The best work we’ve seen in the theatre this year was discovered almost by chance, in a small theatre of Salamanca Square in Hobart. It was part of Dark Mofo – but it wasn’t one of the headlining shows. It was a much smaller affair, featuring two performers: a man and a woman. What made it exciting was that it was a 24 hour show, featuring one ‘scene’ repeated in a live 13-minute loop; even more intriguingly, every ‘loop’ featured a different man – and the woman on stage, Sydney performer Nat Randall, never knew which man was going to enter the scene next. In fact, she had never met the vast majority of these men before: they were sourced by her production team through a public call-out.
The show is called The Second Woman, it’s a collaboration between Randall and artist Anna Breckon, and it was a break-out hit of Dark Mofo (showing there for the second time after its premiere in 2016, as part of Melbourne’s Next Wave festival). This spring, Sydneysiders will get to experience the work – for as long or short as they like over the 24 hours – when it comes to Carriageworks as part of the annual Liveworks festival of experimental art and performance. (In Hobart, we watched six hours of Randall’s performance over three sessions).
“It kind of feels like we’re bringing this show home,” says Jeff Khan, artistic director of Performance Space, the organisation behind Liveworks.
And it was not easy to get The Second Woman up in Sydney: putting on a 24-hour public access work requires a Development Application and a forest of forms and red tape. Performance Space started the process at the beginning of the year, and “the DA process is still going,” says Khan. “But we were really determined to make this show happen – and it feels like it belongs at Performance Space and Liveworks, particularly given the long relationship we’ve had with Nat and her work, through Hissy Fit and before that Team MESS.”
The Second Woman is inspired by John Cassavetes’ 1977 film Opening Night, which is about an actress (played by Cassavetes’ wife, Gena Rowlands) who has a breakdown while preparing for the New York opening of a play called The Second Woman (which is in turn about woman who is confronted by her ageing, and the concomitant loss of visibility and even ‘personhood’).
Randall plays a character based on Rowlands’ character (including a bouffant blonde wig) and enacts a scene loosely inspired by the contents of the play-within-the-film, in which her character is visited by a man called Marty, who is obviously her lover, or has been. Dialogue is exchanged (her lines are the same each time; the men are working from a script which includes small opportunities for them to fill in the gaps or improvise). The dialogue largely concerns Marty’s perception of this ‘woman’.
Randall dug deep into her original performance training (at Wollongong University) and developed her skills intensively in order to perform the same character in the same scenario more than 100 times during the course of the 24-hour time slot. Each scene she is interacting with a different man – all of varying ages, backgrounds and acting abilities.
“It’s a really hard performance to do,” she says. “To keep it fresh and responsive each time, and to maintain a sense of joy and openness towards the men. I’ve been working with my co-writer and director Anna Breckon, who is really kind of coaching me through a different kind of performative mode.”
The final ‘layer’ of the show is that the entire performance is filmed, with a live feed edited and projected on a large screen that sits beside the translucent ‘box’ in which the scene is taking place. The same shots and arrangement is reproduced each time, and the cut makes powerful use of the facial close-up (much as Cassavetes did).
Like Cassavetes’ film, Randall and Breckon’s show explores the experience of being a woman and an actress, and the “end of intimacy” in a relationship; unlike the film, which was written, directed and produced by men, this fusion of live art, theatre and film uses a two-woman camera crew to capture the protagonist’s encounters with each male visitor. In fact, the whole production and crew for The Second Woman identify as female and queer. “We wanted to create a space for a female way of seeing,” Randall explains.
Randall, who is part of queer collective Hissy Fit, has a long-standing interest in the “performance of gender”, and describes herself as “so gay”. For her, the performance of gender and femininity in The Second Woman is like “an act of drag”. “The show is exploring how we perform gender roles, and the social and gender conventions that influence how we experience the emotion within an intimate partnership.”
Besides The Second Woman, Liveworks will feature major works from Sydney artist Justin Shoulder (performing the next iteration of his Fantastic Creatures series), Bidjara artist Dr Christian Thompson (performing a new work called Tree of Knowledge), and Biennale of Sydney alumnus Agatha Gothe-Snape (recently the subject of the Archibald Prize-winning portrait by Mitch Cairns). The festival also features artists from New Zealand, the Philippines, Korean and Japan, and a program of talks, workshops and artist conversations.
“We try to create a really immersive experience for our audience,” says Khan. “At any given moment there might be five or six different things happening – from performances to installations to artist talks or intimate one-on-one experiences – so you can really come and have an adventure through the festival.”
See what else is on Sydney stages this month.