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Monday, December 30, 2019

24 Hours with Alia Shawkat

Photo: NayMarie
By Alexandra Biss

“The walls feel a little tight today,” remarked Alia Shawkat’s 62nd scene partner in The Second Woman. “Tell me about it,” she replies without missing a beat. This was about hour 17 of the 24 Alia (and I) spent in the Fishman Space of the BAM Fisher. For all but 15 minutes every two hours, Alia was in a small mesh room set with a table, chairs, stereo, and bar cart. While we could see in, she couldn’t really see out. The walls of her world were defined by the repetition of a short scene with different, mostly male-presenting non-actor scene partners. They have a drink, she asks for reassurance, she throws noodles at him, they dance, she asks him to leave. In between each scene, Alia would get down on her hands and knees to clean up the just-thrown noodles, and reset. Set and reset. Nearly 100 times. The walls of my world from 5pm Friday to 5pm Saturday—watching the world in the box—felt more than a little tight, until they suddenly expanded in new ways.

Music went from grating to potentially maddening to fine to kind of reassuring and pleasant. My mind focused on the monotony, then suddenly the surprises. My body screamed SLEEP, then crossed into another plane of invincible euphoria. I noticed small details I might not have noticed without the repetition, like Alia is a leftie (11:53am).

I went into this 24-hour experience with just one goal—stay awake and don’t miss a scene. I succeeded, with the help of water (turns out proper hydration helps maintain energy… who knew?!), taking notes on each scene, healthy snacks every couple of hours, close proximity (I sat front row center for most of the show), a couple of energy drinks, and sheer force of will. It’s hard to summarize and articulate the experience, which loops back in on itself in non-linear ways that bristles at any attempt at more straightforward analysis. Because I chose to experience the entire show as endurance sport, any criticism is inseparable from my acute awareness of my own physical and mental state.

“How are you?” Alia’s character asks early in the scene. “That question is so often said with insincerity,” noted Shawkat’s scene partner around 10:15pm. How are you?—I asked myself countless times throughout my 24-hour experience, often writing down my replies: Eyes starting to feel a bit tired (1am); feeling amped tired fake awake but ok-ish? (7:30am); Not even tired. Who needs sleep?! (12:30pm).

Alia, probably best known for her roles in Search Party and Arrested Development, showed practically no signs of fatigue, and even joked with one scene partner around 8:45am who remarked that he was “a little tired, a little nervous.” “I’m one of those things.”—she replied. We seemed to share a jolt when an interesting scene partner changed the vibe of the connected space. Her performance held my attention and curiosity for 24 hours because of her simultaneous commitment to strict repetition and improvisation. She was very present and nimble with each scene partner, and clearly felt a thrill with the risk inherent in taking on a stranger every 15 minutes. I was particularly interested in her use of physical comedy, which she used to diffuse tension, enhance playfulness, or disarm her scene partner. Her riffs on the noodle throwing (tucked into someone’s eyeglasses, thrown onto a lap, or up a guy’s sleeve) could have become gimmicky or tiresome, but instead served as an emotional focal point of the scene and subtle performance of intimacy or distance.

There were many notable nuances to the scenes—some lovely, some boring, some uncomfortable. The more scenes I watched, the more seemingly small things made themselves apparent as part of a larger whole. This is the 6th scene partner to not be able to find the door on the way out. When she asks for reassurance, the default response from most men is exasperation—even from a scene partner who seemed sweet, playful, or loving at first. Dancing carries so much weight or none at all. 20% of the scene partners declined the $50 offered at scene’s end (yes, I tallied).

I’m still a bit disoriented, a few days later. I’m a little envious of other audience members who expressed the rush of binge watching—that just one more feeling—when they only intended to stay for an hour or so. But to experience the entire arc? It was illuminating theater. Plus I feel like a champion.

Alexandra Biss is the director of board relations at BAM.

Photos by NayMarie
© 2019, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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