A 10-Step Process for Teaching Monologues
A solo performance presents a unique opportunity for middle school students to express their creativity and point of view.
I teach performing arts from kindergarten through eighth grade, and in the first part of the year my seventh-grade students worked on their own adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. For the next project, I wanted the students to have the opposite experience. Rather than a large-scale collaboration, each student was going to create their own short, one-character play—a monologue. This would be a great way to develop their skills while allowing for more individual creativity and self-expression.
A monologue can be anything from a speech given by a character for dramatic purposes to a full-blown conversation with characters who aren’t physically present. The latter contains the literary architecture to make it more of an entire story in its own right. Being ambitious, I opted for this.
Understand That There May Be Resistance
My class has a wide range of students, none of whom pursue acting outside school and most of whom were reluctant to create and perform their own monologue. There are hundreds of monologues already in existence. Why write our own? Since I teach at a school that has an interdisciplinary focus, I wanted to support the students’ development as writers. I also thought the monologue could be—paradoxically—a vessel for some of my more reserved students to explore their feelings, hopes, dreams, and fears.
My goal was to have a show composed of stage performances, but I gave students the choice to make a film version instead. This option accommodated those students for whom acting is an anxiety-ridden concept. After all, the performing arts program doesn’t insist that every student act, only that every student contribute toward a performance in some way. With just three lessons a week and holiday interruptions, we developed a well-rounded show in about two months. I had a clear plan to make that happen.
10 Steps to Follow in the Creative Process
1. Study examples of monologues. There are numerous excellent and free examples (search “kids/teenagers dramatic monologues” on YouTube) of short but engaging monologues performed by teenagers. These were great for analyzing the form.
2. Work on character development. Borrowing the idea of character profile sheets from role-play games, I had the students think of ideas for different characters and plan out some key facts about them: physical description, likes, dislikes, etc.
3. Improvise those characters. The unit started to come to life when we played improv acting games, such as interviewing the characters. Every student had to take their turn in the hot seat. It helped them start to find the voice, attitude, and perspective of their character.
4. Introduce the dramatic structure. Although a monologue is a very short play, I introduced the students to the basics of dramatic structure, using three acts, and a story arc.
5. Plan the story. All good writing needs planning, so we used writing frames to help plan out the story. Their scripts were split into the three-act structure but with a proportional approach, so that the students could see that the middle act takes up around half of the story. The length was around two to three pages and featured as part of an assessment for a creativity criterion.
Creative experimentation was encouraged. Two sisters worked together, blending monologues into a two-hander performance about sibling rivalry. One student wrote from the perspective of the Titanic, a fact that became apparent only in the final lines.
6. Write the first draft. With the plan sketched out, it was time to write the first draft of the script. At this point, I introduced the students to playwriting conventions and mechanics. This is usually taught in lower grades, but the pandemic interrupted the acquisition of some writing skills and exposure to less taught forms.
7. Share the drafts. Students read the scripts out to the class, and their peers gave feedback about the story and character development. This was a key time for building confidence with the script and suggesting changes to help the students fulfill their vision.
8. Write the second draft. I set aside a further week for rewriting and polishing of scripts. Students who finished early shared with each other in small groups. One student struggled with writer’s block, having abandoned a project that felt too personal. Luckily, another student wrote two scripts and donated one. In addition, the first student wasn’t penalized. Creativity can be hard and his perseverance was accepted as evidence for grading.
9. Learn lines. Once the script was complete, it was time to learn it. Some students felt suddenly daunted by this prospect. However, with reassurance, every student learned their script. The key tip was, “You already know your story, its structure, and its intention.” Realizing this was a revelation for students.
10. Rehearse onstage. We only had three weeks to rehearse the monologues, which was challenging with so many individual projects. In any given lesson, we would rotate students through the stage space, give feedback, and then send them off to practice more in another part of our common space area. In the final week, we decided on a running order and assembled the entire show. Each of the students selected an introductory song to briefly play before their monologue that connected to their theme or character.
The Monologue Topics Will Be Broad
The wide range of chosen topics was surprising, and engaging some of these included sci-fi generals debating using a world-killer weapon, a powerful message about the double-standard dress code and what it feels like to be judged as a teenage girl in our society, and a middle-aged school nurse who dislikes children but loves gossip.
Two monologues were performed on film, which suited their subject matter: a gamer who discovers that his online rival is a relative, and an Instagram musician navigating negative feedback while promoting his new album. For these students, the film option made them feel safe and more in control of the process. For other students, being onstage was a breakthrough in terms of confidence and success.
We culminated in two shows for the school community, which were a great success. The audiences were surprised at the work, and many adults commented that they couldn’t believe the students had written the monologues themselves. Belief in the creativity of our young people could be a future monologue in itself.