Many decades ago, while working with master teacher Marsha Pincus at Gratz High School, we introduced the “collaborative emotive monologue” exercise as a tool to quickly teach the concept of movement in dialogue.
The idea for the exercise had its origins in a workshop conducted when I worked as a bank teller in Manhattan’s busy garment district. The seminar goal was to teach how to move clients along more quickly without offense and to help diffuse the resentment inspired by the long lines in those pre-computer days of commerce.
The workshop facilitator described the scenario of a man who has just been released from his job without severance. He gets caught in the rain en route to a tepid cup of fast food coffee and encounters a super perky cheerleader. In most cases, her ebullient mood makes him want to slap her.
The speaker continued on to explain that emotions are organized along a continuum and that we interact best when someone is at or near our current emotional state. More importantly he asserted that we can “walk” someone up or down this emotional scale.
I hate Friday afternoons!
You got that right.
But at least the week’s almost over.
One more hour.
Then it’s party time.
Pizza and martinis!
Plus it’s Super Bowl weekend, right?
I forgot. Man, this is my favorite weekend of the whole year!!
While I cannot attest definitively to the science of this theory, a lifetime of play crafting has convinced me beyond any doubt that this device is a useful tool with which to construct dialogue. It connects one idea to the next and makes it easier for an actor to access the emotions required for a scene.
This incremental and logical advance of emotion is even more useful to an actor when he is performing a monologue. The march from one clear emotion to the next means that an actor need not struggle to manufacture feelings while he is alone onstage or interacting with a silent partner. It also creates the feeling of perpetual movement that is essential when a single actor is attempting to hold the attention of an audience.
Rather than a primal scream…
“I’m angry, I’m angry, I’m angry…”
a monologue constructed with knowledge of the tone scale becomes dynamic…
“I’m ticked off. I’m angry. I’m livid. I’m overwhelmed. I’m spent. I’m apathetic.”
and inspires an author to find novel ways to express each emotion.
HURT – I can’t believe he’d do that; not with her.
FEAR – If it’s true then it means he never loved me.
RAGE – I deserve better from both of them.
DESPAIR – And now mom can say, “I told you so,” again.
REGRET – I never should have let him into my heart.
Every talented author unconsciously applies the tone scale. We read our dialogue aloud and substitute sentences and phrases until it “feels right.” The advantage of a technical understanding of the structure of speech is that it gives us a reproducible process that can be applied consistently to improve our writing. This is why our art is called a craft and we craftsmen are dubbed “playwrights.”