on inner monologue

In her new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, chair of the Acting program at Juilliard, describes a technique for inner monologue as a rehearsal technique.

By inner monologue we mean the progression of sensory stimuli that form the character’s path through the action of a scene.

Here, Yionoulis is talking about stimuli, which I discussed in my previous post. Stimuli are sensory perceptions that the actor/character¨bumps up against¨ in the course of playing the role. She tells us:

A stimulus can be a tangible object in the play’s physical world, something existing in the character’s reality that can be either actually present for the actor—…—or imagined by them—…. It could also be an inner object, something not physically present in the character’s reality but rather living in their “mind’s eye.” For example, as I type these words, my attention is directed to the touch of the keys on my computer keyboard and the image of the accumulating letters appearing on the screen. I hear my husband rustling papers in another room and the sound of chirping birds and playing children out the window. I’m aware of the faint taste of jasmine tea in my mouth and the smell of lotion on my hands. These are actual stimuli present for me in this moment. I might also focus my attention on you, sometime in the future, reading this. Or look at my watch and remember that my daughter is at the airport about to board a plane. You and my daughter exist for me in this moment as inner objects. My attention goes to you, but you’re not in the physical space with me. Both inner and actual objects will be important elements along the path we’re building. (Of course, we’re using the word “object” quite expansively, to mean anything we might see, hear, touch, or otherwise perceive.)

So there are two types of stimuli: actual objects, which are part of the character´s immediate reality, whether real or imagined, and inner objects, which are objects not in the same physical space as the character. And note that she indicates that by object we really mean any sensory perception.

inner monologue

So far so good. Now we are ready to consider inner monologue. Yionoulis says that sometimes inner monologue is conceived of as the character´s thoughts, such as ´It´s cold out here. We should go inside.¨ But this is not what she has in mind:

However, we want to keep our interactions as physical and immediate as the tossing of the ball, an enterprise of the body rather than the mind. By the time our thinking proceeds from image to the conscious realm of words and sentence formulation, we´re already a step removed from the pure ball in play.

Throughout her book, Yionoulis uses the metaphor of tossing a ball to conceive of the exchange of energy that acting entails.

So what does this inner monologue actually look like?

For a particular scene my inner monologue may be: foghorn, lighthouse, ships, waves, rocks, cliff, wind, stairs, lamp, kitchen, chowder, mother. As I speak the words simply and without predetermined expression, I allow myself to receive from each stimulus, seeing the lighthouse or hearing the foghorn or smelling the chowder. I range freely from stimulus to stimulus, from actual objects to inner ones and back again, letting associations happen as they will.

Inner monologue consists of verbally delineating the stimuli that the actor encounters in the course of playing out a situation or a scene. Yionoulis cautions about trying to ´narrate´ the situation as you name the stimuli:

When using this exercise in rehearsal, resist the impulse to perform the inner monologue by expressing your point of view about the stimuli you’re identifying. Don’t try to convey a story to the director or other actors. No one needs to understand that you’re smelling the chowder rather than seeing it or that you’re both feeling and hearing the wind. You don’t need to let us know that you’re seeing the lighthouse keeper racing up the spiral staircase toward the lamp while her son carefully ladles chowder into bowls. You don’t need to communicate that your character’s dear departed mother used to make chowder, the taste of which you’ve always found . . . unappealing. The goal of the exercise is for you to experience viscerally what you receive from the images you’re taking the time to identify and from the chains of association you’re allowing yourself to explore.

She closes her discussion with the following reminder:

Again, we limit the words spoken to a simple voicing of images, rather than a complex verbal formation, in order to keep us in a physical relationship with the imaginative world rather than an intellectual one.

The power of this approach to inner monologue lies in its immediacy: it keeps the actor directly processing her reality, rather than ruminating on it.

The stockpile of possible stimuli that the actor can draw on when engaging in inner monologue is greatly enlarged by the process of personalization. As the actor imaginatively explores his given circumstances and discovers stimuli therein, these stimuli become fodder for the actor´s inner monologue.

Inner monologue can seem foreign at first, but it´s a muscle like any other. The more you train it, the stronger it gets. It´s a valuable tool for exploring a character´s inner life in a given scene. It´s worth the effort of learning to use it.