Sometimes, less is more.
One-person plays, often called one-man or one-woman shows (which we think is perhaps a bit reductive) occupy a unique space in modern theatre. Finding their origins in oration (the foundation of all modern Western drama), as well as lecture and poetry recital, the 20th century saw the play for a single actor take a strong foothold in the vastness of the contemporary canon.
Updated October 7th, 2022.
One-person plays are often intimate, forthright and engaging; much of an actor’s efforts usually concentrated on other performers is focused directly towards the audience. They present an enormous challenge for the performer, who is tasked with carrying the whole damn show on their back using a mixture of skills such as narration, physical expression, character work, dialogue and even 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 them, the audience, and pages of text with which to weave some magic.
But there is magic to be had. For actors who love the process of script analysis and creating layered characters, there is a wealth of material to work from in a one-person text. And as the actor/audience relationship is so close by default, the opportunity to make strong emotional connections and convey ideas are unparalleled in all dramatic forms. They are some of the hardest pieces an actor can perform, but one-person shows can be infinitely rewarding to all involved.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at a selection of the very best contemporary one-person plays to sink your teeth into:
Suzie Miller (2019)
Tessa, a young and brilliant barrister, has fought her entire life to overcome modest beginnings and reach the top of her field. However, after a devastating event in her personal life forces her to the outside of a system she once operated within, Tessa must confront the inequities of gender, class and privilege inherent in the legal system. Prima Facie first took Australia by storm in 2019, going on to receive multiple accolades and seasons before heading across the pond for its West End debut staring Jodie Comer. A fantastic recording of this performance is available via the National Theatre Online portal.
I Am My Own Wife
Doug Wright (2003)
First performed by legendary Broadway actor Jefferson Mays, Doug Wright’s astounding I Am My Own Wife 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!
The Year of Magical Thinking
Joan Didion (2007)
Based on the 2005 memoir of the same name, The Year of Magical Thinking documents Joan Didion’s attempts to process and overcome her grief following the death of her husband and, later, her daughter. Much like the book, it explores real events, scientific and medical theories as well as Didion’s own inner life and musings on her tragic situation. It’s a tough watch in some respects, especially for those who may have experienced similar events and emotions in their lives. But, as it proves to be for Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking is ultimately an uplifting and cathartic experience.
Willy Russell (1986)
The titular Shirley is a beloved character in contemporary theatre. Feeling stagnant in her life, stuck in her ways with a family and husband who fail to see her (let alone respect her), she packs her bags and heads off on a holiday to Greece to relax and find herself. And find herself she does… Shirley Valentine is an influential piece of theatre, that does wonders in capturing the story of a woman who decides to abandon passivity to fight for her own self-worth.
Thom Pain, Based On Nothing
Will Eno (2004)
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. Thom demands its actor has enough wiles to be two steps ahead of its 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. Surely: it must be based on something.
Every Brilliant Thing
Duncan MacMillan (2013)
While we’ve got you on a fourth-wall-break roll… The plot of Every Brilliant Thing is simple enough—a young boy decides to catalogue a list of things worth living for after a parent’s suicide attempt—but the way in which is told creates a total sense of connection between actor and audience. Every Brilliant Thing is a show often performed with the house lights up, so that the performer might interact and call on the audience to help them through the story. They might speak a few (pre-written) lines as a doctor, hold a prop that doubles for a beloved pet. It’s a unique experience: a show you have to experience to fully appreciate.
White Rabbit Red Rabbit
Nassim Soleimanpour (2010)
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.
George Brant (2013)
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
Samuel Beckett (1958)
Krapp’s Last Tape, a semi-autobiographical piece by renowned absurdist playwright Samuel Beckett, 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 masterwork, 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 experience this modern classic, consider it a priority.
Death of England
Clint Dyer and Roy Williams (2020)
Michael stands on stage, wedged between his father’s coffin and the audience, and delivers a (drunken?) eulogy of the late legend. However, it doesn’t take him long before he’s berating the audience, challenging them and himself about his father’s toxic views in life and how they reflect a post-Brexit England in an identity crisis. Rafe Spall brought Michael to life in the original production with unmatched fervour. Later in 2020, the writers created and released a companion piece Death of England: Delroy that acted as a response to the first. It is an equally powerful example of a one-person play.
Fires in the Mirror
Anna Deavere Smith (1992)
Fires in the Mirror consists of 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 classics such as The Laramie Project and Yellow Face. 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 worth your time is 2016’s Notes from the Field.
A Room of One’s Own
Virginia Woolf (1929)
“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 century’s 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
Eve Ensler (1996)
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.
“Nights in the Gardens of Spain” from Talking Heads
Alan Bennett (1998)
While not strictly a play, Alan Bennett wrote monologue collection Talking Heads for the BBC in 1988, and followed up with a seconds series a decade later. Every single piece is worth an actor’s time, infused with Bennett’s signature humour and insight on subjects as varied as love, family, class and mortality. It is hard to single out any one monologue, but our choice for this list is “Nights in the Gardens of Spain”; a delicate and yet disturbing piece originally performed to perfection by the great Penelope Wilton. In 2020, eight of the pieces were re-filmed, and two new stories were debuted.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge (2013)
Waller-Bridge’s famed one-person show debuted at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013, where it won her critical acclaim. It was later adapted by the BBC (in partnership with Amazon Studios) into one of the most celebrated contemporary comedy series of its time. Waller-Bridge mixes humour and tragedy with ease as she tells the story of a supremely flawed, unlikeable and yet endearing character. While it is a piece very much associated with its creator, the play itself is still worth reading and performing for any actor keen to study how a remarkable piece of storytelling comes together on stage.
There’s always more, of course. Many one-person plays are written and performed by the same person; 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:
- Iphogenia in Splott (2015) by Gary Owen
- Dog (2000) and Mother (2015) by Daniel Keene
- Bridge and Tunnel (2004) by Sarah Jones
- World Without End (1989) by Holly Hughes
- A Bronx Tale (1989) by Chazz Palminteri
- Satchmo at the Waldorf (2015) by Terry Teachout
- A Girl is a Half Formed Thing (2013) by Eimear McBride, adapted by Annie Ryan
- The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (1976) by Steve J Spears
- Lackawanna Blues (2001) by Ruben Santiago-Hudson
- “iphigenia in orem” and “medea redux” from bash: latterday plays (1999) by Neil LaBute
- Berlin/Wall (2009) by David Hare
- And just about anything from Spalding Gray…