The structural and dramatic flexibility of a full-length play made up solely of monologues

Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne

The monologue is obviously to be played by a solo actor, and is usually incorporated within part of a scene, or a stand-alone scene, within a multi-actor play, especially if it is a full-length play. However, it is also possible to put together a play, say of 80 minutes plus, one with a strong plot and storyline, delivered by a single actor in monologue form. A really interesting idea, though, would be to construct the play so that other players can also ‘interact’ with the primary actor throughout the play. This experiment with the monologue form may end up giving us quite a deal of structural and dramatic flexibility in the presentation of the drama.

I have written such a play, yet at first I did not aim to accomplish this type of project. I simply set out to write a piece of drama as part of an evening’s entertainment of Irish culture; entertainment which also includes storytelling, comedy and music. The stipulation for this piece of drama was that it be a monologue of no more than ten, possibly up to fifteen minutes in length. However, and as is usually the way with me, I had no intention of writing a single monologue, and simply leaving it there. If I was going to create a new character, I wanted to create a strong one, and if this character is strong, so my reasoning runs, then why would I be satisfied with leaving it boxed into a single monologue of no more than fifteen minutes total in length.  I wanted to write at least three separate monologues, wherein I might explore the solo character within the structure of a short play; but one which would include a strong plot, storyline and conflict, as well as other strong characters (particularly the antagonist/s).

In fact, each separate monologue would be like a part of a miniseries, whereby it might contain more than one scene; and each scene will end on a bang, a twist or a question the audience wants answered, especially at the end of the part, where it must really end on a cliffhanger so that the audience is left eager for the next part (instalment). By consciously breaking the whole play into parts in this way, it gives us the flexibility either of running all the parts one after the other or else leaving a time lapse between them.

I actually ended up with six monologues, each of which hovers around the fourteen/fifteen minute mark, and therefore brings the whole play to a running time of around 90 minutes when performed. The end of the play now has the feel of a ‘natural’ ending, although the play can, in fact, easily be extended to another six monologues, which, in turn, means the whole story then covers two plays or one long play. Think of the possibilities here! A monologue stage play of six parts has the potential to be broken up into six units time-wise, or else broken up into two or three units, meaning that you can have one or two time lapses in between these break-ups.  This allows the units to be played over the course of a day or evening’s entertainment or even over several evenings while other types of entertainment are slotted in between, entertainment that is possibly of a related theme to the play: my own example is an Irish-themed play for an Irish-themed evening.

The character carrying the full-length play in monologue form will obviously need to be strong, but so, too, will the other main characters, even though they do not appear as actors here. Without strong supporting characters, it will be very difficult to create enough conflict and tension to keep the interest of the audience running for 90 odd minutes, even if this time is broken up into segments. This brings us back to the idea of transforming the play from a monologue form to a multi-actor one. If the other main characters come across well in the monologue form, then there is no reason to believe that these characters will not remain strong or become even stronger once they are truly ‘fleshed out’. We are experimenting here, continuing to test the structure and flexibility of this set of monologues that make up a full-length play or a miniseries.

The monologue means the solo actor is always on the stage and generally not giving us information second hand, as that is not particularly dramatic. This tells us that with the introduction of other actors, the structure of the script will probably change very little. Now when a character appears ‘in the flesh’, we may well need to trim away some physical description (appearance, body language, tone of voice), and, of course, dialogue tags, all of which previously came out of the mouth of the solo actor when the script was only a monologue, but this will usually only be some minor tweaking if the monologues are well written and in good editorial shape.

Two notes of warning!

If you have three other main character parts, for example, you cannot simply bring in one other actor and then leave the original actor of the monologues to continue playing the other main characters. The play will now appear to be out of balance. You must fill in all the other main roles with actors. Minor characters, on the other hand, will continue to be played by the first actor, or maybe even by another actor, depending on the context.

A solo actor can project powerful self expression and so create their own dramatic world which can be incredibly enticing. I state this with reference to the fact that the play will be written firstly in monologue form and so must work strongly as such. When other actors ‘intrude’ on the space of this solo actor, it will certainly destroy the original solo’s world, creating an entirely different dramatic tone. So, using more actors is no guarantee that a better play will emerge. Having said all that, the future belongs to those who experiment.

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