Published by Buzzcuts, 18/04/16
The day after performing Broken Bone Bathtub in Australia for the first time, Siobhan O’Loughlin is relieved that she didn’t get hypothermia. The Brooklyn-based artist is in Canberra for You Are Here, but her show has its own unique challenges due to the fact that it is performed from a bathtub. It was inspired by her experience of healing after a bicycle accident, borrowing her friends’ bathtubs and sometimes asking them for help with the process. Canberra audiences have wholeheartedly embraced her experimental theatre performance.
“I love underdog cities,” she says. “I love Baltimore and St. Louis. I’ve lived in New York for seven years, but I think sometimes in the smaller cities there’s more need for artistic community, so it’s amazing that there’s all this free art in Canberra.”
Most of O’Loughlin’s recent run of New York shows were performed in tiny bathrooms that only fit four or five people, and until now her largest audience was a bathroom in Minneapolis that fit twelve. In Canberra, however, O’Loughlin performed for an audience of thirty in a bathtub in a backyard in O’Connor.
“I was super anxious because I’ve been doing the show for a whole year now in lots of cities, and it has always been in bathtubs in someone’s home. I was on the phone to my production manager in New York, and he was asking me “What are you doing? What are those Australians doing to your show?’” She laughs. “Obviously when you do something that’s experimental in nature, you have to be willing to try, so it was nice to be presented with the opportunity.”
Growing up in Maryland, O’Loughlin dreamt of singing and dancing on Broadway but later struggled to get noticed in the crowded and competitive New York acting world. Solo performance became her medium because “It’s a lot easier to discover yourself than wait for someone else to discover you,” she says. Broken Bone Bathtub is her third solo show and has become successful around the world, from Ireland to Japan.
“I live out of a suitcase. While it’s not what I expected, I feel very lucky to be able to do what I do. I didn’t realise Bathtub would be such a unique idea at the time, it was just that a lot of friends were doing living room tours, and I thought why not. I’ve hustled and I’ve worked my ass off, but it turns out all I had to do was get in a bathtub!”
O’Loughlin describes the way “people’s knees touch” at Broken Bone Bathtub. Almost accidentally, she has managed to create an inescapable sense of closeness between strangers at her performance.
“I’ve had people tell me, especially men actually, ‘I never thought my story was important, I didn’t think I was funny, I didn’t think this thing I’ve been through was anything anyone wanted to hear.’”
Another appealing aspect of solo performance for O’Loughlin is the ability to bring politics into a personal space. She has been actively involved in movements including Occupy Wall Street and campaigning for the rights of women, LGBTI groups and people of colour. She believes that climate change is the biggest struggle facing people today and emphasises the fact that it is not enough to be aware of injustice without acting to combat it.
“What I like about doing independent experimental theatre is the accessibility,” she says. “The power that theatre has is creating a space to share stories, and being able to tell your story is a radical act, especially when a woman puts herself in front of other people to speak. I want to encourage people to be brave in whatever it is they’re doing.”
It has been gratifying for O’Loughlin to discover that across cities, countries and individuals, the thematic concerns of Broken Bone Bathtub have continued to resonate. “There’s so much we have in common,” she says. “At the heart of what I’m exploring is pain, trauma, healing, intimacy and generosity, and they are things that every community struggles with.”
O’Loughlin’s brand of small-audience theatre may be an unconventional method of engaging with politics, but her own vulnerability in Broken Bone Bathtub in turn forces the audience to connect with O’Loughlin and each other. She describes her show as “a theatre of generosity.” Through both her art and her activism, O’Loughlin is taking action and she is hopeful others will too.
“I’m a total mess of a human, but when I had my injury and I was really depressed and sad, I was lucky that people were kind to me by letting me come over and use their bathtubs. People are still giving to me all over the world, giving their bathrooms or their back yards or whatever it is. I couldn’t do this performance without people being kind.”