‘Til you’re Blue in the Face, or Why I often use Monologues written by Friends

Speak the speech I pray you as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it as many of your players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines.”
Hamlet Act III, Sc. 2, 1-4

I may well be the first person to audition with a monologue written by Eileen Tull.

It wouldn’t surprise me. Oh sure, her work isn’t performed as often as that of Wendy Wasserstein (yet). But when I needed “2-min contemporary monologue” for recent general audition in the East Bay, I figured “Why not go with one from a writer the auditor hasn’t heard a million-and-one times already?”. Upon telling Eileen herself about it after a recent theatre function, she gave a rosy-cheeked smile that I’ll take as a sign of approval (and permission to use the monologue again).

If ever the words “necessary evil” applied to the field of performing arts, it is in the audition process. It is undoubtedly the point at which the performer is most vulnerable and prone to self-doubt. Yes, a live performance will consist of moving about on-stage for an invisible audience hidden by the blinding stage lights. But at least those audiences are (hopefully) subject to a Super-Egotistical code of etiquette that will have them responding politely, if not approvingly; you aren’t required to make them happy, but it would be nice if you did. The audition process, on the other hands, outright requires you to seek the approval of the sometimes faceless, scrutinizing audience before you. All sense of individuality tends to vanish when you intentionally set out to conform to the irritatingly esoteric image in the mind of the auditor.

And yet we performers willingly do it ad nauseum. My friend Ashley – a damned fine writer – recently wrote and performed an hilarious ode the audition process that really hit home for those of us who have ever shown up to a casting call wondering if we conform to the director’s oh-so-elusive idea for the character. How many times have I asked myself “Did I come off too strong? Not strong enough? Should I have flirted more? Less? Why the hell did I pick this shirt? Should I have used the chair in the middle of my speech? Was the chair just put there as a test? Was I supposed to ignore the chair? Oh shit – I looked the director in the eye during my speech! Someone somewhere at some audition a long-ass time ago said that you should never EVER look an auditor in the eye! Damn it! Oh wait, I heard the artistic director actually likes being looked in the eye because it ‘shows an actor’s power’ or some-such-shit. Wait, was that the artistic director or the executive director? Didn’t the executive director leave to start his own company in Chicago? ARRGH!! Who do I have to give head to get cast with this fucking company?!”

As you may have gathered, the performing arts are populated by paranoiacs, alcoholics, bohemians, whores, sadists and masochists alike. “The Glamorous Life” indeed.

With all due respect to the many dancers, singers, musicians, and acrobats I know: I can think of no other audition process as difficult that of actors. Atleast with those other areas what’s required is simple, and whether or not the person auditioning can do it is know immediately. But with an acting audition the aforementioned esoteric vision of the creator(s) is often too vague to be appropriately comprehended. And yet somehow, someway the auditors feel they will find their diamond-in-the-rough by making the actors recite monologues; as if the words of some other writer make you worthy of blessed lyrical prose of this writer. I take a great deal of pride in knowing directors who only expect actors to audition with sides from the script, being as those are the only words that will matter in the production.

Selecting a monologue is a painstaking process that gets no easier as your career moves forward. Once you’ve come to your senses (i.e.: stopping fooling yourself into selecting a speech out of your age-range, realised that you shouldn’t use a ridiculous accent, and taken out all the dramatic pauses you want to insert so that it can fit into the time allotted) and you find yourself in the theatre lobby waiting your turn when you hear your fellow “auditionees” (is that even a word?) using the exact same monologue you’ve been practicing for the past two weeks. Apparently when Borders went belly-up, every aspiring actor bought the same discount monologue books at 70% off.

And if you think it’s no fun for you to have to read something that’s already become cliché, imagine having to be the auditor and hear the same damn thing over and over again. “If one more person auditions with that fucking Neil Labute Fat Pig speech,” a director-/artistic director (of a very well-known East Bay theatre) friend of mine once said, “I just might lose it!”

It is for this reason that I, unless instructed to do otherwise (i.e.: “perform a 2-min. Shakespeare monologue”), have begun auditioning exclusively with monologues written by friends. I know, I know: you’re not supposed to say that. Let me rephrase: “…with monologues written by local playwrights”. Who are very good friends of mine. It isn’t as if they wrote any of these pieces with me in mind, each one I’ve done has been previously performed in front of an audience – I have the playbills to prove it. Besides, it’s not as if I committed the ultimate taboo and wrote myself a monologue specifically for the audition.

Still, every recent audition I’ve done using the words of a local writer has brought about similar reactions: some auditors usually catch notice of an author’s familiar name being used; many give a look of confusion as to why I didn’t pick the words of a more well-established playwright; another look of confusion follows as they try to recall whether or not they attended the performance of this piece; and finally, since the piece I’m doing hasn’t been done to death, they pay complete attention.

I have nothing against using the words of August Wilson, Tony Kushner, John Patrick Shanley, Suzan Lori-Parks, or even Shakespeare – I’ve auditioned with them before and reckon I’ll do so again. But I know enough directors, writers, and producers to know that they can tell within the first few words of an audition monologue whether or not the actor “gets” the character whose monologue they’re reading. As much as I admire those aforementioned writers and hope I’ve done their words justice, I’ve never met any of them (particularly those who are dead) and therefore have no means of inquiring about their intentions when writing the characters and speeches.

“I originally wrote ‘Alas poor Yoda’ and Hamlet was gonna be a Jedi. True story.”

On the other hand, if I’m curious as to what inspired Nirmala Nataraj to write such a heart-breaking piece about the affects of Alzheimer’s Disease, I’ve had many opportunities to ask her. I like knowing what drove Stuart Bousel to write a funny speech from the point-of-view of a frog named Septimus who lives in Wonderland (yes, that Wonderland). Many’s the time I’ve shared beers with Megan Cohen and picked her brain about Dumplings on adventure, gorillas in tutus, and ponderers of love who live in an underground cave. I’m still curious as to whether Ashley Cowan’s short play about relationship woes via texting was meant to be autobiographical? And let me tell you about Maura Halloran’s Pussy

The point is I’ve seen these works performed and mingle with their creators on a regular basis. As such, I feel I have a firm grasp on their intentions for their characters and speeches.

I’m even more assured when it’s an original local piece for which I was part of the performance. I like having Ben Fisher’s “sales pitch” speech from Hermes in my repertoire, thanks in no short part to my having spent a week before its premiere rehearsing it in his living room – it’s very sort of Godon Gekko-esque piece I can’t find anywhere else. When I was in the middle of a show’s run and needed a contemporary monologue, I didn’t hesitate to use Alison Luterman’s “bowling” speech from Night in Jail because by that time I’d been reciting it for two months straight (counting rehearsals). And I figured that with all the time and heart Eileen Tull put into Boy in Blue for TheaterPub – even directing me in the piece – what better way to show my appreciation than to show the rest of the theatre community what they missed?

As a writer myself, I have no illusions about my work one day being used as audition material. The local writers I know tend to feel the same way (at least that’s what they say aloud). But as an actor and lover of theatre, I’d hate to think that everyone is too beholden to classics or readily familiar work to want to experience something new. The classics weren’t always classics – every writer began as an unknown nervous wreck, aspiring for greatness but crippled with fear that when pen finally hit paper, all that would result would be dreck.

I love knowing that I’ve exposed one person to the inspiring work of another. I love knowing that there’s other work available to me than that so familiar, everyone knows it by heart. Most of all, I love knowing that such a rich pool of talent is just one phone call away.

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