Improvisation and Ideology: Nat Randall, Anna Breckon, and Alia Shawkat Interviewed by Rachel Stone

The artist, director, and actress discuss their endurance performance, The Second Woman, and its exploration of gender performativity.

Alia Shawkat Carlota Guerrero

Alia Shawkat. Photo by Carlota Guerrero.

Part of the Select Equity Group Series on Theater

On Friday, October 18, actress Alia Shawkat stood onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and met a male-identifying performer playing opposite her for the first time. They talked about their relationship and its possible end; they fell into an impromptu pas de deux; he offered her tenderness or rebuffed her; and then he left. After a beat, another man joined Shawkat onstage, where they repeated the talk, the dance, and the final exit. Over the span of twenty-four hours, Shawkat repeated this twenty-four-minute play one hundred times, with one hundred male-identifying participants solicited from a casting call for non-actors, with whom she had never shared space, let alone a scene. 

This performance of The Second Woman, an exploration of identity, femininity, and the performance of gender as revealed in the small differences between the ways various male-identifying people choose to express it, was inspired by the John Cassavetes film Opening Night and created by the interdisciplinary artist and actor Nat Randall and the writer and director Anna Breckon, who first premiered the work in 2016 with Randall as the endurant actress. In the intervening years, Randall and Breckon have taken the project across Australia, to Taiwan and Toronto, and will make their London premiere in 2020. I met with Randall and Breckon in a room above BAM, and spoke with Alia Shawkat over the phone the same week.

—Rachel Stone

Rachel Stone When I first came across this project, I was fascinated by the questions it asks about gender, performance, and the relentless demands of the patriarchy, but the thing I kept coming back to was the duration of the piece, the marathon of performing the same scene one hundred times. Nat, having performed this role, how do you prepare other actresses to take it on? 

Nat Randall There is a framework that we began to develop for the last two international presentations, and this distilled the core of the work, allowing us to see what needed to stay fixed and what could potentially be improvised. Within this way of seeing, the performance operates like another kind of camera—or another eye—within the work that the audience gets to access. 

In terms of psychological preparation, we’ve been using different acting techniques—like the Meisner technique, which is about experiencing the person that comes into the room and reflecting the energy they bring.

Anna Breckon The performance of the show is a combination of feminist ideology and improvisation techniques, where the improvisation models are inseparable from a feminist position. We’ve tried to translate this to the performers so they can have their own relation to it. The idea is to take this form and, through it, understand the logistics of repetition and how to manipulate an audience’s reaction. 

Generally, an audience can experience a work of theater through the viewpoint of a character in a particular moment. But in this show, the lead female character is always present to interact with the new participant, while also acting as a lens for the audience. She is at once inside and outside of the space, which is the opposite of the Method approach, where the actor is completely inside a psychological space the whole time. The Meisner technique is about responding to what’s offered; it’s never about driving a scene or having an objective. That means the scene is open to lots of variation.

One of the reasons we have taken this performance to different countries is to attempt a sociological experiment in each location, so the show continues to reveal something about gender in that specific place and culture.

The Second Woman Pc Heidrun Lohr

Nat Randall in The Second Woman at Liveworks in Sydney, Australia, 2016. Written and directed by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. Photo by Heidrun Lohr. Courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music.

NR When I performed it, I found it was quite useful to remember that each scene would never happen again, in the exact same way, with the same male participant and in the same context. It’s a project that is constantly in the making; it’s unique each time, so you have to bring your full presence and attention to the person. The structure of the piece, where the main performer has a bit of time to wait before the entrance of the new participant, also allows the performer to reset.

AB And different kinds of people enter the space at different points in time. The person who’s going to sign up for a 4:00 AM performance shift is quite different from the person who will sign up for an 8:00 AM shift. Even though the show is based on repetition, it does move and open up. And the audience can also alter the atmosphere as the show goes on. It’s a different mental state after a certain number of hours pass; people bring the night in with them. 

RS People often talk about choices characters make, but very rarely do characters actually have the opportunity to change the scene. The John Cassavetes film Opening Night, which majorly inspired this play, also featured an improvisatory scene at its finale, in which Gena Rowland and Cassavetes himself play a pair of actors who take control of the play they’re acting in, deciding to “dump it upside down and see if [they can] find something human in it.” Would you talk a bit about your decision to allow the male participants to actually change a crucial line in the script, deciding either to offer comfort or rebuke? Does the actress also get to improvise and change the script?

NR The flexibility of the male performers’ lines in relation to what they are offering as they come through the door is incredibly important, and the political potency relies on the actress’s micro-responses.

The Second Woman Pc Heidrun Lohr 5

Nat Randall in The Second Woman at Dark Mofo in Tasmania, Australia, 2016. Written and directed by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. Photo by Heidrun Lohr. Courtesy of the artist.

