Bechdel Testing The Mono Box
The Mono Box is a London-based collaborative network who, amongst other fabulous things (running workshops, panels, and advice forums), own a collection of over 3000 plays which they regularly open for anyone who wants to browse their mighty shelves of scripts in search of monologues, duologues and general inspiration. If you haven't visited yet, get some of these dates in your diary to join in with some of their autumn events.
All of the plays in The Mono Box's ever-growing library are donated by industry professionals in response to the question, “If you could recommend one play to a young actor to read, what would it be?" - and many of them contain lovely handwritten messages of recommendation from their donor. It's a brilliantly encouraging thing to pick up a text you like the look of and find a note from a personal hero or theatre legend telling you why they love this play and which line, scene, or monologue is their favourite. As a browsing experience, this is a mega step up from impersonal bookshop or library browsing - and some of the plays they've gathered are less often available in libraries or shops. It's a vital resource for anyone without the disposable income to throw at ordering every play you've ever heard of - especially considering the sad recent closure of Samuel French's central London bookshop.
The geniuses at The Mono Box have devised a clever page-marking system for anyone seeking great monologues or duologues - so if you're browsing with purpose, whether you have an audition or showcase looming or just want to freshen up your repertoire, there are colour-coded tags in many of the scripts to help you find recommended scenes. This summer they've been taking this system further, diving in to look in more detail about the collection and explore the contents and contexts of the plays that have been donated so far.
This is where Bechdel Theatre come in!
We brought along our "Bechdel Test Pass!" stickers to identify every script in The Mono Box collection that features two women talking to each other about something other than a man. With a team of brilliant volunteers we systematically flipped through script after script, weeding out those with no female characters, and the ones where the female characters are kept separate from one another, until we came to scenes featuring two women - and this is where things get really interesting.
The conversations provoked by the third question in the Bechdel test: "Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?" was by far the most stimulating of discussion. On discovering an interesting scene between two women, the team of volunteers would often stop to gather around, read the scene and ask more complicated questions, such as: What brought these characters together? How long do they spend talking to each other? What's their relationship? What are they talking about? What are they REALLY talking about? Is it a turning point in the play? Is one or both of them driving the plot? If they mention a man, is he the main topic of conversation, or is it a passing reference to him amongst a deeper discussion about something more significant in their lives?
Rummaging through The Mono Box, we found Bechdel test passing plays rare enough to be exciting, but less elusive than we expected. We were pleasantly surprised by plays we weren't expecting to pass: older plays by male writers, plays with more men than women. We were fascinated by characters with gender unspecified, and some where women play men. The conversations surrounding the plays kept us busier than expected. Most excitingly, we found so many passes that we had to print extra stickers!
The full stats from our search are in the process of being digitalised (ooh), and will be added to as The Mono Box collection increases (if you have any scripts gathering dust on your shelves they're open for donations). But for now, here's a little taster of some of The Mono Box scripts that we particularly enjoyed discovering more about, and provoked some interesting discussions and debates during our week-long excavation.
Mary Stuart - Fredrich Schiller (1800)
Published by Oberon Books
In this classic German play, Schiller gives us not just one mighty queen but two: Mary Stuart and Elizabeth I, who meet when Catholic Mary (Queen of Scots) is imprisoned to stop her from making a claim to her English Protestant cousin's throne. While Mary awaits Elizabeth's declaration of her fate, various male characters arrive and stir up trouble for each of them, but ultimately Elizabeth is the one who decides Mary's fate, and the tension between the two women entirely drives the plot of the play and their meeting provides its most compelling moments of drama.
The Almeida's recent production of Mary Stuart gave audiences the opportunity to see two phenomenal women in their 50s (Juliet Stevenson and Lia Williams) take turns playing the two lead roles (finding out who would play who on the night by tossing a coin) in a show that raised nationally relevant themes in the wake of Brexit-provoked rumblings of Scottish independence. Frequently staged across the world, any production of this play is worth its salt in that it gives experienced female actors a pair of roles that allow them to fully stretch and flex their mighty acting muscles in a play that addresses the hefty topics of politics, philosphy and religion as well as the queens' relationships with each other and the men around them.
Robert Icke's critically acclaimed production of Mary Stuart is transferring from The Almeida to the Duke of York's Theatre in January 2018.
