Last April, for one night only, Monologue Madness gave a packed house of spectators 54 first impressions of a wide array of local and regional actors. But that night also provided a larger first impression: one of a big-hearted, enterprising new entertainment event in its inaugural year.
On Sunday, April 1st, the second annual showcase once again found series creator and producer Edward Daniels running around, this time at The Writer’s Center in Bethesda. With a few helpers, Daniels supervised a pool of talented contestants (this year trimmed at the outset from 54 to 32) through five rounds of bracketed tournament-style competition in front of another packed house, and a panel of 10 judges.
“I’m really happy,” said Daniels, who is an actor himself. “This is a great chance to show audiences, acting teachers, and casting agents what we do for a living every day.”
An open-call preliminary round in March brought in 120 actors. “This past year the interest from actors has been huge,” Daniels said. “When registration opened in January, people started signing up before I even publicized it.”
With such an array of prizes, no wonder interest was high. This year’s winner, Aviva Pressman, walks away with $1,000 plus a hefty grab bag of career-advancing awards. A local actress and a company member with the theatre troupe Flying V, Pressman is currently in rehearsal for Five Little Monkeys at Adventure Theatre and will appear in Marathon ’33 at The American Century Theater this summer.
DC Theatre Scene sat down with Pressman this week to collect her thoughts in the wake of an unusual — and, in her words, very surprising — success.
Were you expecting to win?
No. I mean, we all plan on winning. But it’s anyone’s game.
How did you feel when you won?
It’s really exciting. I’m hoping this can help open some doors for me. Everyone likes money, so the cash prize is nice. But especially winning six one-on-one casting sessions in New York, plus classes at John Pallotta Studio. It’s always great to get free training.
Going in, were you thinking about your odds?
You’ve just got to go round by round. I felt pretty confident about winning that first round, which is Comedy. That’s a strength of mine. I did a monologue I pieced together from Lost in Yonkers.
How do you rehearse a comedy monologue? How do you know if you’re funny or not?
I have a really good sense of that. I have a much better sense of whether I’m funny than whether or not I’m really nailing a dramatic monologue. I’m just a lot more comfortable physically in comedy. I used to have a teacher who’d tell me that my biggest weakness was that I was afraid of my own stillness. I’ve worked on that a lot, but that still makes comedy easier for me.
So, you also have monologues you chose not to do on Sunday.
I’m a monologue monster. I have maybe 25 monologues in my head. Some of them I’ve never even used for an audition. But I have them, and I could potentially pull them out. Also, I’m a Gemini. Maybe that has something to do with it. I can’t stick with one monologue for too long or I start to resent it or something.
It’s fascinating to see how thin the line can be between what makes a monologue comic or dramatic.
Some of the comic monologues on Sunday were touching on a deep level, and some of the dramatic monologues were very funny.
It’s great. That’s partly about the size of the situation. When a character is really desperate, for example, sometimes it comes off as funny.
So, after the Comedy round came Dramatic. How did you feel going into that one?
The funny thing is, they announce who is advancing to the next round immediately before that round starts. So, just in case I was called to advance, I started preparing my dramatic monologue from the moment I came off stage from the comic monologue. You have to be able to go right back out there right away. I did a monologue from The Most Massive Woman Wins, which is all about emotionally connecting. If I can’t at least get my eyes to well up with some tears, it’s not really as effective as it should be.
Then, straight on into the Classical round.
We were seeded in advance, so I knew that in the Classical round I’d be going up against John C. Bailey, who won this competition last year. I ended up changing my Shakespeare monologue that morning in a fit of nervousness.
I was going to do this piece from Troilus and Cressida, which is so funny when I can land it. But I don’t feel confident that I can land it 100 percent of the time. And it’s the sort of piece that turns really awkward and bad when you don’t land it. So I went with a piece I haven’t done before, an Olivia monologue from Twelfth Night. It worked out for me.
For the fourth round, with only four actors left, the judges handed you all a cold read — a monologue you’d never seen before. What ran through your head in that moment?
Go big or go home. Seriously. I just thought: I’m going to make some big choices. They might be wrong, but, at that point, it’s better to be wrong than to be safe. I didn’t try to create a particular character. I was just focused on making every moment different than the moment before.
Then for the fifth round, which pitted you against Theodore Sneed, you did the cold read again with an adjustment from the judges. You seemed to roll with it, really well.
See, this is the thing about competitions for something as subjective as acting. If it had been a different kind of monologue, I totally might not have won at all. But this cold read fit me really well — it was goofy and sort of awkward, like me.
Was there a moment where you thought, I didn’t think I would make it this far?
I didn’t think that I was going to beat John in the Classical round. When they called my name afterward, I was shocked.
The contestants all shared a big waiting room in-between rounds. What was it like back there?
Everyone was super-friendly. People were helping each other out. It was a great environment. Edward did a really great job of producing this, and creating an environment that wasn’t cut-throat. It was much more about having some fun. I met a lot of really cool people.
And a sold-out house, too!
So cool! I didn’t invite anyone, because I didn’t want to embarrass myself by getting cut in the first round. But other people invited their whole family!
Do you think you’ll do it again next year?
I don’t know. Maybe. When John C. Bailey walked into the room this year, the other actors quieted down and watched him. LIke they could figure out some secret by watching him. I don’t think I could handle that. He’s a lot cooler than I am. I don’t know if I’m cool enough to go back there.
Do you think winning will change how you go about the next few months?
I am hoping that this has given me some exposure and some more credibility as an actor. I’m hoping that it will help me get into more auditions and hopefully get cast more. And I can put it on my resumé. I mean, it’s an acting competition. It’s not a Tony Award. I don’t feel like I’ve changed my life forever because of it. But I feel very grateful that it happened, and I’m very excited about the connections I made. That’s the biggest thing.
Are there monologues you read that you know immediately you would never use in an audition?
Absolutely. I don’t generally do well with young, sweet, naive, non-comedic ingenue types, but it depends. You have to connect to a monologue instinctively. Sometimes I wonder if a monologue will show me off enough. But I think that if you connect to it, usually it will show you off.
What’s the weirdest place you’ve ever pulled a monologue from?
At a Juilliard callback once, they asked to see something really simple and still. They wanted to see me fight for a strong objective calmly. The first thing that popped into my head was a Shylock monologue I had worked on in voice class in college. So I tried it. Why not?
Do you ever pull monologues from TV or movies?
I do have a monologue that I pulled from “Law and Order.” It’s a transgender person talking about having their nose broken and their hair set on fire. I don’t have a lot of opportunities to use that one.
And you sing too, right?
Yeah. I was really thinking about doing “It’s Not Easy Being Green” as my dramatic song for the Actors’ Center lottery auditions, but I decided it didn’t show off my voice enough.
You could try doing it as a straight dramatic monologue.
Yes… It’s not easy. Being green…