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The concept of play/performance installation The Second Woman is a 10-minute break-up scene between a man and a woman performed 100 times consecutively for a duration of 24 hours.

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  • Title: The Second Woman
  • Presented by: The Brave Festival, Harbourfront Centre
  • Written by: Nat Randall and Anna Breckon
  • Performed by: Laara Sadiq

Until last weekend, I’d never seen a work of endurance art. I’d read about the iconic examples. There’s Chris Burden’s 1972 Bed Piece, in which the artist lived in a bed in a small California gallery for 22 days, while the curator brought him water and food. There are various works by Marina Abramovic, including her 2010 The Artist is Present, in which she sat opposite Museum of Modern Art visitors inside the New York City gallery for eight hours a day. But my indirect familiarity with the genre didn’t prepare me for the strangeness of witnessing The Second Woman at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre.

The concept of the play/performance installation is a 10-minute break-up scene between a man and a woman performed 100 times consecutively for a duration of 24 hours. The woman, a trained performer (in this case, Canadian TV actress Laara Sadiq) is the same in every iteration, while every scene involves a different man, a non-actor who responded to an open casting call. The actress hasn’t rehearsed with, let alone laid eyes on, any of the men prior to the scene, which takes place in an enclosed space set up like a small apartment. The action is captured in close-up on a contiguous screen.

The dialogue suggests that the couple has recently had a fight during which the man spoke crudely to the woman. She’s still emotionally frazzled and looking for reassurance. She tells the man that she isn’t good enough for him. She tells him that she’s stopped caring whether he thinks she’s beautiful, then accuses him of not finding her funny or believing that she’s capable. Depending on the volunteer’s interpretation of the script, the man either protests these accusations or dismisses her. She puts on some music and the two begin to dance together – a dance that turns into some kind of physical conflict or capitulation and leads to the woman handing the man a $50 bill, his fee for participating, and telling him to leave.

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Though the script is set save for a few key lines – when the man exits, for example, he is given the choice of saying “I love you” or “I never loved you,” – the tenor of the break-up changes every time. Some men empathize with the woman’s pleas for emotional support and do their best to ease her insecurities. Others appear frustrated with her begging, and respond glibly, even cruelly. It was unsettling to see how many could bring themselves to viciously veto the foundation of the relationship when they walked out of the room.

The Second Woman ran from 3 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. on Sunday, featuring Laara Sadiq, seen here.

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But what I found most fascinating, and unnerving, was the overlap between the fictional and real-life risk that Sadiq places herself in. Though the men likely signed some sort of contract that set parameters on their behaviour, there was no way of predicting what they would or wouldn’t do once on stage. Some attempted to kiss Sadiq on the lips, while others took liberties with where they placed their hands on her body. While the men ranged in age from their early 20s to their 60s, they were invariably larger and physically stronger than Sadiq, who became increasingly vulnerable as the hours progressed and her exhaustion, no doubt, took its toll. Many of the dance sequences became intensely physical, with the men exerting force on Sadiq’s arms. It brought to mind another famous endurance work that also gave participants a behavioural free-for-all, beholden to nothing beyond their consciences – Yoko Ono’s 1964 Cut Piece, in which Ono sat still beside a pair of scissors and invited the audience to come onstage and cut her clothes, or her body, at will.

The Second Woman ran from 3 p.m. on Saturday to 3 p.m. on Sunday. I watched for a few hours on Saturday evening and returned for the final few hours on Sunday afternoon. I was expecting to find Sadiq looking noticeably wearied, but everything about her dress and comportment remained relatively unrumpled and smooth. The changes were subtler. She stared at the men a little more slowly and inquisitively, as though she was wary of their very presence, and responded to their insults as though wired on a shorter fuse. It wasn’t until the curtain call, when she walked onstage physically supported by the producers, that she appeared visibly exhausted. She seemed too tired to even smile, as though she’d lived out a lifetime of crisis, and incurred all the related gendered risks, since the previous day.

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