A Woman of No Importance - Oscar Wilde (1893)
New Mermaid Edition published by Bloomsbury Books
The woman of the title is middle-aged single mother Mrs Arbuthnot who has struggled devotedly to bring up her son in socially restrictive and judgemental Victorian England. Gender and class prejudices and oppression intertwine and overlap knottily in this play, and Oscar Wilde's own opinions on the subjects seem (to some) to contradict each other - he gives the villainous rake and absent father Lord Illingworth all the best lines, and the wronged Mrs Arbuthnot, despite her independence, seems to have spent years in his absence obsessing over the way he treated her. The puritanical Hester is searing in her take-down of English society's inequalities and hypocrisy, but the women who mock her do so in a comical manner that is far more entertaining to listen to than any of her moralising. This conflict seems to be at the heart of a lot of Wilde's work - he portrays the seductiveness of selfishness and the charming confidence of the extremely privileged with an irresistibly watchable flourish that similtaneously satirises how awful they are, and makes it easy to empathise with the characters who get taken in by them.
The plot of this play may be simple, but the issues addressed are complex and multi-layered, and the characters are appropriately well-developed and muti-faceted. Mrs Arbuthnot's devotion to her son and her hatred for his father pull her in all directions, and give her brilliantly simultaneous inter-linked motivations. She is strong, steadfast and independent in her resistance to 'repent' for the affair that resulted in her son, but vulnerable and emotionally affected by the unexpected appearance of the ex, from whom she wants to escape at all costs. She's inconsistent and changable in ways that make her seem not just human and complicated, but distinctly modern in her awareness of and anger at the society which has trapped her in the position that she finds herself in. Likewise, the moralising Hester, who far from being the stereotypical goody-goody that she seems at the beginning of the play, turns out to be the most genuine heart of it - falling in love with Mrs Arbuthnot's son and allying herself with them in sympathy with (and not in spite of) the 'sinful' origins of their family. Hester recognises true goodness in people, is not for one moment seduced by Illingworth's so-called 'charms', and hits the nail on the head when she addresses the English upper-classes in Act II with a line that could not ring truer today: "Living, as you all do, on others and by them, you sneer at self-sacrifice, and if you throw bread to the poor, it is merely to keep them quiet for a season.", this play gets a solid pass for that conversation, and a recommendation for actors of both Hester and Mrs Arbuthnot's casting age to check out these fascinating characters.
A Woman of No Importance is being performed at The Vaudeville Theatre from Oct 6th until Dec 30th.
Three Sisters - Anton Chekhov (1901)
Drama Classics Edition published by Nick Hern Books
These sisters do spend an awful lot of time talking about men, which provoked some discussion amongst the Mono Box team about how long, and how deeply the women in the script should speak to each other without talking about men to count as a 'pass'. One scene where the sisters discuss their sister-in-law Natasha's vulgar green belt is a stand-out moment that caused some debate - is a group of women talking about clothes portraying a stereotype of 'what women talk about'? Is their bitchiness a condemnation of female relationships? Personally I think this is a brilliant 'sniping with subtext' scene, which reveals their shared snobbery and belief in their superiority over their brother's wife, a fatal underestimation of Natasha considering the power she will come to wield over their family. Others felt that a few lines about a belt in a sea of in-depth conversations about men was revealing of Checkhov's failing to credit women with autonomy within a male-dominated society.
In the end we gave it a sticker based on the fact that Olga, Masha and Irena are all distinctly detailed characters, with complex inner lives, and none of them falls into the categories of wife, mother or sister of a more prominent male protagonist. Plus, they have the final and most famous scene in the play, which reveals the true motivations that lie behind their attachments to the men they frequently discuss: their desire to survive.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too - Andrea Dunbar (1982)
Published by Bloomsbury alongside Robin Soan's A State Affair
Written when she was 19, Andrea Dunbar's tale of two teenage girls on a council estate sleeping with a much older man was hugely impactful when it was first staged in the 80s, seen by many as a scathing indictment on the impact of Thatcher's failure of the British working-class. Dunbar was a brilliant young writer who had recent and continuing lived experience close to the characters that she was portraying - she spent her life on the estate where she grew up, and had given birth three times before writing this play.
Rita, Sue and Bob Too was controversial in our Bechdel testing sessions due not only to the subject matter of teenage sexuality, but also the amount of time that Rita and Sue spend talking about Bob. After their first encounter with him, their lives increasingly revolve around when and where they will have sex with him again. We gave it a Bechdel test pass because not only are these girls' authentic teenage voices a thing of beauty: loud, joyful, sometimes cynical, frequently hilarious and insightful, but they also spend a considerable amount of one scene frankly discussing their periods - which is not something we hear enough about stage, considering how many people it affects.
A new production of Rita, Sue and Bob Too, by Out of Joint is touring from September and returning to the Royal Court in Janurary.
