Some Notes and Tips for Monoscenes

What is a monoscene?

It’s an improv form–a structure for an improvised performance like the Harold or La Ronde.

Often in a play, a series of scenes are set in one location, all in a row with no break in time. For instance, the structure of Chekhov’s most famous plays are all pretty similar. They consist of four acts, and each act happens in a different setting. Characters enter and exit many times during the act and each time the combination of characters on stage changes, a new scene is formed. These are called French scenes.

French scenes are the building blocks of monoscenes. You start with 1-3 characters on stage doing a scene. Eventually one (or more) characters exits or enters and a new French scene occurs with the new combination of characters. There are no sweep edits or tag outs. Entering or exiting is the only way to “edit” within a monoscene. A monoscene can be 10 minutes or an hour. It’s up to you.

The term monoscene was first coined when I was working with the Swarm for their show, Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain.
The term monoscene was first coined when I was working with the Swarm for their show, Slow Waltz Around Rage Mountain.

Think of it as a series of beats

Each beat is probably around the length of a scene, between 30 seconds and 3 minutes. The lengths should vary, but most beats should be at least a minute long. If you are getting a lot of 30 second beats, you need to focus on making beats longer and holding off longer before you enter or exit.

Within a beat the characters should mostly be talking about one thing. One beat can end, and a new one can start when:

  • At least one person enters or exits.
  • One topic burns itself out and a new one begins.

No gap dialog and pauses

I’ve blogged about no gap dialog and pauses before. I think these techniques work really well in monoscenes. When someone starts a new topic of conversation, try to eliminate all gaps in your dialog. You want to speak impulsively without thinking, just respond with the first thing that comes to mind. Do this until you burn out the conversation. Then take a pause and use a non-sequitur to talk about something else.

If you find yourself talking about what you are doing or talking about anything else and it feels kinda boring, immediately change the topic of conversation. Don’t spend a whole beat talking about the dishes or whether the copier has enough paper. Change the conversation and start a new beat.

This process of bringing up new things to talk about is key to making monoscenes interesting. A common problem I see in a monoscene are characters who are so focused on one and only one thing. They don’t respond adequately to other characters and what those characters want to talk about.

A character in a monoscene should have lots to talk about on different topics and about different concerns. Yes, important ideas will keep coming back into the dialog, but don’t get stuck on one thing or one want. Let your character surprise you and the audience. A character should have some consistency in how they behave, and move and talk, and in their point of view, but they probably shouldn’t just talk about one thing.

I’m sure there are some good exceptions to this. As always, if it feels really fun to have a character always bring the conversation back to their one specific agenda, then do it and disregard this note.

Some tips for no gap dialog and pauses:

  • The better you can get at eliminating unintended pauses in your dialog, the more effective intentional pauses will become.
  • Pauses shouldn’t just come at logical times. They can come in the middle of a conversation, in weird places. One of my favorite places to take a pause is right after someone has asked a direct question of another character. After a long pause, sometimes just exit without addressing the last line. Practice doing this after a long pause as a way to avoid answering a question. Trust me, it’s a powerful move: Question, long pause and then a character leaves the stage without answering.
  • Pauses should be much longer than most people naturally allow in an improv scene. Seriously, try a 10 second pause in the dialog, especially one where everyone is still, waiting for someone else to make the next move.
  • Get in the habit of using non-sequiturs after pauses. Don’t worry about creating a segue way in the conversation, just start a new conversation on a new topic. You do this all the time with people you know well.

Entrances and Exits

Think of entrances and exits as shuffling the deck. One character leaves, two others enter. Everyone leaves except for one person. Or everyone on stage leaves, and several others enter, etc. You don’t want to be constantly shuffling your characters every 15 seconds. Let a beat come to an end and then shuffle. Once you have a stable group of people on stage, let them have at least one good beat without any entrances or exits.

Take advantage when a character leaves to change the topic. Now that they are gone, you can speak openly about how you really feel about them. Or, you can talk about a secret topic that only the remaining characters know about. Similarly, when someone new enters, maybe everyone should quickly shut up as if the new person isn’t welcome in that conversation.

Each combination of characters should have their own topics of conversation. Let say two characters have a beat at the beginning about how they are worried about Dad. Perhaps no one else ever talks openly about this until those characters are alone again much later in the form.

Drop your agenda, don’t worry about plot

If your character has an agenda and brings it up over and over again in every scene, it can get boring quick. Yes, your character has an agenda, but just like you don’t talk about your agenda constantly, your character shouldn’t either. When a new character comes in with a new topic to talk about, that’s a great time to drop your agenda and talk about the new topic. Perhaps your agenda will creep back in way that feels fun. Great! Bring it back up. But only bring it up when your gut is telling you it’s a fun choice.

If you are like me, you usually plan your first line when you walk into a scene. Do you do that in real life when you walk into a room? I certainly don’t. In real life I just enter a room and see who is there and start talking about whatever pops into my head. Try doing that in a monoscene. Just come on stage, without an agenda or first line, maybe give yourself a small task like, a reason for coming in, but once you are out there, just respond to whatever is said to you.

And forget about the plot. Don’t plan anything going forward. Try to stay in the moment and surprise yourself with every new beat that happens. If you get an idea of what should happen next, just do it right away, don’t plan it as an ending. Make it happen now when you have the impulse. The story will take care of itself.

Kevin Mullaney will be teaching the monoscene at Second City on Thursday nights beginning August 25th.

5 thoughts on “Some Notes and Tips for Monoscenes”

  1. It seems like you are using the terms “French scene” and “beat” interchangeably. Is that correct or is there a nuance I’m missing?

  2. A French scene begins and ends when a character enters or exits the scene. Within a French scene, there may be several beats. One way to shift from beat to beat is to change the subject. That is what I was trying to express.

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