By Michelle Trauring
No one makes a bubble bath better than Siobhan O’Loughlin.
Her water-to-bubbles ratio is borderline scientific, and the temperature is always right — allowing for an hour-long soak without turning cold. And the ambiance is dreamlike, complete with candles, fairy lights and … at least 10 perfect strangers.
What quickly becomes a nightmare for most is the stage for O’Loughlin’s “Broken Bone Bathtub,” an immersive, one-woman performance bouncing from bathroom to bathroom, kicking off the final leg of a nearly five-year tour on Thursday at the Guild House, the residence behind Guild Hall in East Hampton.
And for O’Loughlin, who was a Guild Hall artist-in-residence last year and stayed at Guild House, it feels like coming home.
“For a lot of what I do, I show up to strangers’ homes,” O’Loughlin said with a laugh, “and perform in their houses and just hope that it’s cool. A lot of my life is driving around and doing house tours, basically. I can be in a different home every night, and that is how it normally goes.
“So to have a break from that, essentially, is gonna be really nice.”
Last Friday morning, O’Loughlin was calling from the road in Virginia — “I am nomadic, so I drive this little Corolla all around and I perform and then I leave, and I go somewhere else and I do it again,” she said. She was due to arrive in New York by Monday, the place where the writer and performer settled down for years, and the scene of the accident that inspired her most significant work yet.
It was a rainy night in October 2014, and while biking to an activist meeting in Brooklyn, O’Loughlin collided head-on with another cyclist. From the ground, she looked at her left hand — a bloody, gnarled mess, her fingers bent at grotesque angles — and landed herself in a bulky cast.
“When we think about physical injury, we kind of forget about the emotional part of it, too,” she said. “If you feel less useful than you once were, to yourself and others, it’s very difficult. It puts you in a lot of pain and presents so many challenges to your daily experience and how you view yourself, how you assume others view you. So that’s a lot of what I was going through.”
Outside of her internal struggle, O’Loughlin also couldn’t figure out a way to bathe without soaking the cast. She decided she would take baths, except she had only one functional hand and no bathtub in her lofted Bushwick apartment.
“When people ask, ‘How can I help?’ it’s really hard to answer that question because you do feel like a burden and you don’t know what to say,” she said. “So I finally said, ‘Hey, if I could borrow your bathtub, that would be great.’ I started doing that. I was going to my friends’ homes and they were helping me with the bath. And it’s a really strange experience. I’m not an exhibitionist; I’m not a performance artist who stands around naked. I’m not like that. So it’s a strange experience to have people you know take care of you in this way. It’s humbling and it’s awkward, and it’s also really tender and kind.”
She traveled from borough to borough, taking baths with the help of her friends. One bought her new bubble bath and lent her his favorite robe. Another laid out wine and chocolate. Another pointed out, “Siobhan, it’s like you’re on a bathtub tour.”
That was all the inspiration she needed. With the help of her journal, she wrote “Broken Bone Bathtub,” exploring the themes of trauma, suffering, human generosity, vulnerability and connection through accidental intimacy, while the audience takes on the role of her close friends — not only in listening, but in sharing their own experiences and assisting the cast-clad artist in the actual ritual of taking a bath.
“When I got the cast off and the technician was like, ‘You should keep this,’ I was like, ‘I don’t f—–g want that!’” she said. “And he was like, ‘Yeah, but you should keep it. It’s yours. It’s your story.’ So he put it in a bag and thrust it into my hands — and I’m really grateful, because I still use it. It wants to be retired, it’s ready for its final show, but we’ve got a lot more to do before that.”
To date, more than 500 performances across five countries have led her to an endless range of bathrooms and tubs.
“I’ve been in people’s homes where I was in a Japanese soaking tub,” she said. “I’ve been in a bathroom in Minneapolis that had a bust of Venus de Milo. I had another one that was totally pink and the faucet was golden swans.”
In San Francisco, she performed in an actual chapel — “We brought in a bathtub and made bubbles with an egg beater,” she said — and in Denver, maximalist artist Lonnie Hanzon built her a bathroom, complete with a bubble machine, remote-control candles, a chandelier and spotlight, even a toilet. In Canberra, Australia, she soaked herself in an outdoor tub, strung with fairy lights overhead and surrounded by 40 strangers “like a campfire,” she said.
“Some people get it and they love it and they’re like, ‘Oh okay, cool, you do a show in a bath? I don’t need to know anything else, that sounds great,’” she said. “Some people don’t like it. They’re not interested. They’re like, ‘That doesn’t sound fun for me.’
“I mean, a bathroom is a really private place,” she continued. “It’s not really a place you spend with more than one other person. Really, mostly, you want to be in there alone. So it’s very funny to talk to people about this, especially depending on the region. In England, they’re all very shy and they’re like, ‘Don’t look at my bathroom, I’m ashamed.’ It really varies and it’s fun.”
In the spirit of full disclosure, O’Loughlin does perform naked — “I mean, look, I got bubbles, okay? And I am great at making a bubble bath,” she deadpanned — but the performance is far from sexual, or even inherently romantic. Instead, it explores the strength in vulnerability and the power of shared experience, she said.
“Sometimes it’s really funny, sometimes it’s really sad. It really depends on the group,” she said. “So I prepare myself for that. It can go either way. Things really do come up when we access our vulnerability. I think it creates a space for people to explore. That’s my goal, my objective. This performance piece is not just about me, and I think healing is communal.”
On a volunteer basis, audience members are asked to help O’Loughlin wash her hair and back, and rub her hand, which can be an emotionally cathartic experience, she said. During one performance, a man was washing her hair when he started to cry.
“Your hair is just like my son’s,” he told her through his tears, she recalled. “And my wife and I are separated, and now I’m not seeing him as much, and I feel like I’m letting him down. And I feel like I’m losing him.”
The setting welcomed his upheaval of emotion, O’Loughlin said, and what happens in a small room — through performance and, in this case, the medium of the bathtub — can be transformative.
“I’m exploring community and the ways that we find community and the ways that we seek it,” she said. “And that comes out in surprising ways in our lives. This show is very much a constant unraveling of that, in a place that you wouldn’t expect it, but that’s what makes it great.”
As the project nears its end, O’Loughlin said she has mixed feelings. Surrounded by her accumulated belongings from the past five years, she was not only driving toward the East End, but also a new chapter in her life. Following a three-month-long autumnal tour with a filmmaker, she will plant roots in Los Angeles for the first time in five years, seeking a community of her own while working on her “Broken Bone Bathtub” documentary.
“I’m probably gonna cry,” she warned, taking a deep breath. “It is a huge part of my life. It is everything. My life is centered around this work and, in some ways, I’m ready to move on. I’m going to spend time on creating some new stuff. But also, setting in some roots and focusing on being in one spot for a little while, which will be really new for me after all this time.”
And, as she continues to recover inside and out, O’Loughlin is determined to get back on her bike and ride again.
“Broken Bone Bathtub,” an immersive theater project by Siobhan O’Loughlin, opens Thursday, September 12, at 7 p.m. at Guild Hall, 158 Main Street, East Hampton. Additional performances will be held on Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 7 and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through September 22. Tickets are $30 or $40, and $28 or $38 for members. For more information, call 631-324-0806 or visit guildhall.org.