Scott Lange on one of the greatest Shakespearean challenges, the dreaded (and delightful) soliloquy.
There are a lot of elements that go into creating a soliloquy. You can’t just stand on the stage and talk at the audience. You need to be as engaging as a big, fancy, fight scene. My goal, typically, is for my soliloquies to be the most entertaining or moving thing that audiences see on stage for that performance. Often those speeches are the ones that are the most famous. “To be or not to be,” “Is this a dagger I see before me,” and “Once more unto the breach dear friends” are all speeches that are extremely well known even to people who are not avid Shakespeare fans.
For me, my work on a soliloquy has to begin with memorization. This may seem obvious, but I don’t believe everyone works this way. There must be actors somewhere in the world that can work on blocking, vocal variety, and audience contact all while holding script in their hands. I generally am able to do that with scenes where I share the stage with another actor. But I have to be memorized before I can really start working on a soliloquy.
To be clear, however, memorization is not simply learning lines so that I have the ability to regurgitate them. There is quite a bit of table work that goes into it. I do my scansion first, noting where I have short lines, feminine endings, strange meter and alliteration. After that, I break the speech down into smaller manageable chunks. I start with looking at each individual sentence. In a long soliloquy, you may actually only have four or five sentences. This helps me to figure out what I’m saying and what story the speech is telling.
After I’ve done all the heavy mental-lifting with the speech, I can get it up on it’s feet. For my memorization to really have effect, I have to move while I recite the lines. Usually this is just pacing, although I will often memorize my lines while I walk my dog.
After the speech is completely in my head, I can really begin to plot out my staging of the piece. There are a few different ways that I have done this. In some instances the staging will evolve organically. I won’t necessarily plan out where I will move exactly on stage, but let the speech dictate how much I move around the stage and where exactly I will go. In this situation, I experiment with the speech over and over, moving from what might look scattered into an effective piece of staging. This organic way of staging looks to me like a puzzle, with each piece falling into place one by one. With some other speeches , I will spend a large amount of time plotting exactly where I move and on what lines I do that. I will write out a blueprint of what I’m going to do. As I rehearse the speech, I will perform the blocking exactly as I have planned it each time, adjusting individual bits where the staging seems forced or inappropriate.
The final piece of the soliloquy puzzle is audience contact. This is a combination of planning and organic evolution. The inconstant variable is the audience. We perform in many different audience configurations. Also, the audience will invariably sit in different places for each performance, so it is impossible for me to plan exactly where I will look at what moment. I usually do plot out the moments when I will connect directly with an audience member, but will vary where I look based on where audience members are seated. What I can know for sure, however, is that the work I have done prior to the performance will help tell the story and communicate a truthfulness of character to the audience regardless of where they sit.