Drummers practice rudiments. Pianists practice scales. Ballet dancers practice their exercises. Dramatic storytellers need lessons and rudiments, too. We're here to provide a few.
Working on a monologue or a solo song? Add this to your consideration as you prepare it.
Where was your character just before he started speaking or singing? What has she told us she wants? With his very first words, what is he trying to achieve? What does he want in the very next minute? Who is she speaking to in this song or monologue? It could be herself, if it’s like “In My Own Little Corner” in Cinderella. Know that.
You need to know your character’s “moment before” as you prepare your monologue or work out your solo, especially if you’re doing it for an audition and not as part of a full production. The directors and college admissions committee members will all know where your character was before you utter his or her first words. Be sure you know, too, emotionally as well as intellectually.
The brightness of the words “Morning glow, morning glow/Starts to glimmer when you know” take on a new dimension when you know that Pippin sings “Morning Glow” just after killing his father. What ripples through him as he sings about a metaphorical brand new day starting with him as king?
Elphaba’s world has just been turned upside down when she starts singing “Did that just really happen” in “The Wizard and I” in Wicked. All of a sudden what’s made her different all her life is not a curse but a blessing. Let your Elphaba explore all the emotions that are driving her as she starts that song.
While this helps for auditions, it also helps in performances. The first time we see your character, he or she has a moment before. That character wasn’t just born as the lights came up. Carry that moment before into your very first actions and words. Then, every time your character has been out of the story and re-enters it, you have to know what she’s bringing with her into that scene. What has he been doing — and feeling — just before coming back through the door or flying through the window?
Your songs, your monologues, your acting as a whole will be richer when you let the moment before drive your emotional explorations for those beginning words.
Try this: sit in a chair or on the floor. Imagine something oozing toward you, something really nasty. Realize what it is. Move. Because you would, right? It's rational to move in that circumstance.
Try it again, but this time you don't realize what this oozing mess is. As it begins to become something identifiable — a toxic chemical, a mass of garbage, blood — let yourself imagine it very specifically. What color is it? What does it smell like? How well can you see it? Did you smell it first or see it first? What is it? As you understand the specifics of this oozing mess, react to them. Let your reaction move you, not the ooze. Once you've moved, let it go. Shake it off.
You may want to try the second part of this exercise a few different times to really let your emotions move you. It should be a reaction, not an action you originate. The difference can be very subtle. You can also try it with other emotions and altered circumstances: joy when you realize someone you love has entered the room, anticipation for a long-sought announcement, anger at someone's abuse of an animal. One of those may make this exercise clearer for you.
Any dramatic story — play, musical, movie, game — is driven by the emotions of its characters. Each character is driven by a desire to change something in their lives: create a relationship, right a wrong, seek power. When the desire (that's an emotion) for change becomes overwhelming, the character has to move, has to do something. That's where playwrights and screenwriters start. Since they create the blueprints for the work of an actor, that's where you should begin, too.
Beginning actors often start with the idea that the words in their scripts are scraps of information, that lines like "I will be queen" or "I want you to marry me" are bits of knowledge the audience needs to understand the story. That's not wrong, but there's more. The writer wrote those words because the character was emotionally driven to say those words at that moment. Words are actions, too. When you deliver the lines written with their underlying emotions, the audience will understand the story intellectually and — better — in their guts. And that's where we want to hit them with our stories.