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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.

on inner monologue2024-02-22T14:12:31-08:00

the trellis of acting technique


A frequent question that aspiring actors have is about technique.  If acting is a matter of instincts and impulse, as it surely is, at least in part, then why study technique?  Isn’t it going to put you in your head?  Isn’t it going to block the flow?  After all, technique, by definition, means there is a way of doing something, a right way and a wrong way, and isn’t that the opposite of doing what comes naturally and following your instincts and intuitions? Evan Yionoulis, the chair of the acting program at Juilliard, proposes a great way of thinking about this in her fantastic new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting:

Some actors fear that technique will rob them of spontaneity and freedom and be a kind of straitjacket that will block them from their instincts and some sort of unexpected magic. On the contrary, technique is what allows an actor to be truly and consistently open and available. Think of technique as a trellis. (A trellis is one of those, often wooden, frameworks that support vines and other plants as they climb up the sides of buildings. The crisscrossing strips of wood usually form a pattern of open diamonds.) Technique provides a structure through which the intuition may freely move. If the intuition is flowing—if the vine is climbing—technique, like the trellis, doesn’t interfere. But if, at this rehearsal or in this performance or for this take, intuition seems to have abandoned you, you’ll have the structure of your technique for support until it returns.

So technique is there to support you in moments when you find yourself at sea, when your instincts seem to have abandoned you.  It doesn’t (or shouldn’t) impede the flow of intuition and impulse when it is not needed.

There’s also the matter of consistency across multiple performances or takes.

Some people might think that working in film or television is easier for the actor. After all, you only have to get it right once. The reality on set, however, is that there’s rarely time—because time is expensive!—to do a scene over and over until a particular actor—or every actor—manages to do their best work. When working on camera, you have to give a full, truthful, and seemingly effortless performance on demand. There’s no way to rewind a sunset or crash another car or two to accommodate blunders or an “off” performance. You have to get it “right” the “once” when it counts! And when several angles of a particular scene are filmed, you have to do so in a consistent way in every take so that the editor can fashion the various shots into a coherent whole.

So technique can support you in having to provide a consistent performance across many repetitions.  I once spoke to a student of mine who had just come off his first experience playing the lead role in a feature film.  I asked him what surprised him about the experience.  He said he was surprised by how many times he was required to repeat things, and that the director wanted the same performance in every repetition.  In these kind of situations, technique is invaluable.

Acting will always be both an art and a craft.  To the extent it is an art, things like instinct, intuition and impulse are indispensable.  Technique is there to help us consistently access our instincts, intuitions and impulses.

the trellis of acting technique2024-02-19T01:51:18-08:00

“a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”

In the preface to her outstanding new book Listening and Talking A Pathway to Acting, Evan Yionoulis, head of the acting program at Juilliard, mentions her teacher at the Yale School of Drama, David Hammond, and credits him with providing “a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”. So what is this notion of stimuli that is so life-changing? She doesn’t outright define stimuli, but it becomes clear from her discussions of them that she is talking about sensory matter that the character “bumps up” against: things the character can see, hear, taste, touch or smell. Over the course of the book, she provides examples based on work on a short play by John Patrick Shanley called A Lonely Impulse of Delight. The play is about two friends, Walter and Jim, visiting Central Park Lake at two in the morning, because one friend has something he wants to show the other. In discussing how the actor playing Walter, who is expecting his mermaid lover at any moment, might plant stimuli in the scene environment, she writes the following:

Scene work at Andrew Wood Acting Studio #6


Some stimuli in Walter’s romantic, middle of the night park might be: the gentle rustle of leaves in the wind (sound and sensation), a bright white or harvest-orange moon, fireflies, cooing birds, the distant glow of city lights, the lapping of water on the sandy shore or rocky outcroppings, the smell of honeysuckle, the dappled moonlight on the water and through the leaves of trees, the gentle croaking of frogs.

So here we see that stimuli (or triggers) are sensory stuff that the actor playing Walter might “bump up” against or encounter prior to or during the course of the play. The potential stimuli that Walter’s friend Jim, who is resistant to being in the park at that hour, might find are quite different:

Jim’s park might include: scary shadows, the sound of sirens racing down Fifth Avenue or up Central Park West, mysterious rustlings in the bushes, the buzzing of mosquitos, occasional raised voices from deeper in the park—are they shrieks of joy or terror?—the smell of urine, barking dogs, the hoot of an owl, the howl of a . . . not sure what, the squish of the muddy bank, an abundance of goose and occasional dog droppings dotting the patchy grass, treacherously slippery boulders, broken glass under a flickering street lamp, abandoned litter washing up on the shore—cigarette butts, deli wrappers, coffee cups, an old syringe.

These two examples make it clear what Yionoulis has in mind when she speaks of stimuli: sensory input that the actor can “bump up” against in the course of playing the scene. The physical environment of the scene should be “loaded” with stimuli, but stimuli are to be found in the character’s past history as well, as I discussed in my post on personalization and as Yionoulis describes in her book. In fact, the actor’s homework, according to Yionoulis, is practically solely concerned with identifying stimuli that the character has experienced or might experience along her journey:

In the analysis phase of the work, your job is to identify stimuli and triggers in the world of the play that have affected or might affect your character. You’ll imaginatively “bump up” against stimuli from your character’s past during your personalization process and encounter others from their present during the action of the play itself. At that time, your response to each stimulus will lead you to the next point in your character’s path…Part of your homework—which continues into rehearsal—is to make objects in the world of the play—and, by extension, all the circumstances of your character’s life— specific and resonant. You want to uncover—and plant—potent stimuli.

The sequence of stimuli that the actor encounters across the arc of the play is called the path. Much of the path will be made up of the lines of the other actor/characters, but that is not the only source of stimuli or triggers, as Yionoulis has demonstrated. So what about stimuli and the path is life-changing for Yionoulis? Yionoulis says at one point that stimuli work “in and on the body”. The senses involve our nervous system and in that sense our body, and by identifying stimuli that have affected or may affect the character, we are imprinting ourselves in a physical manner with the stuff that makes up the character’s reality. And that, I think, can be life-changing.

“a life-changing understanding of stimuli and the path”2024-02-19T03:44:25-08:00
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