Actors are told, wisely so for the most part, to avoid monologues that tell a story. You most likely know the kind. They usually start with “When I was seventeen” or “It happened after I left home” or “I still remember the time” etc. They are usually delivered with a kind of sameness that sucks the life right out of the room in which its being performed. For the most part, that is. They can sometimes work, if the actors knows how to infuse the necessary drive to carry them through the piece. The reason pieces of the “story” nature don’t usually work is because the reason the character is telling the story is not contained within the writing itself.
Another missing component is that we often have no idea to whom the character is speaking. Mother? Sister? Boyfriend? Girlfriend? Most of the time it’s not there, whereas monologues that have immediate and active conflict usually have this component within them and therefore are usually more compelling monologue choices. The character is telling the other character how he or she wants the other character to change. A clear “fight” is usually present.
However, when a actor performs a story piece that works well, it’s usually because the actor has endowed the need to tell the story with a sense of urgency. That is, if a character is telling another character a “story”: in a play, and that play is well-written, there is a reason why that character is telling the other character that story at that moment with the express purpose of affecting the relationship. So when an actor knows what is driving him through the story, the emotional intention becomes as important, if not more important than the story itself. We, the audience may have no idea why the character is telling the story, but if the actor knows why, he can hit a home run with a story monologue. Yet, it requires an extra step to create this kind of immediacy.
The “flashback” reference in this article’s title refers to this “extra step”. I can liken it to the following. Let’s say you ran into a friend whom you hadn’t seen in ten years. She tells you that she got married ten years ago. Then she tells you that her husband is now terminally ill. You would react with strong and immediate sympathy, right? Now let’s look at a different scenario. You run into the same friend whom you have not seen in ten years. She tells you that shortly after she last saw you she got married, but sadly her husband became terminally ill in the first year of the marriage and has been gone for nine years. Your reaction would not be the same as if her were dying now. Years have passed. Time has most likely had some healing effect upon her. Her telling you the story of nine years ago wouldn’t have the same tone either, that is unless she wanted the story to affect her relationship with you right…now! It’s this emotional immediacy that an actor must create to make anyone who’s listening to a story really, really care about the character, and by extension, the actor who is telling it.
Brian O’Neil is the best-selling author of Acting As a Business: Strategies for Success: Fifth Edition. A former agent and personal manager, he is currently faculty at The Juilliard School and NYU/Tisch School of the Arts. He is a career coach/consultant and you can learn more about Brian at http://www.actingasabusiness.com