The Second Woman with Alia Shawkat at BAM was an acting lesson in itself.
Expectations can crystalize into assumptions and assumptions can cut deep. As an actor, I've been learning that assumptions may result in stoic and less malleable performances with less reacting. This is one reason why The Second Woman intrigued me: an experimental play in which 1 woman performs the same scene 100 times with 100 men over the span of 24 hours. No room for patterns there.
Once cast, all I received was an email with the script and BAM Fisher Theatre's address. The gig was to show up prepared to walk on stage and perform with superstar Alia Shawkat for the very first time.
To me, Nat Randall and Anna Breckon's snippy, but mighty script read like the end of a relationship. Clad with direction, it seemed to take place in the aftermath of some sort of shocking fight, leaving the subjects to either pick up the pieces and glue them back together or throw them in the trash. While this was my initial instinct, I fought very hard not to lean into it. I simply memorized the lines and tried to be game for whatever Alia threw at me. And oh how I'm glad I did.
Even without setting those assumptions, it was still hard not to grasp at them like lifesavers as a Stage Manager counted down to my entrance in a pool of backstage darkness. I had felt like an American-Idol-contestant-in-waiting as the actors prior to my 7:45 p.m. time slot had shot back into "the men's" dressing room still buzzing. "Get ready," they'd said, grinning madly. And, then it was suddenly my turn and the SM was pointing for me to walk through the door.
From the moment I stepped onto the stage and laid eyes on the merlot-filtered set for the first time to my exit back through the door, the scene I had read countless times ended up playing out like a comedic chess match. I was able to let any preconceived notions go, and instead of leaning into assumptions, I asked questions in the moment with each line. I stayed present and floated into the unknown with my acclaimed scene partner, not racing to the finish line intent on molding a specific shape. While the audiences' laughter initially surprised me, I welcomed it, letting any notion that this was a dramatic scene go.
Afterward, I transformed from player to watcher and went into the theatre to observe the looping show for a bit. It was incredible to witness how different each rendition of the gossamer-sheathed scene was depending on who walked through the door. Alia's evolving performance was a carousel of connection. She deftly mirrored the energy of every fresh partner she received, taking it in and then spitting it back out in a new way. To me, it defined "the second woman" as a symbol of "the other woman" or personality that many women have put on in the past to deal with the crudeness of many men. She gave them what she got.
I'm beyond grateful to have had this unique theatre experience and will carry this shimmering lesson of spontaneity going forward on my journey.
Don't assume, just connect.