Out of the Tub, Into the Zoom
A creator immerses herself in theater at a distance
By Jo Constantz
Since 2015, Siobhan O’Loughlin had performed across the country in “Broken Bone Bathtub,” an immersive show held in strangers’ bathrooms. As audience members gave her a bath, she explored themes of vulnerability and connection, making a space communal that’s usually deeply private.
In March, her upcoming tour was cancelled, and the Brooklyn-based performance artist, 33, traded the tubs for a laptop. “In a state of panic, I threw myself into Zoom performances,” she said. “That was just me throwing darts at the wall.”
Widespread cancellations decimated revenue for arts organizations and artists, with nearly 3 million jobs lost across creative industries in four months.
“I lost not only my income from upcoming performances, but I lost my sense of relevancy as an artist,” O’Loughlin wrote.
Yet artists continue to create—finding new ways to adapt to online mediums and connect with audiences.
It’s a whole new genre and way of thinking and doing theater.
It was a dramatic departure from touring “Broken Bone Bathtub” from city to city. O’Loughlin was able to support herself through ticket sales and Patreon. Her nomadic lifestyle meant she wasn’t paying rent elsewhere.
“The shows are designed for Zoom, they’re not designed in spite of Zoom,” O’Loughlin said. “We look at the restrictions and say, ‘OK, within these limitations, what kinds of things can we do?’”
She hired a production team, which she pays through ticket sales. Tickets for “Broken Bone Bathtub” went for $60. Her online shows are offered on a sliding scale, starting at $10. Patreon donations, which have increased during the pandemic, help keep her afloat. Now she’s looking for a publicist to widen her audience and make the series more sustainable.
Theater companies and artists around the world are creating work online. Innovations inspired by the demands of social distancing are likely to persist beyond the pandemic.
“Many people are finding new dramaturgical structures for the work that they’re doing, and new audiences. I can’t imagine that that won’t continue,” said Erin Mee, professor of theater studies at the New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and director of her own series of online shows, including a play about a guru forced to try to heal acolytes from a distance. “I think it’s a whole new genre and way of thinking and doing theater.”
Mee was one of nearly 300 creators who brought online shows to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year in an effort to continue performing despite the cancellation of in-person performances for Scotland’s iconic festival.
People are all talking with each other, having this sort of communion.
In “My Heart Goes Zoom,” her flagship show, O’Loughlin takes her audience through an interactive story of a real-life romantic connection forged over Zoom. Audience members are invited to play different roles, like Vlad, O’Loughlin’s cinephile love interest. They co-create scenes––imagining what Vlad sounds like, how he takes up space in his Zoom square––and share their own experiences with heartbreak.
The remote performances have filled a gap for theater artists and performers. But material designed specifically for online consumption are the ones that can seem to translate best.
“I’ve seen an actress who I really admire, a fantastic actress. She was doing a Shakespeare monologue, and it did nothing for me,” said Kit Baker, a Colorado-based audience member. “It seems like some things are poor facsimiles of live performance.”
Fans appreciate that O’Loughlin’s shows are specifically tailored to Zoom. “Those elements that are more intended for a boring meeting, she enlightens and just makes fun and useful,” said Abigail Treut, a New York-based audience member.
O’Loughlin welcomes live feedback on Zoom’s chat function. For Treut, connecting with others throughout the show deepens the experience. “People are all talking with each other, having this sort of communion,” she said.
Her series has cultivated a faithful following, drawing regulars from across the country and, occasionally, the globe. Often Zoom after-parties will last until early in the morning. O’Loughlin’s team created Slack channels for fans to stay connected beyond the shows, with rooms dedicated to upcoming performances, mental-health discussions, memes, and vegan recipes.
The shows and the Slack connections provide a rare opportunity to forge new relationships during a time of prolonged isolation. “The ‘Please Don’t Touch’ series is really the only place that I have met new people in the last six months” said Ariel López, a Minnesota-based audience member.
O’Loughlin marvels at the strength of the bonds she’s formed with audience members she’s never met in person. Though the remote setting is far from the forced intimacy of the bathrooms where “Broken Bone Bathtub” had been staged, her Zoom performances continue to explore vulnerability and connection.
“I can’t imagine a year ago thinking I would hang out in chat rooms, essentially, with people who I have no idea who they are—and be like: ‘Oh, that’s my friend,’” she said. “But at this point, I’ve completely accepted the bizarre reality.”