The Bechdel test and us

If you’re clued up on theatrical debate you might already have come across @BechdelTheatre. In 2015 they came up with the Bechdel test, applying an existing debate in film and theatre to the stage in an effort to raise awareness of the fantastic work of women in theatre.

There’s been a great surge towards improving recognition of women in theatre. Alongside Bechdel Theatre, figures like Denise Gough and Paule Constable have spoken out with remarkable eloquence.

Without ducking the fact that Thrust is led by three white male artists, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about if and how our work engages with the whole spectrum of diversity: race, sexuality, age, disability, as well as gender. It’s an ongoing thought experiment for me which I’ve always been meaning to blog about; so I thought I’d start now by applying the Bechdel test to our back catalogue.

I haven’t done it yet. I’m going to do it as I write this blog post. My feeling is that our work has always carried a strong female voice, but as I write now I haven’t actually applied the criteria yet…so let’s see, shall we?

A piece of theatre passes the Bechdel test if:

  • There are at least 2 women on stage
  • They talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than a man.

Let’s go.


In-Vitro (2009; a new play by Marina Merryweather)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

In-Vitro played with Greek mythology to explore mental health conditions in three teenage girls. It technically passes the test on all three counts, however their experience is framed by a dominant male doctor figure who controls and manipulates them.


Aladdin (2009; a pantomime by Bruce Adams & Matt Fowler)

2 women on stage? NO
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

But come on, it was a pantomime.


Washed Up (2011; devised by the company)

2 women on stage? YES…?
Talking to each other? UM…
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? MAYBE?

And this is where we start running into problems. Washed Up didn’t have any characters or spoken dialogue. There were 2 female performers on the stage, and 2 male performers. No-one talks to each other, though; I guess the closest it came to “talking” was a movement duet, which was between a male and a female. So I guess the question is, was that moment cast with an eye on gender mixing?


6 Characters In Search Of An Author (2012; Power & Goold after Luigi Pirandello)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Much of the text for this version of Pirandello’s play didn’t prescribe for gender-specific characters, although in this production the cast was overwhelmingly female. The play follows a number of plot threads, but only one of them was related to gender and sex. Everyone was mostly too busy trying to work out what the hell was going on and who let six black and white people into their film studio…


The Bell Jar (2013; devised by the company from Sylvia Plath’s novel)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar is a feminist masterpiece, no doubt about it. Yes, Esther does spend a significant portion of the plot coming to terms with her relationships with men, but it’s the beautifully drawn women characters who carry her through her close-up encounter with depression and psychosis after the men are done fucking her about.


Dinner (2013; a play by Moira Buffini)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

Dinner fails the test because, although the show mostly plays out in mixed company, in the few moments where the women are left alone together, they talk about their husbands.


Pornography (2013; a play by Simon Stephens)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? YES
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

Pornography is an open text that prescribes very little in terms of character, but our production explored many of its voices through female performers.


Inheritance (2013; a new play by Scott Wright)

2 women on stage? NO
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

Two men, one woman, mostly speaking about themselves although the conversation is framed by a male character.


On Chesil Beach (2013; adapted by the company from Ian McEwan’s novel)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? NO
Passes test? NO

This is an interesting one, as the story revolves entirely around a heterosexual relationship but makes use of a fairly unique female perspective which is reflected by the fact that there were 4 female performers (including the narrator) to one male. There are only two discrete characters to talk to each other, though (a man and a woman), and they spend a lot of time talking about male genitalia.


Request Programme (2015; a play by Franz Xaver Kroetz)

2 women on stage? YES*
Talking to each other? YES**
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? YES

I’ve bent the rules a bit because it’s a one-woman show with no words. But the way I see it, that constitutes a *100% female cast, so that’s a pass; and **the subject matter relates entirely to her unique experience of life at its most personal and intimate, unfiltered by men or anyone else for that matter.


papercut– (2016; a new play by William Bowden)

2 women on stage? YES
Talking to each other? NO
Not talking about a man? YES
Passes test? NO

That said, papercut– is far from finished. At the moment it’s looking like it won’t pass the test, because the two central figures are a male and a female. But that’s not written in the text, and we’ve barely started rehearsing it, so there is every possibility that this might change. You’ll have to come and find out.


  • Passes: 5
  • Fails: 5
  • Ambiguous: 1
  • My instinct that we would have a high pass rate wasn’t disproven, but not particularly substantiated either.
  • The pass or fail rate is more heavily informed by circumstances or interpretations unique to the production than I thought it would be. The directors have almost as much influence as the writers. That actually isn’t surprising.
  • Not every show needs to pass, and to fail isn’t necessarily a failure. By its very nature On Chesil Beach could never pass, whereas shows like Inheritance reveal conversations we could have had in a female voice, but just didn’t. Because the overall pass/fail balance is roughly 50:50, maybe that doesn’t matter as much as it would if the balance was more disproportionate.
  • Overall, of course, the aim should be for balance, which the results bear out nicely.

What do you think? Did I tip the scales? Did I miss or misinterpret anything? Is it a blunt tool? How do you substantiate “talking” in a play without words? Is the fact that they were all directed by men balanced by the fact that the casts were overwhelmingly women-heavy? Questions, questions.

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