Glenn Alterman is a multi-award-winning playwright, the author of 30 theater-related books, a screenwriter, and a highly respected monologue/audition/acting coach, based in New York City. He was voted “Best Monologue/Audition Coach” by the readers of Backstage Magazine and “Best Monologue/Audition Coach” by Theater Resources Magazine. Glenn holds the world record for being “The Author of The Most Published Original Monologues For Actors.” His plays and monologues have appeared in over 40 best play, best short play, and best monologue anthologies. He offers invaluable tips for actors and non-actors alike about committing scripts and presentations to memory.
Brent: Thank you so much for talking with me! How do you integrate memorization into your teaching?
Glenn: I’ve actually dealt with the subject of memorizing in two of my books, The Perfect Audition Monologue and the upcoming The Best Monologues For Every Audition—And How To Prepare For Them! There are several schools of thought on memorizing monologue material. For years I believed, like many actors, that the first thing you did with a new monologue was memorize the words by rote. Several teachers I trained with recommended that way to work. Now I feel differently.
Brent: Why is that?
Glenn: Well, once you memorize your monologue, what happens is, to some degree, your final performance is somewhat “set.” Even though you haven’t sufficiently explored the meaning of the material, or even what the character is really trying to say, you’ve pre-set some of the results. By early memorizing, you cut out one of the most important parts of the rehearsal process, discovery.
Brent: So, focus more on the meaning of the words rather than the actual words.
Glenn: I know that many actors prefer to memorize first to, as they say, “to get the words out of the way.” To me, the words are the way. The question I often ask my students is, “When you work on a new play, generally, would you go to the first rehearsal on the first day totally memorized?”
Brent: I imagine they say “no.”
Glenn: I realize that in some circumstances, this doesn’t apply, such as summer stock, film, and TV work. Then why approach monologue material that way? A monologue is, after all, a piece of theater.
Brent: No question. So how do you recommend actors initially approach a monologue?
Glenn: The brain memorizes in sections, patterns. When you memorize right at the start, some of how you’ll be saying the words in performance is set. If you’ll recall, when we were children we were taught the pledge of allegiance. We memorized it by rote, the same way actors memorize their monologues. If you notice, we all say the pledge of allegiance exactly the same way. “I pledge allegiance… to the flag… etc. Well to some degree, that’s how monologues sound when memorized too soon—set, fixed. At auditions, you can quite often hear how an actor has memorized their material by the fixed way that they’re performing it. There will be a certain unnatural quality to the performance. When actors work this way, that first you memorize the words, then somehow you add on the emotions, then layer on blocking, etc., it sounds like you’re building a sandcastle, not rehearsing a monologue. Memorizing first is not an organic way to develop a role.
Brent: This is why I get pushback from some students when they tell me they were taught never to memorize. I consider that a lazy gut reaction. What they were most likely told is that a monologue, speech, or script should never sound memorized. Character and context should drive memorization. How do you lay this out?
Glenn: What I suggest is that you rehearse your monologue just like you would prepare any for any other role in a play, in a step-by-step process of discovery.
Brent: Does one size fit all?
Glenn: Actors work on new material in different ways. Some actors prefer to find the beats, the intentions, and the objectives first. Actors need to know, “Why am I saying this?” “To whom am I speaking?” “What do I want?” As they rehearse the monologue over and over, they’ll discover who the character is and what’s going on in that moment. And by rehearsing the material repeatedly, guess what? They’ll discover that they’ve been memorizing it, too.
Brent: Right, actors need to know the answers to these questions before moving forward. And repetition is always key! On a related subject, what are some notoriously challenging monologues? What makes them so, and how should actors approach them?
Glenn: Actors, mostly inexperienced actors, sometimes select monologues for auditions that make demands that are beyond their present skills and training. For instance, young actors who want to impress the casting director think that by doing a Shakespearean monologue, they’ll get extra points.
Brent: That sounds risky. How do you talk them down from doing a monologue they’re not yet ready for?
Glenn: Doing Shakespeare or Moliere or any of the great classics requires some knowledge of the style of the material. Doing it badly only works against you. I once had an actress bring in Queen Margaret’s monologue for an audition from Henry VI, Part 3, where she laments the death of her son. This monologue was emotionally way beyond what this actress was ready to deliver. Add to that she had no classical training. It was sort of a train wreck. I had to gently suggest that this might not be the best material for her. Also, most (not all) agents prefer to see two contemporary monologues from plays with roles that you could be cast in. If your training and experience is primarily in classical theater, this might not necessarily be the case.
