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) 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.
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 you, 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:
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 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. 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.
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
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.
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 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
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 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
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.
“Nights in the Gardens of Spain” from Talking Heads
by Alan Bennett
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.
by Phoebe Waller-Bridge
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 by Gary Owen
- 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
- “iphigenia in orem” and “medea redux” from bash: latterday plays by Neil LaBute
- and just about anything from Spalding Gray…