Last October, Siobhan O’Loughlin was in a bad way. While living in Brooklyn, where she still resides, the writer, actress and theater artist suffered her fourth bicycling accident in as many years. This time, it was a head-on collision with another cyclist at a traffic circle on a cold, rainy night. While lying sprawled on the pavement awaiting an ambulance, she thought, “This is how I’m going to die.”
She didn’t, although she did break two fingers on her left hand. Strangers intervened to bring medical attention, which eventually included a cast reaching up to her elbow. And because elaborate plastic wrapping to make her water-soluble cast shower-proof seemed overly optimistic given Loughlin’s propensity for mishaps, she opted for a more prudent, 19th-century solution: horizontal bathing. The only problem was that O'Loughlin's tiny bathroom didn't have a tub.
Using appeals over social media, the Bushwick native embarked on what a friend jokingly called a “bathtub tour,” partaking of washrooms across Brooklyn, Manhattan and Queens to avoid inconveniencing anyone for more than one night. ("I always feel guilty asking for things," she explains.) Generous friends opened their homes, treating her with gifts of candles, chocolates and bubble bath; their kindness left her overwhelmed.
A little while later, Loughlin was taking a soak in one such lavatory, recounting the incident to a friend through the closed door, when an idea struck her: “Maybe I should just let people in.”
Her resulting one-person show, Broken Bone Bathtub, is what’s becoming known as an immersive theater experience: In this case, a handful of audience members squeeze shoulder to shoulder into a stranger’s bathroom and listen to O’Loughlin, clad only in her rainbow cast and a generous helping of bubbles, share an earnest, meandering account of her accident and journey to recovery. It’s also participatory: Selected audience members may be invited to share their own experiences or help her wash some hard-to-reach place.
The play, currently making its United States premiere here in L.A. after a packed weekendlong run in Tokyo in April, is one of a smattering of interactive shows to hit the L.A. area of late. Last month saw the Hamlet-Mobile at the Hollywood Fringe Festival, which staged snippets of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy for tiny audiences in the back of a Ford Econoline van. In April, La Mirada Theatre’s environmental staging of Carrie the Musical sat audience members on mobile high school bleachers, in the thick of the ill-fated prom. For the last few years, immersive haunted houses like Delusion have generated sold-out crowds, and Alone, an esoteric, immersive art project that trades on disorientation and joy as well as fear, launched the first of four planned segments for its Unweave the Rainbow series in June. No Proscenium, a curated newsletter used by O’Loughlin to publicize her show, regularly highlights immersive events across L.A., San Francisco and New York.
O’Loughlin, whose previous solo works have presented reported, character-driven narratives about Hurricane Katrina and female body hair, wasn’t just aiming for novelty with Broken Bone, though she admits that was part of its appeal.
"I want to provide something that makes you feel full in this emotional way. I think a great way of doing that is connecting with someone in a sort of weird, sort of awkward, but hopefully also special” way, she says. O’Loughlin’s training is in Theatre of the Oppressed, a branch of performance that emphasizes the role of the audience not just as spectators but as participants in the action.
“The bath is a reflective and thoughtful place,” she muses. “It’s taking an experience that’s usually singular and inviting other people to share those reflections.” Those meditations, O’Loughlin says, include “the need for human contact in times of sadness and the ways in which the kindness of others really impacts our personal growth and healing.”
Last Saturday evening, in a quiet Burbank neighborhood, Christopher Olin, a freelance producer for KCRW and KPCC, welcomed visitors for the second of O’Loughlin’s first two back-to-back performances. They share a mutual friend, and she reached out to him to inquire whether he would be willing to loan out his bathroom.
“I was just really intrigued,” Olin says. “I think it’s interesting being packed into this really small space and being forced to be intimate.”
As host, his job is to shepherd guests through the experience while also acting as unofficial enforcer. Because of the vulnerability inherent in the situation, O’Loughlin depends on him to screen out any unsavory patrons. There’s a small element of risk involved for him, too, in hosting the event at his home: theoretically, he could be exposing himself to theft or a future break-in.
As it happens, nearly every one of the audience members at both Saturday night performances is a personal friend of either Olin or O’Loughlin, and the vibe is relaxed if a little uncertain. Olin has prepared a bounty of complimentary wine and refreshments, including homegrown tomatoes and basil from his backyard garden, reinforcing the feeling of having been invited to a very select party.
After the performance, the group lingers, full of high spirits and perhaps also relieved to escape the bathroom’s sauna-like atmosphere. As intended, unscripted moments lent this show its own comic flavor: In the midst of washing O’Loughlin’s back, Noah Nelson, curator for the No Proscenium e-blast, dropped the bar of soap into the tub behind her. There was a pregnant moment until he plunged his hand in after it, dispelling nervous laughter. A friend who attended high school in Maryland with O’Loughlin and hadn’t seen her in 10 years gave her a hand massage, pressing her pulse points with his long black nails.
Mya Stark, director of the nonprofit L.A. Makerspace and an immersive-theater enthusiast from Toluca Lake, sat in the front row, within spitting distance of O’Loughlin. She says that when confronted with another female body, most women begin a mental comparison to see how they stack up. But while O’Loughlin was naked, she was no exhibitionist — she gathered errant bubbles to protect her privacy.
And Stark adds that the performance “wasn’t hyper-sexualized.” Stark stayed drawn into O’Loughlin’s narrative, which, because of the “closeness and strangeness” of its delivery, kept her engaged.
Micah Gallo, a filmmaker and New York acquaintance of O’Loughlin who now lives in the Miracle Mile, was drawn into the show’s “more genuine, more joyful” moments, which he says helped create a sense of “kinship” with the artist.
“I felt connected to her as a human being,” he says.
Following her Los Angeles debut, O’Loughlin heads to Minneapolis for a two-week run, followed by a six-week tour of the United Kingdom. In January, she wants to head back to Japan and do another set of Broken Bone performances — this time at a hot spring.
Broken Bone Bathtub has six performances scheduled at private locations through July 22. For a show schedule with zip codes, visit www.siobhanoloughlin.com/broken-bone-bathtub.
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