Brent: When you write a play or monologue, how much do you think about how the actors will learn the text?
Glenn: I tend to write monologues and plays with dialogue that is both naturalistic and musical, and sometimes poetic. I feel that if the dialogue is honest, real, and easy to say, memorizing won’t be too difficult. It’s relatively rare when I’m in rehearsal with one of my plays that I hear an actor complain that memorizing the text has been a chore. I believe that the reason my books of original monologues are so popular is that they are “actor-friendly.” I was and am an actor. I write for actors. I want my characters to say things in a way that feels natural.
Brent: Have you ever made changes to a script because it was too difficult to memorize?
Glenn: I constantly change my dialogue when I’m in rehearsal with my plays, especially new ones. As the actors rehearse, I can hear what’s working and what isn’t. If I see an actor really struggling with some dialogue, we’ll discuss what the problem is. If necessary, I will modify it if I have too. Sometimes the changes are just for that production, and sometimes it’s permanent. If an actor is having difficulty with a section of dialogue, it’s usually more difficult for them to memorize. If the words flow, if the thoughts are logical, they’ll have an easier time of memorizing.
Brent: When there is repetition of certain phrases, do you (or the actors) ever get confused about what particular line comes next?
Glenn: It shouldn’t be confusing. Generally when something is repeated, there is a reason. It can be because there is an emotional build occurring, a miscommunication between the characters that needs clarifying, or a host of other reasons. If there is a logic as to why the words are being repeated, it shouldn’t be confusing. It’s really about the thoughts behind the words that need to be clear. If they’re not, the actors and the audience will be perplexed.
Brent: What else would you like my readers to know?
Glenn: I think it’s terribly difficult to work on a monologue on your own. I know I did it for years. It doesn’t quite make sense. Part of you is trying to act; another part is trying to make sense of what you’re saying; another part is directing yourself; and then there’s the most damaging part—the self-judging that goes on when you’re alone working on a monologue alone. Most actors tell me that they HATE working on monologues. The solution is to work with a coach or a director or an acting teacher, or even another actor. That way you can just act the piece and let the observer give you (hopefully) helpful feedback.
Brent: That’s very reassuring advice. It reminds me of the old maxim, “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Companionship breeds success.
Glenn: Another thing I’ve discovered is that performing the monologue (especially when you’re still developing it) for your husband, wife, or significant other, if they’re not in the business, can actually be detrimental to the best outcome. Since they’re not theater-trained, their feedback could actually send you down a wrong path.
Brent: That’s interesting. I’ve heard the other side, too—that an untrained audience can offer objective feedback and let you know how your performance will play to the general public. But I get what you’re saying. Yours is the voice of experience.
Glenn: Because they don’t communicate in actor terms, they will communicate generally or emotionally. I question if that’s all that helpful. I believe because I still act, and because I’m a playwright and the author of 10 books of original monologues, I am in the unique position of being able to help actors rehearse monologues and prepare for all auditions. I’ve sat in on monologue auditions for playwrights and casting directors and listened to their comments. I’ve interviewed a great many of them for my books and always found their insights very helpful.
Brent: Well, thank you, Glenn. You are a wealth of knowledge. I really appreciate your being so generous with your time and sharing your work with us. I hope my readers will go deeper and seek out your books and plays. I’ll include some highlights below.
Glenn: Thanks so much!
Glenn’s books include The Perfect Audition Monologue, An Actors Guide Making It In New York, and Writing The Ten-Minute Play, and these are now part of the curriculum of many college theater arts and playwriting courses. Look for Glenn’s thirtieth book, Winning Monologues For All Auditions, slated for release in 2018. Find out more on his website.
Glenn wrote the book for Heartstrings: The National Tour (commissioned by DIFFA, the Design Industries Foundation for AIDS), a 35-city tour that starred Michelle Pfeiffer, Ron Silver, Susan Sarandon, Marlo Thomas, and Sandy Duncan, among others. Other plays include Kiss Me When It’s Over (starring and directed by Andre DeShields, at LaMaMa); The Sealing of Ceil (winner of the Arts and Letters Award in Drama); Solace (Circle East Theater Company); Street Talk/Uptown (based on his monologue books); and Nobody’s Flood (winner of the Reva Shiner Award/Bloomington Playwrights Project). His plays have been performed in New York City at Primary Stages, Ensemble Studio Theater, Circle in the Square Downtown, HERE, LaMaMa, Circle Repertory Theater Company, the Duplex, Playwrights Horizons, as well as at many theaters around the country and abroad. Learn more on his website.