Can you imagine Simon as a kid? His imaginary friends probably never wanted to play with him. ~Paula Abdul
When my acting students prepare an audition monolog, they must know their vis-à-vis.
Vis-à-vis is a technical acting term for the other (imaginary) character to whom an actor is speaking.
Michael Shurtleff, one of the nation’s most successful acting coaches, recommends that the actor “bring a friend on stage with you so it won’t seem so lonely up there during your dreadful little monolog.” What he means is that the actor must have someone up there who they’re trying to influence in order for the monolog to work as it should. Without this other character on stage resisting, attacking, rejecting, or even ignoring them, then their performance will tend to be limp and flaccid, unfocused and lacking in energy. (Audition Monologs for Student Actors, Roger Ellis)
One of my acting students is preparing a heart-wrenching competition piece about a girl who was duped into participating in sexual activity by her high school coach. While her performance will be viewed by an audience and several judges, if she accomplishes the emotional impact she’s shooting for, she must create an imaginary audience on stage. She must pick someone to specifically tell her story to.
A vis-à-vis adds the needed conflict. If her imaginary audience is her best friend and her best friend is headed down the same path and she’s trying to stop her, but her best friend doesn’t want to stop…conflict. Does the actress actually call the best friend by name or point her out to the audience? No. But she sees her in her mind at all times. And everything she communicates—her stupidity, her guilt, her temporary happiness—everything will be said in the context of trying to convince her friend not to make the same mistake.
Author Lloyd Alexander says, “Using the device of an imaginary world allows me in some strange way to go to the central issues – it’s one of many ways to express feelings about real people, about real human relationships.”
In our writing, we often have characters on stage alone, even when other characters are in the scene. Try some vis-à-vis. Who is that protagonist trying to convince? Their own struggling conscience? Their disapproving friend? A dead parent? God?
Put someone on the stage with them who disapproves or disagrees and watch the conflict transform a flat character into a three-dimensional person.