Attempts On Her Life - Martin Crimp (1997)
Cast "Should reflect the composition of the world beyond the theatre"
Published by Faber & Faber
Subtitled '17 Scenarios for Theatre' Martin Crimp's play is famous for specifying little about the identity of either the actors or most of the characters. The title refers to the elusive Anne, who changes from one scene to the next depending on who is talking about her - she is an actress, a terrorist, car for sale - she is always seen through the eyes of others. There is no linear plot and everything about the play is left wide open to the director's interpretation, including the casting, which Crimp specifies should "reflect the composition of the world beyond the theatre" - though how far beyond is not suggested. For this we gave it a Bechdel test sticker: real life constantly passes the test, so a production of Attempts On Her Life would be going against it's writer's specifications if it didn't.
In a world where 'default' characters are so often seen as male, from the stickman to the everyman, the fact that Attempts on Her Life centres around a woman feels very specific. It subtly encourages the audience to consider the 'male gaze', and the idea that all of us see each other through the (sexist and racist) lens of the society we live in, and all of our relationships are influenced by the media and culture we consume. The world of this play feels very British, and it feels very 1997 (references to technology and pop culture date it very specifically as pre-Millenial), and though it was revived in a bells-and-whistles high tech production directed by Katie Mitchell at the National Theatre a decade ago, it would be interesting to see a post-Selfie production of it, or perhaps even a female-penned response to it, exploring how our relationship to our own image has developed in these crucial years.
nut - debbie tucker green (2013)
Published by Nick Hern Books
debbie tucker green's reputation grows more formidable with every new play she writes. Her dialogue is all at once naturalistic and poetic, filled with banalities and colloqualisms whilst often intensely poignant, with a distinctive rhythm that draws in the audience closely in to her world from the moment the first character speaks. In nut, we're given a startling and disturbing insight into the mind of a woman with a mental illness, through whose eyes we gradually see the world crack and crumble. Giving the audience a first-hand taste of the chaotic way in which protagonist Elayne perceives reality is tucker green's precisely effective way of making us understand Elayne's experience, rather than simply showing the impact of her illness on those around her.
tucker green's plays are full of brilliant dualogues, and she writes mainly for black actors across a huge range of settings and roles, so her plays provide beautifully rich pickings for often under-represented actors to explore - we could have picked a number of them for this list. For example: her latest play a proufoundly affectionate devotion to someone (noun) was a sold-out triumph at the Royal Court recently, which deserved to be seen by far far bigger audiences than could fit into their upstairs space. We chose nut one to recommend reading because it stands out for passing the Bechdel test in its opening scene, in which two women discuss plans for their own funerals, in a dark game where each predicts greater spectacles for how they'll be remembered when they're gone. It sets the tone perfectly for the play, and is the perfect introduction to the unique genius of tucker green's writing.
Home - Nadia Fall (2013)
Published by Nick Hern Books
Home is a verbatim play, made using recordings of real people's words to form the script, based on interviews with people living and working in a hostel for young people in East London. It gives a glimpse into some of the residents lives, looking at the ups and downs of their daily lives in the block where they all stay (some more temporarily than others) in close quarters, as well as reflecting on how they reached their circumstances, and looking towards their hopes, dreams, and goals for the future.
The fact that real words are used in Home (and other verbatim plays) mean that every character has a deep and powerful truth behind them, although some of them here represent an interpretation or merging of several real people's stories to create a narrative journey for the show. Director Nadia Fall worked sensitively in workshops that involved the hostel's participants and, whilst maintaining anonymity, has creatively captured an essence of their reality in Home which would be impossible without including those who experienced life in the hostel. One aspect of this play which caused some discussion was the inclusion of a character called Jade who beatboxes rather than speaking, who represents some of the people that Fall couldn't speak to, or didn't want to be recorded when she was interviewing hostel residents. The use of beatbox as a mode of communication to portray the presence of those whose words couldn't be included in Home raises the question of what counts as a "conversation" within the limits of the Bechdel test? The explosions of beatboxing from Jade (played by the phenomenally talented Grace Savage in the National Theatre's production) was one of the most unforgettable aspects of the play from an audience member's perspective. Whilst browsing The Mono Box looking for Bechdel test passes, Jade provided us with a reminder that most communication is not verbal and a strong argument for the importance of considering a character's actions and impact (as well as the number of lines they have to say) when we're thinking about what constitutes significant representation on stage. Women in society (especially poor women) are often silenced, and representing those women as making a difference to the world around them, and having an important inner life of their own, is no less essential than showcasing "strong female leads" who are confident women in power.
People, Places and Things - Duncan Macmillan (2015)
13m, 13f, 7 unspecified
Published by Oberon Books
Playing central character in People, Places and Things, propelled mega-talent Denise Gough from jobbing actor to superstar in 2015. Gough made sudden impact on the theatre industry not just with her powerful performance in the play, but also with her campaigning for gender representation with Waking The Feminists and Equal Representation for Actresses. With such a force of nature actor at it's heart, rightly claiming all accolades and awards available that year, it would be easy to forget that People, Places and Things contains a multitude of other fine roles for actors of all genders, both monologues and duologues. The conversation between Emma and her mother at the end of the play is a serious lump-in-the-throat gut wrencher of a duologue for two women over the age of 30 (is there any greater joy than watching two gloriously skilled and experienced actresses nail a scene together at the National Theatre and then in the West End?).
