Writing a Monologue for Radio: A workshop for Harpenden Writers

By Jo Coleman

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On Friday 7th December 2018 it was my privilege to run another workshop for the marvellous Harpenden Writers. Having already explored with them the art of sketch-writing back in 2013, this time we were to tackle monologues, specifically those created with a radio audience in mind. In preparation for the workshop, I invited the writers to listen in advance to one of Alastair Cook’s Letters from America: ‘How ice cream changed America’. Thanks to the digital archiving of many of these BBC radio programmes, this was a simple matter of sharing a hyperlink to this.

Although this is not the dramatic form of monologue that we might think of when reminded of Shakespeare’s famous speeches and soliloquys, I wanted everyone to consider the importance of holding the attention of an audience using just a single voice. There is also a significant difference between delivering (or performing) monologues on stage to a present audience who can – let’s assume – see the way you move and can read your facial expressions, and presenting a monologue on the radio. We discussed how radio is considered to be an interactive medium, conversational almost, even though we as listeners don’t actually have the opportunity to enter into a live dialogue with the voice we are hearing, unless of course we have phoned in to contribute to the programme.

What is it about radio, a medium that feels so intimate and yet leaves so much to the imagination, that we can exploit when we create stories, reports and short feature entertainments for an unseeing (and unseen) audience? This was the question that we examined during the first part of the morning and the writers seemed encouraged and informed by their brainstormed responses in the workshop later.

From beginning to end, we shared memories and recommendations of famous dramatic monologues such as those by Joyce Grenfell, Peter Sellers’ Auntie Rotter, the performances of Bernard Miles, and renowned works that have been performed as radio monologues such as Willy Russell’s ‘Shirley Valentine’. It is interesting to note that amongst our members there are some who are not acquainted with Alastair Cook or those names just mentioned. Clearly, we’re not all representative of one particular generation, nor do we share identical cultural tastes. What richer recipe for creative inspiration could one ask for?

After coffee break atrains and buttered toastnd as a festive treat, I read aloud John Betjeman’s ‘Christmas Nostalgia’, a Radio Talk from the collection ‘Trains and Buttered Toast’. Then to warm-up for the workshop we played a game of Consequences which, believe it or not, yielded some bizarrely viable storylines.

The writers were then challenged to write a side of A4 or 300 words maximum; something that could be read aloud in no more than 3 minutes. They were free to choose their form: a short talk, memoire, rousing speech or eulogy, a re-telling of a dramatic episode or a fictional short story, even something poetic. We had time at the end of the session for a handful of the monologues to be read out by their authors; there were some gems, I can tell you.

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The plan is for the Harpenden Writers to hone their pieces and then meet with me again so that I can audio-record them reading the monologues aloud, with a view to broadcasting them on-air with a local radio station. So, watch this space, or should I say, keep your ear to the ground!

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