AB In the role Alia plays, you don’t get a grand divergence from the script in the same way, but what you see instead is an accumulation of decisions that she makes in relation to the men. We give the men the directive to just act like themselves and inhabit the scene as they would inhabit it in their own lives. We’re relying on people to bring themselves into the role.  

The lead character’s sticking to the script is important, because it’s the form through which the audience can understand the repetitions; it’s a controlled unit in that the sameness of the script reveals the differences in each individual interaction. The ordinary becomes elevated; emotion is palpable through the framing of it. Something that in everyday life would not feel large becomes the material for drama.

AB And improvisation elevates the ordinary in Opening Night as well; it’s this way out of stagnant, stale relational dynamics. There’s a generosity in offering something emotional to the audience, or to each other; it gives the show some sense of responsibility. 

RS It sounds as though the way it’s being expressed is almost minimalist—like Erik Satie’s “Vexations”—playing the same thing over and over again, allowing the audience to notice the tiniest shifts and changes. Anna, would you talk a bit about how you’ve become interested in experimentations with non-narrative technique? 

AB In university I was really interested in studying the anti-narrative, or a feminist critique of narrative structures, and thinking about how you can use excess or disgust or feelings that are understood as gratuitous to sustain the audience. 

NR With the woman remaining onstage, you’ve got this body that’s enduring over time, so audience members, whether they stay for an hour or twelve hours, will really feel that intensely, the likeness of the female body. That’s another kind of structuring device that doesn’t rely on narrative functions. It relies on pure time.

AR And a kind of equivalence of that experience of time. The audience is waiting, and she’s waiting. That synchronicity of experience produces a stronger identification with the female character—

RS —with the men as replaceable. (laughter)

The Second Woman Pc Heidrun Lohr 2

Nat Randall in The Second Woman at Liveworks in Sydney, Australia, 2016. Written and directed by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. Photo by Heidrun Lohr. Courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music.

RS I was also wondering about a comment I’d seen in an interview with the two of you from July, where you said you were less interested in the performance of femininity than in the relation between masculinity and performance. Would you elaborate on that?

NR The genesis of the work was around the appeal of Opening Night and the performance of Gena Rowlands. I personally was drawn to what it means to have that spectrum of female performativity, but through the process of experimentation, we found that what is more interesting about the project is what it reveals about the spectrum of performativity within a masculine role. 

AB Femininity is historically associated with performance, and masculinity is historically associated with authenticity. Obviously both genders are performative, but the historical understanding of femininity is that it’s a performance applied in a particular way. And yet in the show, because the male-identifying participants are portrayed in relation to one another, what you begin to notice over time are the generic characteristics of their presentation. Investment in exaggerated femininity reveals gender to be a performance, whereas masculinity hides its performative nature. That’s what allows it to register as masculine. 

— On the Phone with Alia Shawkat —

RS Alia, what made you decide to take on this project?

Alia Shawkat It deals with themes I have been interested in regarding gender dynamics and the way that femininity can feel performative. I was also interested in the idea of doing a show for twenty-four hours; I did a film called Duck Butter, where I shot the second act in twenty-four hours, and I liked the way the live energy could fuel the performance. I’d never heard of anything like The Second Woman being done before, which also drew me to the project. 

The Second Woman Pc Heidrun Lohr 3

Nat Randall in The Second Woman at Liveworks in Sydney, Australia, 2016. Written and directed by Nat Randall and Anna Breckon. Photo by Heidrun Lohr. Courtesy of Brooklyn Academy of Music.

RS Is there any specific emotional preparation that goes into readying yourself for an endurance performance like this? 

AS In rehearsing for the play, I’ve been working out the psychological understanding of the piece, what it means, and getting ready for all the different options that the other person in the scene could throw at me. It’s almost an anthropological study. We talk about human nature, how to maintain power when it feels like it’s taken away, how to remain on top, how not to beg, how not to put myself in a situation where someone can say “no.” 

Thinking this way is really trippy, because I realize these are things I do in my own life. Preparing for the piece is less about delving into a character and more about preparing for any possible outcome in the scene and getting ready to flow with it. It’s different from preparing for any kind of acting role, because I’m not really playing a character, but instead just figuring out how to respond to these men and how to keep the logic of the scene moving. I have to keep it going for the structure to work. 

RS Improvisation figures heavily in the piece, since the small decisions of the male-identifying performers playing opposite you will impact so much of your responses onstage. How do you keep yourself open to your reactions in the moment? 

AS I have to stay in the moment the whole time. If I’m not in the present, I’m fucked. I think that’s the only mandatory thing about the show. You can’t really use your wits or the things that you think make up who you are to protect yourself. You just have to react to the person.

The Second Woman will be performed October 18–19 at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Rachel Stone is a writer from Chicago based in Brooklyn.

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