us not sound like we are simply reciting something memorized. They are what allow us to get that organic flow of words that is the bridge between recitation and acting. It is a time to silently develop the character, to allow them to be a little bit more real and human to the audience. Another thing that makes the beats important is that they help us slow down. We are filled with adrenaline when we audition and perform, and that makes us speed up, which can cause us to lose some of the emotional impact. Paying attention to the spacing allows us to not only create an organic, emotive monologue, but also to maintain it when it truly matters.
How to Put Beats In
If you are unsure how to put beats in, start simple. Read through your monologue. Put in two beats (count one, two in your head if that helps) after each comma, and one beat (count one) after each comma. That alone will begin to slow down the monologue and make it feel less rushed. Practice like that for a while; get a feeling for what it feels like to go slowly. Then begin to take apart the monologue a little bit, what I like to think of as “going over it with a fine-tooth comb.” We are looking for the details to make the big picture bigger. Does your character have to think of a reason why something is, or have to come up with a list off the top of their head? If they do, you’ll want to put in some more spacing. If someone asked you to list ten birds, it might take you some time to think of them, even if you know them all. Unless, of course, your character has been practicing a list of ten birds, and they show off that skill in the monologue. Then the beats will be different. Understanding your character, and why they are saying what they are saying, will help you figure out timing for the monologue. Spend some time with who you think the character might be, and you might just find that the beats fall naturally.