Fast forward to 2017 and while Bechdel testing The Mono Box collection (where copies of People, Places and Things are understandably well-thumbed by monologue-seeking actresses) we noticed that seven of the characters in this play have their gender unspecified. Allowing for a choice of gender in casting is admirable for so many reasons: It gives flexibility for a multi-role playing ensemble of actors, it gives the director more options to find the best actor available for each of the un-gendered roles and allows them the choice to give more jobs to female, non-binary, or gender-fluid actors if they wish. It's a win-win situation for everyone involved and is one of the many reasons why this play is sure to be revived with frequency and freshness for a long time to come.
People, Places and Things is touring the UK from September 22nd with Lisa Dwyer Hogg in the lead role, and begins it's New York run at St Ann's Warehouse on October 19th with Denise Gough returning to the role.
Boys Will Be Boys - Melissa Bubnic (2016)
6f - All characters, including men, are played by female actors.
Published by Nick Hern Books
A cabaret-style play about bankers addressing all the things you'd expect a show about bankers to consider: capitalism, greed, selfishness, exploitation, loneliness and of course toxic masculinity. The twist is that every character, male or female, is played by a woman. The effect is that the male characters filtered through a female actor's body and mind become magnificently on-point satirical portraits of old-school sexist bosses and their racist and entitled public school underlings. The grossness of their attitude and position is enhanced, while a level of actual threat is removed - we don't have to see any sex or rape scenes featuring male actors looming ominously over female ones, which is a relief: this play treads some uncomfortable but important ground when addressing both of those issues and the all-female cast is a reassuring buffer to any lines that could be crossed.
Whilst the male characters in Boys Will Be Boys provide stomach-turningly close-to-the-bone satire, the female characters contain more multitudes - there is proper depth to their personalities and motivations. Though some of the women's aims in life seem materialistic, their deeper pain and passions are revealed through songs and many private conversations. In Boys Will Be Boys, Melissa Bubnic has found a canny way of centring female experiences and perspectives, and passing the Bechdel test with flying colours, whilst exploring the male-dominated world of finance - and while she's at it, Bubnic writes top roles under-represented women: older women, BAME women, masculine-presenting women, can all be cast in solid three-dimensional parts with high-stakes, high-status and deep flaws, without having to wait for a director to come along and gender-swap something Shakespearean.
Girls - Theresa Ikoko (2016)
Published by Bloomsbury
Based on news stories of young women kidnapped by Boko Haram, Theresa Ikoko vividly imagines three teenage girls support each other during their imprisonment in Girls. Showing only the perspectives of the girls themselves, Ikoko avoids showing directly the darkest details of their story (except through some nightmarish descriptions), giving the audience a chance to laugh with these three close friends as they cheer themselves up cracking jokes, and entertain each other with high-energy impersonations of TV shows and politicians. She shows the girls' suffering and resilience without sentimentalising their tenacity or defining them as victims. Tisana, Haleema, and Ruhab are women like those seen on the news in large groups banded together by their trauma, but on stage in Girls they are portrayed as individuals with vibrant and distinctive personalities.
The play's focus - more on the girls' relationship that their circumstances - means that as we gradually become aware of the grave situation they're in and recognise it as based on a contemporary reality, the impact is sharp, deep and long-lasting. Audiences watching this play feel distance disappear as the intimate time we spend with these girls, they're humans rather than pixels on a TV screen, real live girls whose playful teasing we recognise from any school ground in the world. When they talk about the brutality of the men who hold them captive and the empty rhetoric of politicians and foreigners expressing concern before moving on to the next big news story, their message becomes crystal clear. Girls makes it impossible for anyone watching (or reading) to forget the lives of the young women behind headlines and tweets about kidnappings and trafficking (Ikoko points out that this happens everywhere in the world, not just Nigeria). As Haleema says: "What on earth do you want to do with a hashtag? Can you use it to shoot your way out of here?". By passing the Bechdel test with flying colours (because they have more to talk about than their captors) the conversations in this play give girls imprisoned everywhere a powerful voice that sets their humanity apart from their status as captives, and should be heard all over the world.
Girls is touring in September and October, to Suffolk, Salisbury, Walthamstow and Plymouth
That's all for now!
We'll be at some of The Mono Box workshops and Speech Surgeries this Autumn. Do come and say hi if you see us with our stickers, and let us know if you come across a play or scene that inspires you.
Happy Bechdel testing!