Sometimes, less is more.
One-person plays, often called one-man or one-woman shows (which we think is perhaps a bit reductive, so we’re going to call them one-person plays) are a unique spin-off to the modern theatrical form. Finding their origins in oration, lecture and poetry recital, the 20th century saw the play for a single actor take a foothold amongst the vast contemporary canon.
One-person plays are often intimate, direct and wholly engaging. They demand intense investment from audience and creative team alike to pull off. They also present an enormous challenge for the actor, who is tasked with carrying the whole damn show on their own back. Often a mix of narration, physical expression, dialogue and even a bit of stand up comedy, it’s acting without a safety net: there are no exits, no fellow actors to rely on, and often little in the way of set or props. Just you, the audience, and pages of text with which to weave some magic.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at a selection of the very best one-person plays to sink your teeth into.
I Am My Own Wife
by Doug Wright
First performed by legendary Broadway actor Jefferson Mays, Doug Wright’s astounding I Am My Own Wife first opened in 2003 and won just about every major theatrical prize possible. It’s the story of real world German antiquarian Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a transgender woman who lived through the Nazi regime in wartime Germany, before running a museum that became a meeting place for the gay community of East Berlin. The actor must take on a whopping forty-odd characters, often portraying them in conversation, so get your vocal warm-ups on point – you’re going to need to be flexible!
Thom Pain, Based On Nothing
by Will Eno
Darkly comic, meditative and strange, Will Eno’s iconic rollercoaster of a monologue netted him a Pulitzer Prize nomination in 2005. Part fourth-wall busting stand-up, part spoken-word surrealism, the titular Thom has been played by some of our finest modern actors, from Michael C Hall to Toby Schmitz, and demands from its actor enough wiles to be two steps ahead of his unsuspecting audience at all times. Still, it remains supremely accessible to a young male actor looking for a contemporary piece with shades of Hamlet, if you’re into that sort of thing.
I mean, really, it must be based on something.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
By Nassim Soleimanpour
And now for something completely different. White Rabbit Red Rabbit is a monologue designed to be performed entirely unrehearsed by a different actor for each night of its run. Sealed in an envelope and left on stage for its presumably nerve-wracked performer to find and open upon lights up, this unknown and unknowable piece by Iranian playwright Nassim Soleimanpour has been a smash hit across the globe. We’d tell you what it’s about, but that would be the magician revealing the secret to their trick, so we’re not going to.
by George Brant
As electric as it is timely, Grounded is a scorching piece from the perspective of a female drone pilot, working and operating death drones over the Middle East from a bunker in Nevada. Grounded by her unexpected pregnancy, the once-ace fighter pilot now grapples with remote controlled drone warfare and its rippling effects on her home life, as the play explores what it means to fight a war from a point of complete disconnection. Grounded is a powerful piece for a female actor.
Krapp’s Last Tape
By Samuel Beckett
Renowned absurdist playwright Sam Beckett’s semi-autobiographical Krapp’s Last Tape carries as much of a legacy as the man himself. On his 69th birthday and nearing the end of his life, the sardonically named Krapp pores over a lifetime of tapes he has recorded of himself as a younger man, recounting a life of lost hope, despair and regret. Krapp’s Last Tape is one of Beckett’s most frequently performed dramas, and has been delivered by many of the world’s leading actors and theatrical figures, including Beckett’s contemporary and master of menace Harold Pinter in 2006. The play is a master work, and the part of Krapp has been described by author Daniel Sack as “one of the greatest in the English language.” If you’ve yet to read Krapp’s Last Tape, consider it a priority.
Fires in the Mirror
by Anna Deavere Smith
Fires in the Mirror comprises a collection of monologues taken from transcripts of real people, collated and arranged by Anna Deavere Smith, concerning the Crown Heights Riots in Brooklyn, NY in the summer of 1991. It is considered a pioneering work in verbatim theatre, a genre which would give rise to some contemporary American classics, such as The Laramie Project. Performed originally by Smith herself, the actor speaks the real verbatim words of the African-American and Jewish residents of the neighbourhood of Crown Heights, as well as various leading public figures – so the casting here is critical. If you’re interested in verbatim theatre, Fires in the Mirror is a fantastic place to start. Smith has written several other brilliant one woman shows; another one to check out is 2016’s Notes from the Field.
A Room of One’s Own
by Virginia Woolf
“A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction…”
Strictly speaking, in its original form, A Room of One’s Own was formed out of a series of iconic feminist lectures given by Woolf at two women’s colleges at Cambridge in 1928. First lecture-performance, then essay-novella, it has been adapted in various forms for the stage since, sometimes as a piece for several actors, sometimes as a one-woman show. A fierce polemic call for women’s autonomy in the male-dominated world of literature and art, A Room of One’s Own is one of the 20th centuries most important feminist works, making it perfect fodder for the contemporary stage. Eileen Atkin’s performance of the work in 1991 will be etched forever on theatre’s honour board.
The Vagina Monologues
by Eve Ensler
You might have seen this one coming. The Vagina Monologues is perhaps the most famous one-woman show of all, owing to its incredible impact as a piece of contemporary political theatre. Originally staged as a solo performance by Ensler in 1996, it has since been performed by casts of multiple women, trans women, and in various languages across the world. Its power as a solo piece remains, and it can certainly be mined for monologues if you’re searching for a shorter piece to perform. If you haven’t read it, it remains a critical feminist text.
There’s always more, of course. Many one-person plays are written and performed by the same person, and as such their texts are sometimes difficult to track down. That being said, here is a short list of some other one-person plays we recommend checking out:
- Dog and Mother by Daniel Keene
- Bridge and Tunnel and Buy/Sell/Date by Sarah Jones
- World Without End by Holly Hughes
- A Bronx Tale by Chazz Palminteri
- Shirley Valentine by Willy Russell
- Satchmo at the Waldorf by Terry Teachout
- The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- A Girl is a Half Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, adapted by Annie Ryan
- The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin by Steve J Spears
- Lackawanna Blues by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
- and just about anything from Spalding Gray…!