When Siobhan O’Loughlin broke her arm in a bike accident in New York City, her bathing options became slim.
With a cast on her left arm, O’Loughlin needed a bath, but her Brooklyn apartment building only had showers. She found herself traveling from borough to borough, visiting friends with bathtubs so she could bathe comfortably. It was after one trip to Queens that a friend told her, “It’s so funny, Siobhan, it’s like you’re on a bathtub tour.”
That was all the performance artist needed for inspiration. She went home and started working on ideas, and eventually came up with a solo show titled Broken Bone Bathtub. Over the last four years, she’s performed the show in more than 400 bathtubs around the world, coming into the homes of volunteer hosts to perform in their bathrooms for whatever small audiences can fit inside.
Now for the first time, O’Loughlin is bringing the show to the South. She’ll be performing in eight Charlotte bathrooms between February 28- March 10. Matt Cosper, founder of local experimental theater ensemble XOXO, is producing the Broken Bone show in Charlotte. He helped find volunteers for the Queen City shows, the tickets for which are currently on sale.
We recently spoke with O’Loughlin over the phone from New York about what goes on at a Broken Bone show, how tight quarters breed meaningful experiences and what happens if she comes across a dirty tub.
Queen City Nerve: What got you interested in putting together such an intimate piece like this?
Siobhan O’Loughlin: I had hosted a friend of mine who does a living room performance. I hosted him in my Brooklyn apartment, which was amazing. It was 10 people, it was really
beautiful, I really enjoyed it. I love the idea of home theater, like what Mozart used to do, performing in people’s parlors for the host and their friends, what a special experience that is.
Your friend’s comment about a bathtub tour birthed the idea, but how did it progress from there?
When he said, “Oh, it’s like you’re on a bathtub tour,” I was like, “I wonder if I have something that I could generate for that purpose,” so I went through my journal and pieces of writing that I had done on this kind of theme, and I put together what was intended to be a 30-minute monologue essentially from the bathtub. But when I started workshopping it in Tokyo, it became something else.
Just because it was such a small space, I found that the proximity, the structure of it, it’s instantly intimate and it’s personal and it’s awkward. There’s this communal part that starts kind of spontaneously. I was like, “Oh, this is a performance but it’s also a conversation. It’s also a micro-community for an hour, of people in this bathroom.”
So then I started experimenting with what that would look like and it became an hour-long interactive piece that I’ve been doing for the past four years.
How does the interactive nature of the performance change things from show to show?
What I’m doing with this piece is recreating the experience of going to my friend’s house and asking for help. So when you’re with a close friend, and you’re telling them about something that has happened to you or what you’re going through right now or whatever, you’ll say, “This is what’s happening with me, do you know what I mean? Have you ever been through something like this? Does this make any sense to you?” You’re looking for validation, you’re looking for shared experience, you’re looking for catharsis with your friends.
So with the bathtub performance, it’s like, yes, there is a performance, there is my story, but I also elicit stories and exchanges from the audience as well. So we’re organically having conversations about some heavy shit. Sometimes heavy shit is like, funny and silly and interesting. But then there’s other times where it’s like people are really willing to open up some serious layers and show people scars on their bodies, unravel some really raw truths and some really human experiences that maybe are still really fresh for them. And so then people will just sit there and cry. And somebody else maybe has been through something like that, too, so then they’re opening up about their experience. So it sort of like this weird group meditation on healing and recovering, whether that is from a physical trauma or an emotional trauma. I know that trauma is a heavy word, but I think the thing about trauma is that it doesn’t have to be a heavy burden that is too much to carry. It’s like, you can bring it in.
Last night actually, there was a lady who came and there was an empty seat because she was going to bring her date and she was like, “We just split up because I love him and he does not feel the same about me and I know that now.” And she was totally crying going through this grief that she experienced just 10 minutes before coming in. I think there’s this interesting conceit about putting people in a really small space together, with my heightened vulnerability because I’m not wearing any clothes, and then this is just a creative space suddenly, where we can unload some of these burdens and maybe it is kind of something you laugh about, or maybe you cry about it. And maybe that is totally fine. That’s what we’re doing tonight and were going to go through that, and there are other people in the room with you who are going to go through that with you for this hour.
You mentioned how being nude adds to the vulnerability. Is there full-frontal nudity?
It’s definitely all-ages appropriate. The bubbles are usually pretty good. It depends on the tub. It depends on the water pressure and a lot of those kinds of things. I’m a petite person, so if the water is low or the bubbles are bad then I can just pull my knees to my chest. I can’t promise you that you will see nothing (laughs), but if you are going for that reason, you will be disappointed. That’s my disclaimer (laughs).
So don’t come for weird reasons. Got it. So what can people expect to take away from this performance?
So if you come and you’re like, “How is this girl going to impress me? What is this going to do for me to change my perspective?” I don’t think you’re going to have the best experience. If you come and you’re open, like, “I’m going to be fully present. I’m going to embrace whatever happens in the room,” you’re coming with the mindset for immersive theater and interactive experiences, it’s going to make the experience for you.
Some people’s bathrooms are disgusting. Is that a concern of yours? Do you do any scouting beforehand to make sure the tubs are kept up?
I do not go check it out in person, because that would just ask way too much of me, timewise, and too much of my producers. Usually, even if people’s homes are not super tidy, their bathroom almost always is. I guess I’ve just been lucky all this time. The kind of people who want this to happen are the kind of people who, ya know, most of these people like to entertain anyway. They love art and love experiencing things with groups of people. I’ve never had that experience where something was really not up to code or appropriate, and I’m doubting that I will.
This is not only your first time performing Broken Bone in Charlotte, but in the South. Does that add to the excitement for this run of shows?
I’ve been somewhat nervous about traveling to places where I hardly know anyone, and much of the South is entirely new terrain for me. I get a few pangs of, “Will they like me? Will they want to go to this show?” when I think of starting my Southern performances. However, working with my amazing producer Matt Cosper has been a delight. I think this experience will be a great way to introduce myself to new climates, new cities, and, dare I say, new friends?
What’s it like being able to meet and work with folks like Matt in whatever community you go to?
It’s like the best part. One of my favorite things about this project is that it is so mobile and tour-able that it allows me to introduce myself to different communities with a piece that is produce-able. So I can reach out to someone like Matt and say, “Hey, I have a low-stakes project that I think you’ll really enjoy and be proud to be a part of.” And it’s great because it gets the community involved.
We’re going to do eight different nights at eight different locations in the city. You’re accessing different neighborhoods that might not have events or creative capital in those locations, and you’re working within multiple communities, and I think the kind of person like Matt who wants to be a part of this finds that to be really invigorating as part of what they do — bringing people together in small but mighty ways.