This past Saturday night a bit before 9pm, I stepped down into a basement apartment in Long Island City, Queens, just a couple blocks from MoMA PS 9. A few weeks ago, I read glowing reviews about Siobhan O’Loughlin’s immersive theater piece Broken Bone Bathtub that occurs in private bathrooms, so I decided to check it out. Once through a small door that I had to duck under, a coat rack outside the apartment entrance received the audience. I went with a friend and we entered behind a young couple who were very excited about the experience. We stepped in to the living room of the apartment and were greeted by a cheery hostess who invited us to chocolate fondue and nuts and a few other appetizers. Red wine was also available, but required a small donation. The hostess, told us about herself, the apartment – voluntarily lent by immersive theater fans and the actress as we waited for the Siobhan to gather herself; this was the second performance of the evening.
A few minutes later, another young woman nodded to the hostess indicating that the actress was ready for us. The hostess asked for two volunteers who would be comfortable speaking and contributing to the piece. Two young women raised their hands and were taken to the bathroom for introductions and instructions. A few minutes later, the remaining four of us, were invited to enter the small bathroom; the audience was a total of six.
Siobhan sat naked in a cast iron bathtub, her breasts concealed by soap bubbles. The two volunteers sat adjacent to the bathtub and the rest of us took seats on a toilet, stool, small chair and small plastic step stool. The actress thanked us for coming asked if we were all comfortable and then began her narrative. Her left arm was in a cast, decorated with signatures and drawings. She told us about the pain and the time necessary to recover from a broken bone and the difficulties of day to day life with her left arm in a cast. She began to detail how the accident happened, riding her bike to an activist meeting along the west side of Prospect Park, headed to Grand Army Plaza. She asked if we were familiar with the area, everybody appeared to be and as I ride it regularly, she asked me to describe it. Following my description of the area, she told us that it was a rainy night and there was a husband and wife riding south as she rode north. It was dark and wet and perhaps the couple had been riding in tandem. She collided with the woman. The husband immediately attended to her wife as Siobhan found herself alone and in a great deal of pain…
Through the performance, topics such as who do we call at a moment of emergency, loneliness, whether or not we cry, were discussed by both the actress and the audience. She seamlessly moved through the responses from audience members back to her narrative. At one point she sang a song as one of the volunteers either scrubbed her back or conditioned her hair. She joked that throughout this period of healing, she borrowed the bathrooms of friends in order to not be alone. And throughout the performance she made sure to include each audience member.
The piece was smart and thought provoking. Unfortunately, the bathroom door was left ajar and at the beginning, the residents of the apartment were taking cell phone photos of us in their bathroom. Later, at times it was distracting to look out to the living room and see people on their devices. However, in general, the manner that Siobhan was able to weave the audiences’s discussion in to her performance was impressive. The one weak element in the piece was unfortunately the conclusion.
Siobhan entered a seemingly heartfelt conclusion, she allowed herself to cry as she discussed moving on from the healing period. The crying and the final monologue felt contrived in comparison to the rest of the performance, because unlike the preceding narrative, it did not engage dialogue, but was instead prescriptive. The uniqueness presented by the back and forth between the actress and each audience was broken and the piece reverted to conventional theater – a one way presentation. It would have been transformative, if each conclusion appeared to vary given the audience interaction. Siobhan could still maintain the underlying message, but it would be great if she was able to draw from what was shared by a given audience to inform the concluding monologue rather than loose the sense of immersion.