In the introduction to The Playwright’s Process (1997), editor Buzz McLaughlin writes, “The word playwright suggests that plays are wrought rather than written, much as wheels were once made by wheelwrights. … And like the wheel, the play must have a hub, a center, which distributes the load evenly” (emphasis original). In my experiences as a playwright, as well as an actor and a student studying early modern, Victorian, and contemporary drama, I have found that the moments in which a play’s dramatic premise, its hub, becomes most clear are often its monologues.
When I started graduate school in 2016, I studied Shakespeare’s tragedies with Dr. Darlene Farabee at the University of South Dakota. During our discussions of Iago’s monologues in Othello, Dr. Farabee said, “When a character is speaking alone, what reason do they have to lie? When only the audience hears something, it is perfectly reasonable to assume that they are being truthful.” This link between truth and monologue validated my belief that a monologue is a window into a character’s major goals, fears, hopes, or outrages. A sustained speech from a single person in a play is a glimpse into the play’s deeper concerns, including its broader social or political implications.
Earlier in my formal education, I did not have many opportunities to write plays or monologues. Until I enrolled in playwriting my senior year of college, I had never encountered a writing assignment specifically tailored to drama. Now, as a literature and writing instructor, I wish to give my students opportunities I never had; some semesters, my students and I spend more time on drama than we do on any other genre. In a creative writing classroom, I find it especially useful to work with elements of drama like monologue and dialogue because creating speech that feels and sounds organic in performance is a transferrable skill for writing dialogue in prose genres. I aim to show my students how the boundaries of genre are more flexible than they previously thought, and that what one learns writing dialogue for real humans to speak aloud on stage is just as valuable when writing dialogue for characters who live on paper. They are still people. Their speech should still feel right for them. In my own experience in prose workshops, my peers often comment on the effectiveness and believability of my characters’ dialogue; I credit this to my time as an actress and as a playwright. When one writes a line and brings that speech into the body and it does not feel right, the writer then knows that line needs revision.
This exercise, Mystery Box Monologues, is most effective when the instructor has already worked with their class on characterization, so that the writing students do here can complement the work they have already done developing a personality and a unique voice for an individual in their story. When conducting the Mystery Box Monologues, the instructor brings to class a box containing a variety of objects—there should be enough items for each student to have something different. I usually gather items from my own home or my office. My past Mystery Boxes have included rosaries, Polaroid photos, hotel room keys, a Wonder Woman figurine, and an empty engagement ring box. Students then write a monologue in the voice of their character, telling the object’s story and its significance to their character’s world.
The writing process involves the student asking questions of their chosen object. For example, if a student selects the empty ring box, they might consider where the ring is. If the character no longer has the ring, why would they keep the empty box? If the box looks a little beat up, how might it have gotten into this condition? If they chose a hotel room key instead, where is their character traveling? Are they alone or in the company of others? And so on. The objects provide gateways for students to explore characters’ backstories and connections to material objects, which can further translate to an actor’s bond with material props on stage.
One day, I long to do this activity in coordination with an introductory acting class so that the monologues my students write can become performable pieces for acting students. The relationship between a character and their props is just as worthy of development as is the relationship between a character and their creator, or a character and their actor. Mystery Box Monologues encourages students to explore that relationship while practicing the playwright’s most fundamental dramatic building block: the monologue.
I find that my students respond best to a specific prompt, a task with clear rules that they can follow, especially in an introductory environment. If they have their chosen object in their hands, they also are better equipped to record specific tactile and/or visual details that they might overlook if they were only asked to imagine an object of significance to their character. In terms of creating a backstory for a character, having a specific object in hand can be more grounding and perhaps provide a more secure feeling for students who are new to creative writing. If one were to say, “Write the backstory for your character,” I imagine the student could be at a loss for where to begin and how to weigh what information is valuable to include. In this exercise, the student selects an object and are then asked, “What significance does this object have for your character?” It gives them a sturdier foothold as they begin the writing process because of its specific end goal: use sensory details to create a monologue in which you explore why the object matters.
In the days leading up to implementing Mystery Box Monologues, I advise instructors to spend time reading monologues, both contemporary and older pieces. The monologues can come from well-known works or be extracted like an audition piece. In my own teaching, I have my students work closely with Father Flynn’s sermons in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt (2004) and Algernon’s interrogation of Jack’s cigarette case in Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1895). Granted, these come from two of my favorite plays, so my choice is not exempt from any bias, but I do think they are terrific examples of revelatory monologues that focus on a specific object of some importance—for Father Flynn, a symbolic feather; for Algernon, an engraved cigarette case. In discussion, walk through the rhetorical and stylistic moves the playwright makes for this character: What is the problem being addressed? How does the character construct their sentences? If this piece stirs a specific emotion (anger, sadness) or reaction (surprise, laughter), how does it provoke that response? In short, take the time to work with your students to establish an understanding of what an effective monologue looks and sounds like, and be sure to let them steer that ship as much as possible.
- Have students look through the objects in the Mystery Box and select one. (5 minutes)
- Ask the students to describe the object. What do they notice? What seems odd or interesting about this object? They may do this step silently to themselves or with a partner.
- Once the students have a working description of the object, ask them to write from their character’s perspective, constructing a first-person monologue. (20 minutes)
- Have students read their work aloud. Monologues are inevitably embodied and performed, so actually hearing how an early draft sounds (and how it feels to speak it aloud) is very beneficial. During this time, other students respond to and workshop the monologue as a class. (20 minutes)
- Students submit monologues for instructor feedback.
- Optional: Pair classes with a basic acting class. Partner an actor with a writer for further workshopping and eventual performance.
Example of the Exercise
Marcus: All my friends had superhero action figures growing up. Me? I had Jesus. This little, bouncy Dashboard Jesus my mom picked up at the Goodwill in the city. The spring on my Dashboard Jesus was bent funny, so instead of bouncing upright, he kind of did this nervous wobble on a forty-five-degree angle. I didn’t have the heart to tell Mom that I didn’t believe in God. I couldn’t tell her, especially not after Dad died. She was looking for answers and found them at church; I was looking for cool toys and ended up with Dashboard Jesus—or as I called him, DJ. I kept DJ on top of the bookshelf in my room. He’d look down on me and all it did was remind me of how much I missed Dad, so after a few months I started keeping DJ out of sight. First I moved him to a different shelf, then I put him in the bottom of my sock drawer, and then he ended up in an empty shoebox in the corner of my closet. But when I went to college—I don’t know why, but I brought DJ with me. My roommate must’ve thought I was a total weirdo, some Jesus-freak Bible thumper bringing a little bobble Christ. … But I didn’t have much else from home to bring. I guess we were minimalists before minimalism was like, a thing. Yeah, I missed Dad every time I looked at DJ, but I also think Mom bought it for me because she found a way to make the world make sense again, and she wanted me to know that if I wanted it, it was there for me, too. I wish I took her up on it.
Sarah Meirose is a third-year MA English candidate with a specialization in creative writing at the University of South Dakota, where she teaches introductory composition and literature courses. Sarah received the 2018 Emily Haddad Graduate Teaching Award from USD’s English Department, and her one-act plays Sunspots and A Woman’s Gesture received USD’s Knutson Playwriting Award in 2017 and 2018, respectively. A Woman’s Gesture was also published in Literature Today in January 2018.
 Working with partners adds a different dimension to this exercise. In one instance, I had brought a Polaroid of one of my friends blowing her nose, and a student chose it. They immediately picked up on the nose-blowing, but the game changed entirely when their partner said, “It looks like she might be crying. That’s so messed up. What kind of person would take a picture of someone crying?”