As an actor in BBS’s upcoming production of Flowers of Ilium, I’m getting to do a lot of exciting, terrifying, and challenging things in collaboration with the other actors and Brandon Whitlock, our director. It’s hard to pick a favorite element of this show, but the one I want to talk about today that of the Displaced Monologue.
I love seeing Shakespearean monologues out of context, or, more specifically, put in a different context from their appearance in the plays from whence they come. The vibrant, adaptable nature of the language lends itself to vibrant, adaptable performances. I’ve spoken to members of several prominent Shakespeare companies who use their lines, instead of ad libs, to respond when something goes awry onstage or when audience members react and interact in ways unplanned. If there are limits to the versatility of the language, I haven’t found them yet.
I first discovered my fascination with Shakespearean monologues out of context when I took Doreen Bechtol’s class The Body in Performance at Mary Baldwin College. She had us each memorize a monologue from Twelfth Night, and then did a number of Viewpoints and Viewpoints-inspired exercises with us incorporating the text in non-linear ways. My favorite then, and still my favorite now, was The Chair.
Students partnered off and each pair received a folding chair. The partners were instructed to discover a series of stationary poses together and cycle through them, then Doreen told us to add our text. The seemingly random poses suddenly came to life as our monologues became dialogues, tumbling over one another in a wide range of tempos and inflections. The meanings of words and phrases changed when juxtaposed with those of another character. The poses, too, suddenly developed painful or hilarious significance when used as the context of the burgeoning scenes. Relationships began, progressed, and fizzled out, or characters circled each other like tigers and fought savagely for the upper hand. It was easy to make meaning, to instantly discover “story” in these small, intense character vignettes. Some partners had monologues from characters who were never even onstage at the same time. It didn’t matter. Wherever there is context, there is relationship. Wherever there is relationship, there is story.
As a director and a teacher I’ve done a number of similar exercises since then, encouraging actors and students to embrace the displaced monologue. I find that it helps stage actors hone the skills I value most highly: reacting in real time to what the other actor gives them, and suiting the action to the word AND the word to the action. But I’ve been missing something all this time, and that was the experience of getting to play in the sandbox of displaced text, myself, as an actor.
Enter Brandon Whitlock and his interest in devising plays based on Greek tragedies. He suggested Trojan Women, and I suggested that we use displaced monologues from Shakespeare’s displaced ladies to get around the problem of poor public domain translations and prohibitively expensive (for us, for now) works under copyright. He agreed, and set out to gather texts and exercises to lead us in creating the work we now call Flowers of Ilium.
Everything that I love about displaced monologues is in this show (we’ve even found occasions for a folding chair or two). There are moments when the words themselves are of heightened importance, but there are also many others in which the words are vehicles for sound, for invented codes of communication, to underscore movement, to facilitate change, to express pain, sorrow, and fear, but also comfort, camaraderie, and love. The same monologue can be used to seduce or assassinate, to comfort or to shame, to isolate or include. In all of these scenes, we play with our texts and our objectives in real time — we’re defining certain elements of the shape of each scene in rehearsal, but each performance of each scene is unique and fundamentally unrepeatable. You can’t fake discovery as an ensemble.