The first performance

Exhaustion and the Catholic ideology of penitence…

It is now 3 days after the first performance of When Night Falls and I finally feel like I can digest and reflect on it…

This has been the most physically exhausting performance I have done to date… Last year’s Involuntary Dances was tiring because it lasted 24 hours. But it was tiring in a ‘night out’ kind of way, when you go out until dawn and you just need to sleep…

This was different. I only performed for 3 hours but half way into the performance my body was shacking with muscle tiredness and by the time the last spectator came in I could hardly move at all. The next day I had cuts and bruises all over my body and I found myself looking at them/it as if looking at someone else…

What have I done? And why have I made a work which does this to my body? A work that self-punishes in a way that I associate with my upbringing as a Catholic girl in Portugal? I thought I’d left Catholicism behind me years ago when I became an atheist at 15, but here is it, popping out in my work…


I was surprised at how well the structures of the piece allow me, and the spectator, to ‘play’ power. The work brings out of some people quite sadistic behaviour, whereas others show concern and care for me through their actions…  

I find it all very interesting and I find it surprising the way my work seems to be going in this direction… I think it is interesting because I am not ‘like that’ in my day to day life… But then what does it mean to be ‘like that’? Because some philosophers (Nietzsche, Butler) argue that it is not that one ‘is’ one way or another, but that one ‘is’ always in relation to a particular context. So maybe I am ‘like that’ once I enter the ‘play’ space which is making work… I am finding it all fascinating and just want to ‘go there’ more…


A few people cried, which I also think it is good. Once one of my long-time collaborators (Thom Shaw) once said to me that he loves it when a piece is emotive without being expressively so. By this he meant he loves it when it is not that a performer stands there crying their eyes out ‘performing’ emotion, but that the very structures of the work create emotion in the spectator, without a need for expression from the performer… So when people cried it surprised me and pleased me at the same time: surprised me because sadness was not something I was emoting as a performer, and pleased me that it was something that the very structures of the work were creating…

Presenting the work

The work has also got me thinking about how I need to play more attention on how to present this kind of work, and work more closely with venues in order to do so. A box office mix up meant that about 10 people who had purchased tickets could not see the work in the end. There were some difficult situations at the box office with people being turned away, and some dissatisfied people who were called after they had already set off only to be told they could no longer see the work.

The difficulties of the work are not only that it is durational, but that each spectator can choose how long to spend with me. I do love this: that the spectator controls the time it spends there. But I understand it does make it difficult to estimate how many people will be able to see the work, and therefore how many tickets/bookings a venue can take.

In addition, because it is so physically exhausting I don’t think I can ever do more than 3 hours every other day (I was in bed the day after without being able to move…). But if I can only perform for 3 hours and if each spectator spends on average 15 minutes with me, then only 12 people can see the work each time. In terms of the economics of presenting this work this means that either the tickets will be very expensive, or both the venue/myself accept a very low return on it…

So then this got me thinking about how more and more I seem to be making work which, because it moves away from the traditional theatre space/spectators in their seats scenario, it is becoming less and less able of paying for itself. Another of the works I created last year (She’s Lost Control) is another example of this, as the work consists of a structure which people inhabit, and because of this it can only accommodate 40 people per performance.

So how do I negotiate the ‘economics’ of performance with the kind of work which I want to make, and which invites spectators to move away from passive reception, to a more active participation and responsibility for its construction?

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3 Responses to The first performance

  1. thom says:

    The timing thing is interesting – whether the interaction is finely structured to last an exact period with each person, whether they can stay as long as they wish up to a maximum of, say, ten minutes, or whether they can simply stay as long as they want. When Abromovic performed The Artist is Present at Moma, 850,000 people queued over the course of 2 and a half months to sit opposite her at a table (which she was at for seven hours a day). Apparently a lot of people became angry when one man sat there for a full seven hours. But queuing, with its possibilities, eventualies, agitation s, was key to the performance.

    • Rita Marcalo says:

      Yes it is interesting… I wouldn’t want to restrict the time that people spend with me because I like the fact that that is up to each person, and that also becomes another decision that you have to make an audience member… But how to deal with people getting annoyed at the fact that they might not be able to see the work I’m not sure… Maybe I just have to accept that that is part of the performance?? And audience members have to also??

  2. Nick Kilby says:

    What I find interesting about your writing on the piece is when you describe how you feel like it was some kind of Catholic penitence, even though you have been atheist for a number of years.

    Its interesting to me as not coming from a strong religious background and also being atheist how a religious ideology could make people behave in this way and also the fact that people do it for something other than themselves.

    I suppose pyschologically and physically my work is routed in my background as a follower and performer in the Sheffield hardcore punk movement and I always think of things in terms of a punk gig, what would I want to see and how I would want it done. Speaking to other people, for example a performer I have worked with who was raised to be a pentacostal minster always thinks in terms of sermons and deliverance.

    I suppose what I am trying to say is its interesting that artist’s backgrounds, no matter how far or removed we are from them can and do work themselves into the work or at the very least how we ourselves view it.

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