On a recent snowy night in Bushwick, I joined an audience of five for a one-woman performance in a stranger’s bathtub. Since 2015, actor and activist Siobhan O’Loughlin has staged Broken Bone Bathtub around the world in the snug space of a private bathroom, with her current edition continuing through the end of March at apartments in Brooklyn, Queens, and Manhattan.
If it sounds voyeuristic, or gimmicky, it’s O’Loughlin’s approachability as a storyteller and a listener that makes Broken Bone Bathtub both compelling theater and a cathartic group experience. As she performs her monologue about a head-on bicycle accident, and the vulnerability and loneliness that followed when she found herself on the wet pavement with a mangled hand, she asks audience members about their own experiences with isolation and injury. She also asks for help, in washing her hair and back, and massaging her hand. Each night of Broken Bone Bathtub, due to its pop-up nature, is site-specific. The evening I attended was in a rather nice studio in a new Brooklyn building, feeling a bit like a chill house party with its friendly resident offering hummus snacks before the show, yet others have been more elaborate. Last fall in Baltimore, in a run produced by Submersive Productions, an installation by artist Amanda Burnham and soundscape by Glenn Ricci led guests up a home’s staircase to the performance space.
Aside from an ample supply of strategic bubbles, her only prop or costume is the old cast, colorful with signatures from friends. Her recounting of asking a stranger to hold her while the other woman in the bike wreck was cradled by her boyfriend, or subsequently reaching out to friends to use their bathtubs when she couldn’t wash in the shower with her cast, are vulnerable memories to share a setting where the actor is already naked before the audience. And that dynamic of openness and sharing causes every performance to be unique. The night I attended, guests candidly described a falling out with their mother over a lesbian lover, a horrific bone breaking accident in the Museum of Modern Art’s design store, and the fragility of being the one person in a chaotic rush-hour crowd who seems to be slowed down by physical pain.
In New York City, resources for artists can be limited, so Broken Bone Bathtub is smart in its mobile use of private space for public performance. At the same time, it’s about the creation of community and human interdependence. The ending isn’t exactly a twist, but it is emotionally intimate; sometimes the things we ask of our friends aren’t necessarily what we need, they’re what will keep us connected to them.
Broken Bone Bathtub continues through April 1 at various apartments around New York City.