Siobhan O’Loughlin is tired. As her “cast” of friends files into the bathroom of a third-floor walk-up in Rogers Park on November 1, the actress’s head rests heavily in the crook of her rainbow cast-clad arm.
She’s in the bathtub—a decent place to be when you’re tired—unless, of course, the tub is your place of work. Since premiering her one-woman immersive show, Broken Bone Bathtub, in Tokyo four and a half years ago, O’Loughlin’s taken almost 300 baths in 15 different cities scattered across five different countries around the world.
Bath after bath, she’s laid bare her soul for almost five years; in between repeated rinses, she beckons her guests, four to eight audience members huddled around the tub at a time, to do the same.
After breaking her hand in a bike accident in 2014, and with no tub of her own at home (just a shower), O’Loughlin found herself in need of friends’ bathtubs—and their help to actually bathe—in order to prevent her cast from getting wet. Requiring assistance to keep yourself clean is an inherently vulnerable position to inhabit. For O’Loughlin, spending time with her friends in this way allowed for a type of bonding that she thought she might be able to replicate in semiscripted performance; Broken Bone Bathtub is an exploration of that shared vulnerability in immersive theater form.
“You don’t see your friends for months and months, and then you’re like, ‘What’s going on?’ she said. “They’re giving me a bath and I’m telling them about what’s happened to me, and they’re telling me about what they’ve been through.”
O’Loughlin decided to take her “bathtub tour” on the road in 2015, “casting the audience as my actual very good friends who I am comfortable enough to sit with in a bathroom and tell them what I’m feeling, and ask them how they’re feeling too.”
“For people to be like, ‘I’m going through this kind of thing,’ and then someone else to say, ‘Hey, you know, I relate to that thing’ and they don’t know each other,” Siobhan says. “It’s not a support group, and it’s not group therapy—it’s not those things. I think that there is something important for me that I feel about being recognized by other humans, by other individuals. It’s something that I want in my life and . . . it’s hard to get that, ’cause it’s like, how do you get that?”
The bathrooms in which O’Loughlin performs Broken Bone Bathtub are as diverse as the cast of audience members who assemble at each performance. In major cities such as San Francisco, New York, and of course, Chicago, donated bathrooms have been smaller, usually in apartments. When O’Loughlin has performed in cities such as Saint Louis and Richmond, Virginia, she’s typically been hosted in houses with larger bathrooms and fewer logistical concerns to consider.
“I’ve performed in really nice homes where you just park on the street and you go [in], you know what I mean? You can pretty much gauge, ‘OK, Chicago is going to be harder than Saint Louis physically to do because we’ve got to do more shows to get the same amount of people, it’s going to be a pain in the ass to park and get stuff up the stairs,’ you know what I mean? It’s harder to attend and it’s harder to get the word out.”
But she’s found joy in the struggles and changes in the environment, as well.
“A new physical space, new environment, new people, new arrangement of people, new bodies trying to fit together keeps it very, very fresh,” O’Loughlin says. “Which I think is great for me as an artist. It helps me be present and it’s what I enjoy about it. I’ve done it so many times, and it’s still really fresh for me, and exciting.”
Even so, after nearly five years, the Broken Bone Bathtub tour will come to an end in Chicago on November 12. Every remaining performance is being filmed for a documentary that O’Loughlin is directing; earlier this year she crowdfunded more than $40,000 through Seed & Spark to fund production costs. O’Loughlin’s never lacked for bathroom “donors,” either, but “my life has not gotten easier with this show,” she says.
In an age where social media has allowed the conceit of a successful working artist to supercede one’s actual art, O’Loughlin is refreshingly candid about the downsides of her approach to her work.
“I think that we are all trying to present a certain image that is strong, confident, successful,” she says. “‘Look at all the people at my show!’ you know? And I’ve got that. I’ve got selfies in the bathroom and I’ve got, ‘Look at this person who came to my play!’ Certainly I have that, but I also try to keep my radical transparency of like, ‘I am canceling shows tonight because I didn’t make any sales.'”
Participating in the production and administrative aspects of her own show has had an effect on her capacity for creativity, O’Loughlin says. The documentary she is now directing is an effort to continue promoting the message of Broken Bone Bathtub—strength in vulnerability—in addition to encouraging other artists to foster community through their own work.
“There are so many layers to this that make things really complicated, and I think that the desire to be successful overrides our ability to speak sincerely,” O’Loughlin says. “I think that that hurts us within the community of creative artists and performance makers because we’re never going to get out of it. That struggle is challenging.” But she also notes “I have privileges and I’ve been able to travel and try this and take risks.”
Early on in the hour-long performance of Broken Bone Bathtub, O’Loughlin is on a tangent about her time living on a commune in Vermont. She talks in wonder about her friend who could swing naked from a rope swing into the lake, all while simultaneously peeing. “Carefree and confident,” O’Loughlin describes him.
To perform—naked—for strangers in a bathtub is, at least performatively, a confident and carefree thing to do, but O’Loughlin doesn’t feel like those are words that describe her. As the initially voluminous piles of bubbles that surround her start to dissipate over the course of her performance, she instinctively moves what’s left closer to her body and pulls her legs, once languidly stretched beneath the suds, up against her chest.
Her body is an example of powerful vulnerability, and its effect on the audience is obvious as O’Loughlin takes turn peppering her assembled “friends” with questions they are not prepared for and likely would otherwise never discuss with strangers: Have you ever felt uncomfortable in your own skin? Is there anything you’ve ever been really afraid to tell your mom? When was the last time you held hands with someone?
They answer them for her anyway. v