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 hi