An unusual art-meets-theater event has arrived for a limited run in the Asheville area. The intimate and immersive performance piece, Broken Bone Bathtub, continues through Sunday, April 28.
It comes as no surprise that local Asheville Fringe Arts Festival founder Jim Julien played a significant role in bringing this show to local audiences. Everything about Broken Bone Bathtub, which is staged in the bathrooms of private homes, fits within the Fringe model of quirky, often intimate performances that defy the expected boundaries of traditional theater. Katie Jones, the co-artistic director of The Magnetic Theatre, discovered the show and brought it to Julien’s attention.
While endearing in many ways, this production is not for passive audiences who like to simply sit back and be entertained. Siobhan O’Loughlin’s creation is part performance, part confessional and part therapy session, and viewers find themselves included in the act.
O’Loughlin places herself in a bathtub in someone’s home, which limits the size of the potential audiences for each show. There is secrecy about the performance: Audience members are emailed the location only days before it happens. And while there’s something a little odd about showing up at strangers’ homes and sitting in their bathrooms, that feeling quickly fades.
The setting lends an inescapable intimacy to Broken Bone Bathtub. Yes, O’Loughlin is naked in the tub when the audience arrives. It’s disarming but not unsettling. She’s exposed and in a somewhat helpless state. Having broken her arm in a bicycle crash, she finds herself having to rely on others to help her with the simple task of bathing. Because she’s single and feels alone and isolated, the experience brings up a churn of raw emotion that comes spilling out for her.
Once the audience is seated in the small space, O’Loughlin begins talking about her situation. The action quickly becomes unscripted as she poses questions to each person there, finding commonality and compassion from them in different ways. Two of the viewers are asked to help her scrub her back or wash her hair.
While unpredictable, the theatrical journey is well crafted by O’Loughlin. To her credit, she is ready and willing take divergent paths with the viewers, who can find themselves opening up and revealing details in a need to connect and relate to the funny, emotional and sincere lady in the bathtub. It could, of course, veer wildly into a group therapy session if the viewers take self-indulgent advantage of the situation. O’Loughlin has done this show enough to know how to maintain control of the narrative and gently steers the conversation back to the intended narrative.
An hour quickly passes, and there is a real sense of connection between performer and viewers by the end. While much of theater is understood to be make-believe and the audience is removed as they view it, Broken Bone Bathtub strips not only the performer, but also the veneer of theatricality, and achieves something more honest and human than expected. It has the power to be an emotionally satisfying catharsis for those who open themselves to the experience.
WHAT: Broken Bone Bathtub
WHERE: Various bathrooms around Asheville. brokenbonebathtub.com
WHEN: Saturday and Sunday, April 27 and 28, at 7 p.m. $30